Communities are resilient. A fact that always amazes me every time hard times hit. It’s not that I’m expecting people not to band together, because that’s what we do. Especially in a tightly knit community like Napa Valley. Signs of thanks to our firefighters and first responders paint our city and town streets more than a month after the wildfires hit. In a valley where the livelihood dives and thrives with the whims of Mother Nature, our people and grapes are built to withstand it all. Like the loyal hounds that chase winery owners through vineyard rows, we lick our wounds, and then get back to business. If you live here, you know this. As for the rest of the world—it’s a message that needs to be spread—Napa Valley is still standing—and ready to pour.
As I readied to write this column, a month after the wildfires struck, I turned to the Napa Valley Vintners (NVV), wineries, local businesses and nonprofits, to get the true state of the Wine Country union. Honig Vineyard & Winery president and chair for NVV Board of Directors, Michael Honig, discussed some of the challenges. “If you looked at the front page of newspapers across the country, the image and stories being told were—Napa is on fire. People saw those images and thought the whole valley burned down.” Dan De Polo, president of Darioush expressed similar sentiments, “The biggest problem is client and customer misconception and poorly written articles on smoke taint. A few weeks ago [immediately following the fires] we were anxious and uncertain about what would really become of that, but all the facts and data we’ve seen have been nothing but positive. We won’t know anything from a sensory standpoint until after fermentation, but we trust our noses and taste buds. The smoke data coming back from ETS, is low, insignificant.”
Eden Umble, marketing and hospitality director at Brannan Cottage Inn in Calistoga had this to share, “The wildfires hit at the busiest time of year. We're slowly getting back to normal occupancy as guests visit the region and see for themselves that Calistoga and in fact, all of Napa Valley is intact, fully open and welcoming, and as beautiful as they remember.”
The NVV offered these overarching facts about the wildfires. An estimated 90 percent of total grape tonnage for the 2017 vintage was already harvested before the fires began on October 8. Fewer than 10 percent of Napa Valley wineries suffered direct damage from the fires, with less than 5 percent sustaining significant damage, amounting to less than 8 percent of the valley’s total vineyard acres being touched by the wildfires. Honig, who lost a two-acre parcel on Atlas Peak adds, “People may start thinking about the fires when the 2017 vintage comes out, so we will need to remind people that most of the grapes came in pre-fire. The short-term challenge is getting people back into the community and spending dollars here as guests.”
De Polo, who had to combat false reports that stated the winery had burned down, offered a true account of the damages. “Our landscaping and grasses torched and caught on fire, so we had to replace 50 percent of that,” says De Polo. “There were showers of sparks coming down and we were very lucky we didn’t burn down. Our biggest impact was the lack of open roads.” According to De Polo, visitation was down by 60 percent immediately following the fires. “People were making judgements by looking on the TV with all the flames and deciding not to make the trip. What they don’t know is that the flames were not in areas where people are visiting.”
Honig adds, “People forget we’re farmers. We’re used to working with challenges. When you’re making the Ferraiis of the wine world—whether it’s mold, water, heat, or fire—we’re always trying to make the best wines possible. Consumers should never be worried about the wines coming from Napa Valley.”
Napa Valley Film Festival founder/producers Marc and Brenda Lhormer were faced with a tough decision a week after the fires broke out—to decide if the “show” could and should go on. Says Brenda, “We heard from so many people, the chambers, wineries and businesses, all saying, ‘please do this, we think the community needs this.” The event, which moved forward as planned was one of the first major event in Napa Valley to happen after the fires. I spoke to Natalie Morales from Access Hollywood who returned to host the celebrity tribute night. “It was about lifting this valley up again. Bringing people back and getting the community back together to send the message that Napa Valley is open for business and better than ever.”
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