Mt. St. Helena can be seen in the distance in this view taken near Markham Vineyards in St. Helena. 

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center’s website, there are three phases of traumatic stress from a disaster.

The “impact phase” occurs during the initial stages of the event when the primary focus of individuals affected is on saving lives (one’s own and others) and property.

The second, the “recoil and rescue” phase, happens as the traumatic event continues, and the final phase, “recovery,” is the prolonged period of adjustment and return to equilibrium that a community or individuals go through. This phase can last from weeks to years.

The Napa Valley and the other communities affected by the recent fires are in the recovery phase, with many finding themselves still trying to comprehend both the short- and long-term impacts, finding themselves torn between just putting on a brave face or at least attempting some return to normalcy. And to be sure, many have done just that — they’ve gotten back to work and their lives. Others are feeling anxious about the future and have concerns about the lasting impact of the fires.

Wine, vines, smoke

and uncertainty

The impact of the fires on the Napa Valley wine industry will only be understood in hindsight, but at this time there remains a great deal of uncertainty.

“We’ve never dealt with anything like this in the past,” said Cary Gott, a winemaker with 48 vintages under his belt and one of the most impressive resumes in the business. “There’s a lot of research out there on smoke taint, but much of it is inconclusive and sometimes even contradictory. We’re doing the best we can. And for the most part I think we’ll come out just fine — in fact, lots of the wine out there from the vintage is excellent — but there remains lots of uncertainty.”

Those whose vineyards were affected will need to replant, but doing so on the fly is not easy. It’s not like you can just run to the nursery and pick up your preferred rootstock and clone. These can take many months, or even years, to organize and procure. And even if the vineyard was not directly affected, there is still a risk that some of the smoke’s chemicals can linger in the plant and show up in subsequent vintages.

Restaurants and resorts enter the slowest season

Historically, tourism booms during harvest and then drops off quickly with a bump during Thanksgiving and a small surge during the winter holidays and New Year’s. But then it’s quiet until late April or early May. However, this year business for some resorts and restaurants was off by 50 to 70 percent in October, 30 to 40 percent in November, and December is not looking much better.

To make matters worse, the resorts have had to deal with refunding millions of dollars of deposit fees, with one manager saying that they refunded nearly $1 million on one day of October while another said they’d doled out $3 million during the first days of the fire. They will likely be able to write these losses off on their taxes. But still, can you imagine the lingering ancillary impacts of the loss of cash on hand? As one longtime managing partner said, “I’ve told my marketing team to ‘Keep their powder dry,’ because for those people that have canceled they will not be coming back until May, if not later.”

However, construction and renovation projects at resorts and restaurants are likely to continue in earnest as project managers anticipate coming price increases for both labor and supplies in nine to 12 months.

Labor and the coming reckoning

Finding and keeping good staff was a challenge before the fires. After them, it has become desperate. One resort in St. Helena has been going door-to-door looking for housekeepers. Dishwashers, cooks and waitstaff have already begun to get offers from local construction companies, some offering $25-plus an hour.

Couple these pressures with a reduction in thousands of the existing rental-housing stocks, rentals being taken by fire victims who are using their generous insurance payouts and out-of-state construction firms looking to soak up housing for their employees, and you have what will be an increasingly painful and costly pressure on these businesses that may ultimately have an impact on the quality of service.

The pressure for labor will further drive the search for technologies to replace or augment existing workers. Presently, replacing cooks, waitstaff and resort staff is a challenge from a technological standpoint. However, look for momentum toward innovations and automation to escalate as new options become available.

Technological advances aside, for businesses to succeed and thrive in the Napa Valley they will need to find, nurture and retain a healthy pool of the highest-quality staff possible. Doing so will certainly include an upward pressure on wages, but equally important will be for workers to feel valued and find some ongoing benefit in staying put. Examples that some businesses are trying include profit-sharing, continuing-education credits, generous health-benefits packages and even help with child care.

The future is not yet smoke-free

People in the recovery phase tend to lurch between optimism and depression. These responses are understandable and reasonable. As a region, there is much for which to be thankful; it could have been worse, the valley looks beautiful, we are certain to recover. However, it is also important that we guard against denial and delusion.

We have both a problem and an opportunity. What if we slowed down, took a breath and considered this moment a chance to re-imagine the Napa Valley of the future? The valley and region have overcome many hardships in the past: phylloxera, the Great Depression, Prohibition, wars, phylloxera again, and now fires. Each time, something wonderful emerged from the ashes of trauma — that is clear. What we do collectively with this most recent tragedy remains uncertain, but I remain guardedly optimistic.

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