Despite the Napa wine industry’s ongoing efforts to spur the return of visitors following the October wildfires, winery foot traffic is still lukewarm and recovering.
The fires occurred during what is normally the busiest month of the year for winery visitorship. Yet now, a month on, visitor numbers for many are still below what would be a normal draw for this time of year.
Winery owners and leaders have attributed the tepid return of visitors in part to the outside world’s warped view of wine country as still being crippled.
Michael Beaulac, winemaker and general manager at Pine Ridge Vineyards in the Stag’s Leap District, lost his home in the fires. Yet, “When I drive through Napa Valley, for the most part, you don’t really see that much damage,” he said this week. “You go up Atlas Peak, that area, of course you do. But for the tourists coming to town, they probably aren’t going to see a whole lot.”
Holding the media’s portrayal of the disaster largely accountable, winery owner Dario Sattui said this week that beyond the immediate destruction throughout wine country, the fires also “killed tourism.”
“Because people think the whole Napa Valley burned down and it’s not true,” he said.
Mike Reynolds, president of HALL winery in St. Helena and WALT winery in Sonoma, stressed the fires’ toll on the rural areas of Napa County and in the neighborhoods of Santa Rosa. “There are portions that were devastated and we don’t want to understate that,” he said. “But the majority of the valley and certainly the wineries and the vineyards, were not impacted.”
However, a month after the heat, flames and smoke, that majority of wineries continues to grapple with the lingering economic impact of the distorted wine country-turned-wasteland image.
Sattui, who was born in the area, said that last month’s wildfires had been the worst disaster to happen in Napa Valley in his lifetime. The runner-up, he says, is the economic disaster that is still unfolding.
Tourists are vital to both of Sattui’s wineries, V. Sattui in St. Helena and the 13th century Tuscan-style Castello di Amorosa tucked off of Highway 29 near Calistoga. Each sells its wine entirely through on-premises sales, meaning the lower the visitor numbers and foot traffic, the lower the wineries’ overall revenue.
Both had reopened by Oct. 16, a week after the fires began, but as of last week, Sattui estimated visitorship at each was about half of what it normally would be this time of year.
Though he lost vineyards on Henry Road to the Partrick Fire and grapes to smoke taint, Sattui’s wineries were left physically unharmed. But now with lagging visitorship and sales, the toll on business has been severe enough that some winery employee hours have been scaled back, leading to several resignations, he said. “I don’t blame them.”
For the month of October, visitor numbers at the HALL and WALT tasting rooms were also down by about 55 percent, Reynolds said. Though the first week of the month was normal, “after that, it was essentially we were wiped out.”
Reynolds said no employee hours had been shortened and, optimistically, both wineries had seen “a decent amount of traffic” at the end of October, in part due to local visitorship.
The case has been similar at Pine Ridge Vineyards which, like HALL, WALT and Sattui’s wineries, also reopened Oct. 16. Though met with a “very, very quiet” week of sales and guests upon reopening, Beaulac also credited visitors from San Francisco and the greater Bay Area as having helped buoy the winery’s business as the weeks have progressed.
“What I’m seeing and hearing when I’m in the tasting room is a lot of people saying, ‘We want to come up, because we heard that’s what you’re supposed to do,’” he said. “The generosity just continues to amaze me.”
The local wine industry has in turn offered its own helping hand to the North Bay’s recovery, with many wineries donating their tasting fees and other funds to the fire relief efforts throughout the month of October, and in some cases beyond.
HALL and WALT wineries were among those donating tasting fees last month, while founders Craig and Kathryn Hall raised more than $500,000 through a matching campaign with Redwood Credit Union. Sattui’s wineries donated more than $100,000 to the relief efforts.
And while concerns over lukewarm visitorship continue to loom over winery business, optimistic overtones are also very much coursing through the industry.
Jen Locke, senior vice president of direct to consumer at Treasury Wine Estates, the Australia-based company that owns a cast of Napa Valley hallmarks, including Beaulieu Vineyard, Beringer, Sterling and Stag’s Leap Winery, said in a statement this week, “Our tasting rooms throughout the Valley are trending upward, especially the weekends.”
In Sonoma County, Treasury-owned Chateau St. Jean winery reopened for the first time last Saturday, and was greeted by a line of guests, Locke said. “We are without words for the outpouring of support and growing interest in visiting our tasting rooms has been very encouraging.”
Russ Joy, general manager at iconic Ste. Michelle-owned Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, a close neighbor to Pine Ridge Vineyards, wrote in an email this week that the winery’s visitorship has also begun to recover, with weekend numbers improving in particular. “Our current weekend traffic is essentially the same as last year,” Joy wrote.
“Now, more than ever, we need wine lovers visiting the wineries, buying wines, dining at our local restaurants and staying at our local hotels,” he added.
Scott Goldie, co-owner of the Napa Valley Wine Train, which hosted a cast of Napa County political leaders and media for a luncheon last month to promote the region’s recovery, wrote in an email that while cancellations brought ridership down to 20 percent of normal numbers in October and have carried on into this month, the impact is lessened as visitorship tends to slow this time of year regardless.
Rider numbers have also improved notably over the weekends, Goldie wrote. “Longer term (into next year) we are very optimistic that the word will get out that Napa is back and better than ever and we will see a return to normalcy.”
Sattui offered a similarly hopeful outlook for the coming year, noting that “people maybe as the year progresses will come in greater numbers. But I think it’s really next year sometime – the spring – before they really come back full force.”