Wine Country Tourism Picks Up After Wildfires

Lost tasting room sales cost wineries up to $38 million

by Jane Firstenfeld
wine sales metrics
Tourists canceled scheduled visits to places like Kosta Browne during the Northern California wildfires, even though the property was undamaged.

North Coast, Calif.—Media reporting and images may have left many with the impression that Sonoma and Napa wine country was laid to waste by October firestorms, but only weeks later, a different picture has emerged. Tourists are returning to hotels and tasting rooms, welcomed by staff eager to see business return to normal.

Sebastopol, Calif.-based Kosta-Browne Wines is open by appointment. The 18,000-case winery and vineyards remain intact. Still, there is deep loss: Co-founder Dan Kosta’s home in Santa Rosa was destroyed, and he’s now living in a fifth-wheel trailer near the winery.

Normally welcoming only one or two groups on weekend days, sales didn’t change much, Kosta said, although some people did cancel their scheduled trips: Traffic was impassible while residents evacuated and emergency responders arrived.

Though temporarily homeless, Kosta remained surprisingly cheerful. “You’ve got to move on,” he said. He and business partner Michael Browne are, in fact, moving on. In 2009, they sold their interest in the winery; later it was picked up by another investor. The founders’ contracts expire this year, and they will focus on other projects. Kosta already has a new brand, Alden Alli, which produces about 1,500 cases using mostly Pinot Noir grapes from northern Sonoma County.

Rodney Strong Wine Estates is a popular 900,000-case destination next to Highway 101 in Windsor, Calif. “We were profoundly affected in terms of traffic,” Christopher O’Gorman, director of communications, told Wines & Vines. The winery's vineyards were unscathed, and 95% of the fruit was already harvested, but the winemaker’s house was destroyed in the blaze.

O’Gorman provided some tasting room statistics. The weekend prior to the fires, some 600 people visited. The winery closed Oct. 10-11; when it reopened Oct. 12, 62 people came in. The first full weekend the fires were contained, Rodney Strong recorded 260 visitors.

“We draw visitors from all over the country. People are coming back now,” O’Gorman said.

Up to $38 million in tasting room losses
Jon Moramarco, managing partner of beverage alcohol consulting firm bw166, estimates the fires caused tasting rooms to lose between $19 million and $38 million in sales. He said an additional $50 million to $100 million revenue will be lost by wineries that need to be rebuilt as a result of the firestorm.

When 100,000-case Dry Creek Vineyard in Healdsburg reopened Oct. 13, there was almost no traffic, said director of marketing and communications Sara Rathman. Dry Creek hosts numerous large groups and destination weddings, scheduled long in advance.

“We did what we could for them. We tried to help them reorganize their trips. We’re trying to make the best of it,” Rathman said. Around Oct. 21, business started picking up, and by the weekend of Oct. 24, winery loyalists from the Bay Area flooded in, trying to support business. By the numbers, normally booming October tasting room traffic was down 35%, and revenue was down about 18 %, she reported. “It’s not how it was, but we’re seeing improvement. We are welcoming them and trying to show them a good time.”

Dry Creek has a strong social media presence, and its promotion benefits other area wineries. “We were really lucky to have wholesale distribution,” Rathman commented. Looking on the bright side, “The tasting room is less crowded. We’re really positive. People coming are happy to be here.”

Cline Cellars is a 250,000-case winery in Sonoma Carneros, a quick hop from San Francisco. “We were beyond fortunate. Harvest was 90% complete, but the fires impacted everyone significantly,” said Christine Lilienthal, marketing director.

Cline’s direct-to-consumer sales staff reported a great weekend Nov. 11-12, nevertheless, Cline lost about a month of tasting room business. “The best way to support the winery is to visit or order online,” Lilienthal said.

Crossing the county line
Clay Gregory, president and CEO of Visit Napa Valley, reported that tourism the first week of October was “very good, as it normally is. Then things dropped dramatically down.”

Most people who had planned visits canceled their reservations, but some who were already in the valley stayed, including at least one hardy couple from Texas, which has seen its own share of disasters recently.

Visit Napa Valley tracked hotel occupancy and revenue, though skewed because many local hotels hosted evacuees. The Meritage in southern Napa charged evacuees $99 per night, including three meals.

Starting about Oct. 20, figures started to edge up, and that trend continued into early November. “The first Sunday (of November) showed higher occupancy than last year,” Gregory said.

In downtown Napa, Napa River Inn hosted evacuees and first responders, said general manager Sara Brooks. Still connected to power and the internet, the hotel opened its doors to locals left without communication.

“We had people using our internet for seven or eight days. No one traveled. Pretty much all reservations canceled,” Brooks recalled. Year on year, occupancy was down 10% to 15%. Brooks predicted that should be fully recovered by February or March.

Allied businesses were also affected by the fires. Platypus Wine Tours, which has been leading Napa and Sonoma tours for about 13 years, suffered a huge downturn during the fires: about 60% of its business vs. last year, according to director of sales and marketing Jenny Toomer.

People either canceled reservations or did not book tours, and Platypus drivers also suffered income loss. One said he’d worked only three days out of three weeks, which cost him about $2,500. The company set up a crowdfunding page for employees. One former guest donated $5,000.

Cancellations have ceased, and people want to support the wineries and the industry, Toomer said, adding: “The best thing is to get visitors.”

Wine Institute and state pair in support
Wine Institute announced it has teamed with the state’s nonprofit Visit California group to launch a six-month campaign to support wildfire recovery. It started with a full-page ad in The New York Times on Nov. 12, “welcoming visitors to wineries, restaurants, hotels and resorts.”

For details and upcoming events, see visitcalifornia.com/attraction/californiawinecountrynow.

Currently no comments posted for this article.