Sonoma County wedding events sector faces wildfire risks that could ruin blissful nuptials
As more brides and grooms across the country have booked area bucolic settings for perfect Wine Country nuptials, Sonoma County’s wedding events business has boomed.
However, the wildfires of 2017 and 2019, plus the attendant evacuations and PG&E power shut-offs, have stoked fears among wedding vendors and venues that the prime September and October marrying season here may not be worth the risks for couples.
Already, fires and related effects have had recent negative consequences: Soda Rock Winery in Healdsburg was a popular wedding venue and was gutted during the recent Kincade fire, forcing couples to look elsewhere.
To make matters worse, county officials intend to revise winery events rules early next year and there are concerns among those who make a living preparing for and hosting weddings that the supervisors might crack down on weddings at wineries like Napa County did almost 30 years ago. That move long ago was the origin of eventually turning Sonoma County into one of the prime destination wedding spots in the United States.
“We’re starting to come back. Business was down at least 50 percent after the (Kincade) fire,” said Brittany Rogers-Hanson, founder of Run Away With Me, a wedding planning company that will oversee 120 local weddings in 2019, many of them small affairs.
While the Sonoma County wedding season typically runs from April through October, the late fall and early winter months are key because that is when brides start to book events for the next year. Those calls to set 2020 weddings dramatically slowed when images of the Kincade fire burning in the county appeared online and in national media coverage, most notably the viral photo of a newlywed couple in a vineyard at Kenwood’s Chateau St. Jean Winery wearing face masks to protect against possible poor air quality.
“I am concerned,” Rogers-Hanson said. “Weddings bring tourism here.”
There is no official estimate of how much destination weddings contribute to Sonoma County’s annual $2.2 billion tourism sector. But they are a significant financial contributor, as Rogers-Hanson said the weddings that she coordinates can range from $50,000 to $100,000 for the ceremony. That figure also includes the reception but not related hotel stays, rehearsal dinners, post-wedding brunches, wine tastings and other activities.
Another local wedding planner, Milestone Events Group of Santa Rosa, said couples spend $300 per wedding guest on average for nuptials and receptions in the area.
“And that’s just for five hours,” said Marshall Bauer, president of Milestone, which plans about 200 weddings annually. He estimates weddings add about $200 million yearly to the county economy.
While the wedding planners are the center of the activities, these celebratory marriage events have given rise to a wedding industrial complex of caterers, florists, photographers, DJs and other vendors who also have seen their businesses grow accordingly. They include a sole photographer that is able to work full time shooting wedding pictures at the famed Sonoma restaurant Girl and the Fig, whose weddings business represents more than half of its overall annual catering revenue.
“Over the last three years, it has really grown exponentially,” said Gina Petersen, a Petaluma photographer who has photographed weddings for about a decade. She will shoot 37 weddings this year, including some that are “doubleheaders” of Saturday and Sunday nuptials and a “tripleheader” over Labor Day weekend.
“If I do one tripleheader during a weekend, it kills me for days,” said Peterson, who charges between $4,800 to $5,800 for her wedding photography.
Certain U.S. locales through the years have been marketed as top spots for destination weddings, such as Niagara Falls in New York and Las Vegas. With the rise of wine tourism trade, it was inevitable that Sonoma County also would benefit, with its scenic vistas and well-regarded cuisine and become a popular place to get married. The county’s events sector received a boost back in 1990 when Napa County placed restrictions on the types of activities that could occur at wineries, prohibiting all nonagricultural-related activities.
A few Napa wineries that had been hosting weddings prior to the new rules were allowed to continue, but now there are very few properties in the unincorporated area that have a right to hold weddings outside churches, said David Morrison, the planning director for Napa County.
Many brides-to-be initially ask about Napa County for their weddings, Rogers-Hanson said. She explains the restrictions in Napa County and then notes that Sonoma County has many options along with its scenery of rolling hills similar to Tuscany. Soon they and their grooms and families become intrigued.