If they didn’t know there had been three devastating wildfires in the Napa Valley this year, most visitors would have no way to tell. Between Napa and Oakville there is nothing to see but beautiful vineyards bordered by rolling beige hills merging skyward into hazy blue-green mountains. The scars of the treacherous fires that scorched this section of the valley in 2017 are mostly erased from view.
Travel farther north, however, and, although the towns of St. Helena and Calistoga were saved, the surrounding hillsides are fire-blackened and look in certain places as if they’ve been bombed: The skeletal remains of burnt homes, wineries and resorts and piles of white ash still boarder sections of both Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail.
On Oct. 20 the most recent fire — the Glass Fire — was officially 100% contained. Even before this welcome milestone, wineries, restaurants, hotels and the valley’s extensive PR industry — were sending out messages for tourists to return, touting that life here was back to normal. Most of these efforts reported that 80% of the local wineries were still planning to make wine in 2020.
Yes, “normal” shrouds the valley, but nearly everyone’s lives here have been affected, and the truth is that the Napa Valley is not back to anything close to normal. It might never be.
What remains sort of normal?
Any wines from the 2020 vintage that are eventually released will range from very good to sublime. It was a great year prior to the fires. However, supply will be dismal. Even if the reported 80% of wineries are still making some wine, they will not be making anywhere near normal levels of production.
The hardest hit is the lifeblood of the valley, Cabernet Sauvignon. Because it is often picked last, a greater proportion of it was exposed to numerous fire and smoke events than earlier picked varieties like Chardonnay, therefore exposing it more frequently and at greater concentration to the dreaded “smoke taint.”
Some PR folks are trying to rebrand the phenomenon with the less-negative phrases “smoke-exposed” or “smoke impacted,” but a rose by any other name is still a rose — or in this case a smell and flavor that is reminiscent of licking an ashtray. Few such tainted wines will ever make it to market.
Access to exceptional food and wine remains a semi-normal aspect of life in the Napa Valley. After a year of multiple traumas, an unexpected number of food-service businesses are serving excellent meals.
This is surprising because these normally tight-margin businesses have been battered and whipsawed by pandemic restrictions, fire closures, rolling blackouts and a work-force that has been decimated and dispersed either because of economic uncertainty, safety concerns or both.
Of course, like most eateries throughout the planet, many have pared down services and created focused menus that lend themselves to takeout, full of pandemic food staples — barbecued ribs, fried chicken and pasta carbonara.
The people of the Napa Valley remain warm and welcoming, which is another normal. Being one of the country’s top tourist destinations has created a populace that’s familiar with serving the needs of others, and it shows. Nearly every shopkeeper, tasting room and restaurant waitstaff or hotel service person has a smile and asks or implies, “How may I serve you?” as readily as someone might say “Hello” in less tourist-centric economies.
Another normality? Generosity. For decades the Napa Valley has been at the forefront of hosting multi-million-dollar yearly auctions where the proceeds go to support local charities and also to promote the region’s tourism industry.
Because auctions are off the list of possibilities this year, organizations such as the Napa Valley Vintners and some individuals have donated millions of dollars to workers, local groups and families to help them survive.
Even so, Napa Valley workers are feeling the pinch. Local food banks are seeing a surge in need, with organizers in Calistoga reporting that they are now helping one-third of the town’s families with weekly food donations.
The Napa Valley finds itself squeezed from all sides.
An oft-cited statistic is that Napa Valley produces less than 4% of the wine in California. The point of the statistic is that the valley makes only a tiny fraction of the wine, thereby inferring a link to quality. And in many ways it’s true. Wines from the region are considered some of the rarest and best in the United States and the world. However, the statistic is misleading and undercuts the influence and importance of the region as a bellwether for the entire state and beyond.
According to the grape-acreage crop report put out every year by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, in 2019 the Napa Valley grew more than 9.5% of the wine grapes in the state.
Because many other regions grow more grapes per vine, the total production of wine from Napa does only represent about 4%, but because the price per ton of grapes is higher and these wines fetch a higher price, this small county actually represents a disproportionate percentage of the total wine-industry revenue for the entire state — 24.5% of the total wine grape sales, for example.
