California is currently in the midst of one of the worst fire seasons on record highlighted by the massive Thomas Fire currently blazing through the Santa Barbara area, and a handful of fires that burned homes and land in the heart of California’s wine country.
In total, 8,000 homes and business burned in the fires, and 42 people lost their lives. In addition, 220,000 acres of land was burned in an area that generates roughly $50 billion in wine industry related revenue each year.
The fires understandably impacted the Napa and Sonoma wine industries, forcing wine drinkers to look into different regions of California for a taste of wine. With Napa and Sonoma’s industries essentially handicapped for the time being, enterprising businessmen have looked for opportunities to increase traffic to their tasting rooms and wineries while wine country rebounds from their devastation.
However, as, Shelby French, executive director of the Calaveras Wine Alliance puts it, advertising that directly sought to benefit off the hit the wine industry took in Napa and Sonoma Is a tricky prospect to iron out. Members of the Calaveras Wine Alliance pay dues to the organization to help promote the wine industry in Calaveras County, one of the counties more highlighted attractions.
“When the fires hit, I was getting a lot of the trade correspondence from other associations and wine associations and everybody was saying be very careful,” said French. “It seems like a great time, but be very careful about advertising. That’s a touchy subject”
Of course, the wine alliance doesn’t want to actively and knowingly profit off the hardships of those affected by the fire. French did not shy away from mentioning that a number of winery operators across the state had the same thought slip across their mind.
French said that wine alliance is always actively trying to recruit people who show an interest in the wine culture in Napa and Sonoma, but did not attempt to actively drive business up the highway to Calaveras County because of the damage wrought by the fires outside of normal online and social media advertisements.
“It’s not about drawing people away from Napa,” said French. “It’s about continuing to brand ourselves as a premium wine region, we’re a different experience, but a premium region for people who want to experience tasting in a different way.”
Lisa Boulton, executive director of the Calaveras Visitor’s Bureau said that the thought to increase advertising in those regions did occur to her, but, similar to French, did not want to purposely pursue a profit off the hardships of others.
Considering Calaveras’ experience with the Butte Fire, Boulton said that it would be a bad look for the county, or any visitors’ organization to try to rope tourist into the area by directly referencing the string of fires in Northern California.
Additionally, Boulton said that Murphys wine industry has taken on a life of its own. Often tabbed as the “New Napa”, Murphys provides a different atmosphere and feel compared to the larger tasting venues in Napa and Sonoma, Boulton said.
“We do have excellent wine,” said Boulton. “It’s a different experience than Napa wine, so when people are looking for a low key experience, that is what we have here.
“We have our own unique feel and experience available for visitors that we really like, they like the difference.”
French, like Boulton, agreed that the tasting experience in Calaveras County is a different breed.
French, said that advertisement during the fires were more akin to partnering the Calaveras County name with the Napa and Sonoma brand and to promote Calaveras County as an alternative for people who may have landed in San Francisco and are looking to fill their schedules as fires ravaged their wine country destinations.
“We’re trying to get people who are coming in to visit out of town looking for an alternative, and I think it was fairly successful,” said French.
According to Forbes, the wine industry in Napa and Sonoma counties are starting to make a bounce back from the October fires. Although tourists have been noticeably slow to return to the region, sales in the area remain higher than expected.
Due to an earlier than expected harvest, 90 percent of grapes in Napa and Sonoma counties, and 85 percent of grapes in Mendocino counties were already picked and in production prior to the fires.
“The vast majority of California’s 2017 winegrape harvest was unaffected by the wildfires and the vintage promises to be of excellent quality,” said Robert P. (Bobby) Koch, president and CEO of Wine Institute told Wine Industry Advisor. “The outpouring of support locally and from around the world for people in the impacted communities has been phenomenal. We are saddened by the loss of lives and homes and this will truly be remembered as a harvest of the heart. Wineries are at work making their 2017 wines and welcoming visitors during this beautiful late fall/early winter season.”
The majority of impact is perception, industry insiders say. As national news highlighted the fires in wine country, tourist began to look elsewhere for their vacations and tasting trips. As news continues to float out of wine country that things are beginning to return to normal, wine operators expect the tourists to return to the area and for the wine to continue flowing.