With the wildfire crisis over, Napa’s wine and tourism industries are now working to counter the impression that the valley was completely scorched by the conflagrations.
Leaders of city and county governments added their voices to the promotion of the region’s recovery this week, with several participating in a Napa Valley Wine Train media event on Thursday.
“From a tourist perspective, the valley’s still pretty intact,” said Scott Goldie, a partner with the Napa Valley Wine Train. With wine train ridership now at “80 percent below normal,” cancellations have begun to subside, Goldie said, and interest from potential visitors is “starting to turn the corner a little bit.”
On board the train, state Senator Bill Dodd, D-Napa, was seated with county supervisors Alfredo Pedroza and Ryan Gregory.
“As you can see, to the left, to the right, straight ahead,” Dodd said, motioning to the sunny vistas passing by outside the train, “none of these areas are burned out. But the soundbites throughout the Bay Area was ‘everything in Napa was devastated.’”
“So while we did have clear devastation for individuals,” Dodd said, “our valley is very, very much in business to serve.”
Pedroza emphasized the toll the lack of visitors has had on employees in the wine and hospitality industries. “When they’re out of work for 10 days, that’s a big impact to their family, right? It’s a question of whether they can pay their bills or their mortgage on time,” he said. “So that’s why, again, putting out the message that we’re open for business is critical.”
Mayors Chris Canning of Calistoga, and Jill Techel of Napa were also on board the wine train on Thursday. Canning noted the low visitor numbers in what is normally the busiest month of the year for businesses in Calistoga, and the effects on the city’s revenue, the vast majority of which comes from sales tax-related tourism and hotel taxes. “It’s going to certainly be an interesting situation,” he said.
“But,” Canning stressed, “the weather has turned, the air is clean, everything’s open and we’re ready to go.”
As for the city of Napa, Techel echoed Pedroza’s concern for working residents. “The city will be alright,” she said, “but we need to be sure that the residents are alright. And right now, they’ll be alright if we have visitors come and they can go back to work.”
Meanwhile, at the gravitational center of the region’s tourism draw, several wineries and vineyards on hillsides were still repairing the physical damage inflicted by the fires and pervasive smoke this week, as many more now toil to resuscitate visitorship. Although the vast majority of Napa’s wineries had reopened by last weekend, guest headcounts have remained well below the norm during what is traditionally one of the busiest months of the year.
Reopening on Monday, Robert Sinskey Vineyards in the Stag’s Leap District saw an immediate surge of visitors, owner Robert Sinskey said by phone on Thursday, even as repairs were still underway on the winery’s infrastructure, which was damaged by the Atlas Fire.
Since returning to normal business hours, however, foot traffic has come in ebbs and flows, Sinskey said, with some days this week better than others. “So it’s a bit mixed,” he added. “It’s not back 100 percent. I think it’s going to take a little while to get there.”
“Last weekend was dramatically slower than it would typically be,” said Ryan MacDonnell, co-owner of Round Pond Estate, located in the unscathed Rutherford area.
Speaking by phone on Thursday, MacDonnell relayed what she had heard from the winery’s distribution team at work throughout the country. “They’re sort of surprised at the view of what’s become of Napa,” she said. “That it’s not safe to visit and people are even worried about coming next summer.”
Prompted to “dispel that myth,” MacDonnell said the winery’s task is “just trying to let people know that the Napa they know and love is still here.”
Closed for a week and a half until last Wednesday, Round Pond, like many, saw reservation after reservation cancelled and potential visitorship lost as the fires raged on day after day.
Such was also the case at Schramsberg Vineyards in the western hills near Calistoga. Escaping the Tubbs Fire to the north and the Nuns Fire to the south, the winery avoided damage and the mandatory evacuation of Calistoga, owner Hugh Davies said, speaking by phone from the winery on Wednesday.
But while staff was able to be on site and tend to the winery throughout the blazes, the estate remained closed to visitors until Thursday of last week.
In Schramsberg’s first week since reopening, Davies estimated the winery was “probably getting close to 50 percent” of what a typical headcount would be for this time of year.
“I would imagine a month from now, two weeks from now, it’ll feel stronger,” he said. “But we can’t just get everybody back here today … I think that we have to be patient as we realize that that’s the reality for now.”
Many wineries are now prioritizing consumer outreach via membership clubs, distribution networks, social media and other avenues. Participating in events and fire relief fundraisers is also at the forefront of vintners’ efforts, and in some cases is being done in tandem with local restaurants that have also grappled with the dearth of visitors.
“It’s more assertive than a waiting game,” said Patsy McGaughy, communications director of the Napa Valley Vintners trade group.
“It is going to take time, no question about it,” McGaughy said. “But the efforts themselves are not taking time. The efforts are happening right now and everyone we’ve talked to, our winery members are very much in the mode of doing outreach and connecting with their audiences and inviting people to come back.”
The Vintners are meanwhile working in lockstep with Visit Napa Valley, the organization at the forefront of promoting the region’s economic recovery. Through a two-phase recovery communication plan, the group is utilizing consumer messaging, advertising, social media, fundraising, events and other means to promote the region as being “open for business,” Visit Napa Valley president and CEO Clay Gregory said in a release from the group this week.
“Now is the perfect time to experience the #NapaValleySpirit for yourself,” Gregory said.
Vintners are cautiously optimistic looking toward this weekend, which MacDonnell hoped would bring a turning point, as bookings at Round Pond were up over what she was expecting and cancellations were down.
“I do think this weekend’s going to be very telling to see how many people are back and kind of see where we are,” she said.
Davies was also expecting an uptick over the weekend and the weeks ahead, but noted, “it’s not like a light switch where you just go over there and flip it back on and everything gets back to full speed. It’ll take some effort and communication.”