And because California represents 85% of America’s wine production and 90% of U.S. wine exports, this means that as goes the Napa Valley, so goes much of the entire United States wine industry.
And this is not just an isolated event. Napa and the three nearby counties — Lake, Mendocino and Sonoma — make up about 27% of the state’s total wine-grape acres but bring in more than 47% of the wine-grape revenue.
And all four counties have been negatively affected by fires and smoke. In fact, nearly all wine-growing regions in California have with more than 4 million acres burned — more than 4% of the entire landmass of the state.
This won’t be felt so acutely because wine demand has been dropping in recent years, thanks to changing demographics, multiple tax wars and increasing health concerns over alcohol consumption, each of which has played a part in softening demand. Without wine to sell, however, any unmet demand will be filled by alternatives and imports.
Who will serve those who visit?
After the loss of thousands of homes from fires over the last few years, those that remain are out of reach for most who work in the Napa Valley.
In 2017 the Tubbs fire, which ignited a few city blocks from our home in Calistoga, ravaged Napa and Sonoma counties, taking 48 lives, destroying more than 4,000 homes (nearly 5% of the areas housing stock), gutting more than 1,000 businesses and costing the local economy $1.2 billion in the short term.
Longer-term estimates from that fire suggest a cost of over $10 billion. It’s hard to affix a final number on the cost because the rebuilding from that fire is still far from complete. This year’s fires have burned more than 600 more homes and destroyed 100s of businesses, adding to the housing shortage and delaying construction projects.
Intuition might suggest that in 2020 housing prices would have dropped in the Napa Valley. But that’s not the case. According to Zillow, the median sold price of a single-family home in Napa County in 2011 was $361,000, but by August 2020 it had hit $867,000 — more than a 140% increase in little less than a decade. Why are the prices of homes in the valley surging during a pandemic and climbing seemingly unabated during a brutal fire season? The reason is that Bay Area buyers with plenty of cash are looking to escape the city and find second or third residences in rural communities where they might work from home and home-school their children. And although those who sell at such high prices might be pleased, few are able to stay in the area, taking their windfalls and moving to less-expensive locations such as Idaho, Colorado, Oregon and Arizona. Such pricing also further excludes workers from ever purchasing a home, meaning that they need to rent or find shelter many miles away and commute.
Buying a home is impossible for most, but so too is rent. According to Rentcafe, the average residential rent for a 919-square-foot apartment in Napa County is $2,209. Because landlords typically require an annual income that’s at least 40 times the monthly rent, a worker would need to make more than $88,360 per year, or the equivalent of over $42 per hour at a full-time job, working 40 hours per week for 52 weeks. Few make that kind of hourly wage, and that number is even more difficult to achieve given the on-again/off-again reality of 2020.
Living in the valley has become impossible for most, and even visiting can be challenging. The number of hotel rooms was reduced this year when two popular resorts burned in the Glass Fire. The Calistoga Ranch was incinerated, and the Meadowood Resort lost much of its infrastructure, including one of the valley’s two Michelin three-star-rated restaurants. Not only did these locations house visitors and pay millions in local taxes, they also employed hundreds of people, all of whom are now looking for work at the exact moment the entire industry is oversupplied with qualified people seeking jobs because of reduced travel due to the pandemic. Most will likely need to find work outside the area.
Wishing for normal does not make it so
While many who live, work and visit in the Napa Valley will claim a “normal experience,” that is likely more a wish than a reality. As in many recent natural disasters, there are attempts to downplay the pain, suffering and possible negative health impacts of the situation and highlight the resiliency and tenacity of those affected.
Sometimes this can be inspiring, as in the many examples of selfless acts of first-responders and neighbors to save lives and properties and the countless who donate their time and money to support a family in need. But the reality is that beyond the pandemic, near-annual fires, occasional floods, an untenable economic environment for workers and a pervasive unwillingness to honestly acknowledge the harrowing times, the Napa Valley wine industry finds itself increasingly immersed in dangers that belie a rose-colored approach. What we are increasingly coming face to face with is the challenge to survive.
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Tim Carl is a photojournalist based in Napa Valley.