Northern California Wine-Country Wildfire Impact Study Shows Signs of Hope

While housing was devastated, wineries report that the blazes spared most vineyards and that tourism and sales are recovering in Napa, Sonoma and beyond
Northern California Wine-Country Wildfire Impact Study Shows Signs of Hope
Where the wildfires raged, forest and brush burned, while vineyards largely avoided destruction. (Courtesy of George Rose)
Jan 26, 2018

A study of the impact of last year’s wine-country wildfires by Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute shows that while the blazes were destructive, their long-term effects on the wine industry should not be as bad as feared.

“The most significant impact on the North Coast wine industry was an immediate and temporary slowdown of visitors to the region,” said Honore Comfort, the institute’s wine-business executive in residence. “We also have early indications from the broader economy that our regional recovery will be strong.”

The fires burned across seven counties in Northern California in October, killing 44 people and burning close to 9,000 structures. Rebuilding, particularly in Sonoma County, will take years, and the loss of homes has exacerbated the existing housing shortage. The California Department of Insurance reported in December 2017 that the total of insured losses topped $3 billion. That number is expected to increase.

For recovery to take hold, the region will need its local industries to remain strong. And members of the wine industry report that they don’t expect serious long-term effects. The SSU group surveyed more than 200 vineyard and winery stakeholders in Napa, Sonoma, Solano, Lake and Mendocino counties and found that most of the damage to wineries was isolated and marginal.

According to the findings, 99.8 percent of North Coast vineyard acres—138,937 of 139,204 total acres—were unaffected by the fires. The report also found that only 0.5 percent of the 2017 winegrape crop was lost.

While about 75 winery-owned structures were lost to the flames, 93 percent of wineries—950 of 1,025 surveyed—reported being unaffected in terms of structural damage or long-term impact.

In many areas, vineyards served as firebreaks, which is one reason for the limited damage to both winery structures and vineyards. While some vintners will need to replace posts and irrigation systems, the vines are, for the most part, unharmed.

In terms of tourism, the survey found a drop in October 2017 tasting-room traffic compared with the previous year, but that November’s volume of winery visitors was closer to normal. Sixty-two percent of the wineries reported a drop in tasting-room sales, but three-quarters of respondents said that online sales were equal to or higher than last year’s.

Survey authors found that extensive media coverage of the disaster likely impacted tourism; respondents reported that the number of out-of-state visitors declined significantly following the wildfires.

That forced wineries to make it clear they were open for business. “We made sure we were out in front of the messaging to come back,” said Katie Bundschu, vice president of Sonoma's Gundlach Bundschu, noting that while there was a dip in tourism in October, levels are mostly back to normal. The family nearly lost their 160-year-old winery to the fire, and a house on the property was destroyed, but nothing from a wine-related standpoint was affected.

“Our next big step is following up as the 2017 wines are released and remind people that there’s nothing wrong with the vintage,” added Bundschu.

Many vintners are worried that consumers will believe all the 2017 wines have been compromised by smoke taint or that the fires mean that few wines were made. While it's not yet clear if wines made from grapes that were exposed to smoke have been impacted, the majority of grapes were harvested before the fires and should be just fine. And the harvest was a large one, meaning there will be plenty of wines available.

Bundschu’s remarks were echoed by the study’s authors: Comfort believes that going forward, their team of economists, industry executives and scientists can use their findings to help ensure confidence among consumers, media and trade organizations. “We anticipate that there could be potential misinterpretation of these wines once they’re released, and we want to put a plan in place to effectively communicate and educate,” she said, adding that they plan to include industry talking points and FAQs about the vintage in future press releases.

Comfort also said that the researchers were gratified to have the data to back up what vintners were reporting anecdotally, and that the wildfire damage wasn’t as bad as it may have seemed for the wine industry. She was also pleased to see the quick recovery that most wineries experienced. “We will continue to track these numbers as wineries close out their fiscal years, and plan to release more information in the spring,” she said.

The fire-impact study reported that historical data following natural disasters suggests that local economies often recover with no negative long-term effects. And charitable contributions help: Donors have given millions of dollars so far to support those directly impacted.

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