Although the wildfires that swept through the North Bay last month are out, their effects are not over and may be felt for a long time.
The message from a group of grapegrowers and vintners that gathered recently in St. Helena was unanimous: It is time to tell the world to come back to the Napa Valley.
Geoff Smith, vintner and owner of Hourglass with its vineyards south of Calistoga on Dutch Henry Canyon Road, commented, “If your only relationship to the Napa fires was through a media outlet, you would think the whole place burned down. The pockets that were hit hard are really pretty stunning.” But, they were small pockets, including parts of Soda Canyon, Atlas Peak Road, Bennett Valley and Knights Valley.
“For the tourist driving around the northern part or the western part of the valley, you’d hardly even notice anything. I think that’s an important message,” Smith said.
Grapegrower Andy Beckstoffer said there are 450 brick-and-mortar wineries in the Napa Valley and “Maybe five of them were damaged.”
“It wasn’t the wine business that got hit, it was the people who got hurt so much, the people who live here,” he said.
“We still have businesses starting to trickle back, but the message that we want to give out is that we’re good, Napa Valley didn’t burn, and we’re stronger than ever,” said Monica Stevens, co-owner of 750 Wines with her husband, David. The Stevenses were the host of the gathering.
“From the hospitality side of things and the selling of wine, I think it’s coming back and the folks here are excited to tell everybody how beautiful everything is. It hasn’t changed much,” Stevens said.
Vintner Russell Bevan said he sees two effects of the fires. “In the short term, you know who is getting hurt? I’ve got two masseuses in my winery today and they’re dying. They’ve got no clients, none of the resorts are calling. I’ve eaten in a couple of restaurants and they’re sending half of the staff home. There are a lot of people who struggle month to month to pay the rent. Right now, we need to get people back to Napa.
“We’re in a situation where rents are going to go up. The stress on these hourly workers is so high, it’s going to be problematic if people don’t start coming back,” he added.
Bevan predicted that if the tourists don’t come back to the Napa Valley, many of the people who work in the wine industry are going to leave, go work in another field or work in another community.
“There are a lot of people who would have been working in the fields, but next year are going to be swinging hammers,” Bevans said. “We’re already in a labor shortage and we’re going to have a harder time finding migrant workers to pick the grapes because they’re going to take construction jobs. In addition, housing for them, if they do come up, is going to be more competitive and stressful.”
Beckstoffer added, “The fire didn’t have that great effect on the wine business. It had the greatest effect on people, which is really difficult. We’ll see that in years to come.”
The fires broke out at the tail end of the grape harvest when an estimated 90 percent of all the grapes had been picked. Stevens said, “Everyone knows during harvest we make hay while the sun shines. September and October are a big deal for folks that make wine.”
Vintner Roy Piper added that people who work in restaurants “count on big tips the last few weeks of the season,” but with the fires many of those restaurants were closed. “Now their traffic is down 50 percent and they’re paid on tips. That’s really brutal,” he added.
Bevan said, “If you’re here and having dinner, you’re supporting the people who need it. Right now, we need people here to support the workers who allow this valley to run, because they are the engine. The people who struggle to pay the rent or to put new shoes on their kids, they need your support.”
From Beckstoffer: “The point is, don’t come back to help the wine business. Come back to help the people.”