Napa and Sonoma valleys may be dozens of miles apart but smoke and images of the wildfire that started near Geyserville Oct. 23 has created challenges for the Napa Valley’s visitor industry.
Business founder Dario Sattui said that the number of visitors at his Castello di Amorosa in Calistoga had declined at least 50 percent in recent days.
“Today we had maybe 20 cars and we’d normally have 70 or 80,” said Sattui during a phone interview on Wednesday.
“We’re taking some losses,” he said. “It really hurts. Still, we have to employ people.”
“People just aren’t coming” to Napa right now, Sattui said. Visitors associate “wine country” with both Napa and Sonoma valleys and when there’s a fire in either county, it deters visitors to both.
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It reminds him of the Napa County wildfires from 2017, said Sattui. After those wildfires, business was down about 70 percent for several months, he said.
“We’ll survive,” but the news of the fires “will linger in people’s minds.”
“It’s going to take some time to come back.”
Sattui isn’t the only one hoping to woo visitors back to the valley.
Visit Napa Valley had a message for anyone considering coming to Napa Valley amidst PG&E blackouts: “You don’t need electricity to drink wine.”
“There are no active wildfires within Napa County,” said Angela Jackson, a spokeswoman for Visit Napa Valley, the county tourism agency, during the worst of the Kincade fire publicity. “Most Napa Valley hotels, wineries, restaurants, and other businesses are open and welcoming guests.”
As PG&E began restoring power last week, Visit Napa Valley advised “all visitors to confirm reservations directly.”
Potential visitor took to social media to assess just how welcoming the Napa Valley would be during national news reports of fires, evacuations and bad air.
“I’m supposed to be coming there this Friday curious if you are impacted at all by the fires—smoke or power outages?” Facebook user Kendra Ann wrote on the V. Sattui Winery Facebook page on Oct 29.
Sharon Cooke asked the same thing: “Are you impacted by the fires or power outages?”
“Heard about the fires,” wrote DeEtte Montalbano during the first of the safety outages on Oct. 10. “Can someone let us know what’s happening over there?”
A post on the Robert Mondavi Winery Facebook page on Oct. 9 noted that power was restored “and we are open for business! However, the winery phone lines and connectivity are down, so we are unable to answer calls or respond to emails at this time.”
On the same day, Trefethen Family Vineyards wasn’t quite as lucky.
“There are widespread power outages and we are thus unable to host any guests today,” the company wrote on its Facebook page.
Other businesses also commented on the outages.
“First Street Napa is open and fully powered,” said a post on the downtown Napa center’s Facebook page on Oct. 29.
“To guests: there are no active wildfires affecting the resort and we are still welcoming guests,” read a post from the same day on the Silverado Resort and Spa Facebook page.
Sattui was not the only one thinking of the 2017 wildfires.
Before it burned to the ground during the 2017 wildfires, the tasting room and headquarters for the Signorello Estate winery on Silverado Trail was an ivy-covered, two-story edifice on a hillside, overlooking an expanse of oak trees and vineyards.
Although a new tasting room and adjacent business offices have yet to be built, the winery has continued to grow grapes, make wine in an off-site facility and host wine tastings under nearby tents and in a mobile facility.
“The silver lining is we lost some buildings but we didn’t lose any vines,” said Ray Signorello Jr., proprietor of Signorello Estate. “The grapes and winemaking has been largely uninterrupted.”
But like many of his fellow winemakers, shopkeepers and restaurateurs who survived the 2017 wildfires in Napa and Sonoma counties, Signorello struggles to get the word out that one of the world’s premier winemaking regions remains open for business and eager to host visitors, especially in recent days with the Sonoma fire raging and Pacific Gas & Electric turning off power over a broad area.
The stakes are high for local businesses.
In both Napa and Sonoma counties, tourism ranks among the top industries, with more than 40,000 combined jobs directly dependent on visitors. Spending by tourists generated more than $4 billion to the economies of the two counties last year, with most of the money spent on lodging.
In Napa County, tourism ranks second only to the wine industry as a top employer.
The challenge, local tourism leaders say, has been crafting a promotional message that encourages visitors to return without reminding them about the October fire threat or the 2017 conflagration that killed at least 43 people, destroyed about 8,400 buildings and charred more than 245,000 acres.
“We have been trying to showcase what a beautiful spot this is,” said Linsey Gallagher, chief executive of Visit Napa Valley.
The 2017 fires made headlines and generated dramatic television footage across the country, but fewer than 20 of the 900 or so wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties suffered significant damage. Most restaurants, shops and hotels also survived unscathed and many of those that were damaged or destroyed have been rebuilt.
The latest visitation numbers and hotel occupancy rates suggest that some areas of the wine region have rebounded from the disaster, while others continue to suffer.
Napa County welcomed 3.8 million visitors in 2018, an 8.9% increase compared with 2016, while visitor spending rose 15.9% to $2.2 billion, according to an economic impact study released in May. Gallagher said her organization has not collected economic data for 2019 but anecdotal evidence suggests the business climate remains strong.
“That tells us that people are staying longer and spending more,” she said.
In neighboring Sonoma County, the tourism industry has suffered. Hotel occupancy rates in the county are about 4% below the levels of 2018 and retail sales figures have dropped about 5% in the same period, said Claudia Vecchio, chief executive of the Sonoma County Tourism agency.
“I believe we are still impacted by those fires,” she said.
At the Cardinale Winery in Oakville, visitation numbers have reached pre-fire levels, said Ross Anderson, the winery’s estate director. None of the vineyards were damaged in the 2017 fire, he said, but about a quarter of the grapes were lost because workers couldn’t get access to some of the vineyards.
Anderson said he is troubled that people still ask him about the 2017 fire, adding that he plans to focus on promoting his wines, not on past disasters.
At Signorello Estate, the fire that burned the headquarters and tasting facility miraculously spared the vineyards and the fermentation tanks.
Before the building was destroyed, it hosted wine tasting events and five-course lunches, whipped up by an in-house chef.
For Signorello, it is difficult to send a positive message to wine lovers when the winery can no longer host large groups or offer the same services as before.
“We used to host people on our property and had a chef and very nice hospitality experience on the property,” he said. “We lost the ability to have that.”
A timeline for rebuilding the destroyed facility is still uncertain, said Signorello, because of a backlog of rebuilding projects for construction contractors. But, he added, his workers were able to harvest nearly all the grapes in 2017 and the wines that resulted from that harvest are exceptional.
“We made some very good wine in 2017,” he said.
The LA Times contributed to this story.