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March Aftermath

Wine Country Wildfires: Myths & Facts

The October wildfires ravaged parts of Sonoma County and made headlines around the globe, causing some misconceptions about Sonoma County and tourism. Here are a few myths and the facts from the 2018 Sonoma County Winegrowers Sustainability Report.

Myth: All Sonoma County vineyards burned during the tragic wildfires in 2017.

Fact: Vineyards acted as a natural firebreak, not only surviving, but helping to slow and stop the spread of wildfires.

Grape vines are resilient. In fact, firefighters repeatedly witnessed vineyards in Sonoma County stopping the advancement of the flames. The fires impact on the vines was limited to mostly singed foliage, burnt cover crops and some vineyards being sprayed with fire retardant from aerial drops to halt the flames. In the very worst cases, some some vines burned, but only 2,482 vineyard acres (about 4 percent) of the more than 60,000 vineyard acres in Sonoma County were situated in the fire zones. While damage assessments will continue for some time, according to the Sonoma County Ag Commissioner, the initial crop loss estimate is $154,729. It’s expected that most of the grape vineyards will survive and be back at full production within the next few years, with very few vines needing to be replaced.

Myth: The 2017 Sonoma County wine vintage will be limited or non-existent, or the wines will have smoke taint.

Fact: 2017 Sonoma County wines will be available and be the same world-class quality that wine lovers have come to expect when they see Sonoma County on a wine label.

The great majority of grapes, more than 90 percent, in Sonoma County were harvested before the fires began. An extreme heat wave during Labor Day Weekend sped up the ripening process and resulted in most of the grapes being picked before the fires began. Those grapes had already been crushed and the winemaking process had begun by the early October wildfire outbreak. Many of the remaining grapes that weren’t in the path of the fire were harvested as the areas were deemed safe. Given how late it was in the season when the fires started, the concern of smoke taint is low and initial testing has proven negative for smoke taint. This assessment would be different had the fires occurred in late July or early August. It’s important to remember that the University of California, Davis, estimates that only about 1 percent of the county’s grape acreage was in the direct path of the fires. Winemakers will closely monitor for this during the winemaking process, but given the circumstances, they don’t expect a widespread problem.

Myth: Visitors shouldn’t visit Sonoma County because of the impact of the fires.

Fact: Sonoma County is open for business.

Yes, Sonoma County is open for business and your support—whether it’s locally or visiting from afar—is needed now more than ever. There are more than 1 million acres of land in Sonoma County and the fires touched a small portion of it.  The threat to local businesses today isn’t the fires, but tourists staying away because they believe the entire region was burned. Our towns, hotels, stores, restaurants and wine tasting rooms need your visits and support for the employees, business owners and families. Not only will your visits boost our local economy, but your support will also help us recover and realize that we will get through this together.

Fire Impact Study Findings

The Wine Business Institute at Sonoma State University (SSU) released preliminary findings of its wildfire impact study on the North Coast wine industry in January. The findings were based on a survey of more than 200 vineyard and winery stakeholders across Lake, Mendocino, Napa, Solano and Sonoma counties. The study was launched in October, following inaccurate accounts of the extent of damage to the region’s wineries and vineyards from Wildfires in the north San Francisco Bay Area.

“The most significant impact on the North Coast wine industry was an immediate and temporary slow-down of visitors to the region,” reports Honore Comfort, Wine Business executive-in-residence at SSU. “We believe this was driven by the images and reports at the height of the disaster. Fortunately, the numbers show that this trend has corrected and continues to improve. We also have early indications from the broader economy that our regional recovery will be strong.” Here are some key findings:

99.8 percent of vineyard acres in the North Coast region are reported as unaffected by the fires.

93 percent of wineries are reported as unaffected by the fires in terms of structural damage or long-term impact.

99.5 percent of the total crop value was recovered.

90 percent of affected wineries and grape growers reported that vineyards wouldn’t need to be replanted or replaced. (Of those that do, most would be less than 10 acres.)

71 percent of survey respondents reported an immediate drop in tasting room traffic compared to the same period last year. (Though the trend started to recover in November.)

62 percent of respondents reported a drop in tasting room sales, compared to this period last year.

50 percent of respondents reported that visitors from the San Francisco Bay Area increased or remained constant, while visitation from outside California and the U.S. was most affected.

75 percent of respondents noted online sales are equal to or higher than this period last year.




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