Sonoma County wedding events sector faces wildfire risks that could ruin blissful nuptials

The multimillion-dollar sector has experienced tremendous growth over the last few years with brides favoring Wine County destination weddings.|

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.

Top destination

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.

The growth in winery events, however, has sparked a backlash as community activists on Westside Road near Healdsburg and the Sonoma Valley have complained that such weddings and other events have led to a sharp increase in traffic and noise that disrupt their neighborhoods.

Sonoma County supervisors next year are expected to revise rules for winery events such as weddings amid such concerns. In the county, 137 of 439 wineries are permitted to host events, although the average number of events varies, according to a report by the GHD consulting firm. The maximum allowed per-person event ranges from 30 to 500.

“We don’t think weddings have anything to do with agriculture,” said Padi Selwyn, co-chairwoman of Preserve Rural Sonoma County, a local activist group.

Economic benefits

Given the resistance emerging, those operating and earning livelihoods from wedding events have become more vocal about the economic benefits for the county. Milestone conducted a survey of 51 events vendors in which 54% of respondents said they generated more business in 2019 countywide than 2018, and that almost 70% of their revenue came from weddings. The survey was conducted before the Kincade fire that sparked in late October in north county in the Geyserville area.

There is significant room for more weddings at county wineries, Bauer said, since the survey found that most of the nuptials are booked at a few sites.

Indeed, weddings represent a growth area for wineries as wine sales flatten. Each wedding event can bring in about $7,000 in revenue, Bauer said.

There are a few wineries, however, that flourish with many nuptials and other events. For Paradise Ridge Winery, the events business represents almost 50% of its annual revenue. The Fountaingrove winery was hosting up to 70 weddings annually before it burned down in the Tubbs fire, said Rene Byck, co-owner of the winery. The new winery and event space opens later this month and already five weddings are booked for 2020.

“It’s one of the more profitable parts of the business,” Byck said.

The local events sector is trying to put the focus on the ripple economic effects that destination weddings have in the area, specifically adding and retaining jobs. For example, Vanda Floral Design in Petaluma hires about 10 extra people during the county’s wedding season to help with design and transporting floral arrangements, owner Bryce Loutsch said.

“We have a huge spike in extra freelance help,” Loutsch said.

The Vanda floral shop does about 350 weddings a year, with work ranging from a simple bouquet and boutonnieres to elaborate ceremonies with chandeliers and vast floral displays.

The Girl and the Fig restaurant hires many part-time servers for its events business, which represents 30% of its annual revenue, said John Toulze, president of the Sonoma eatery. Its servers can earn from $20 to $50 per hour depending on the event. The work appeals to college students and those such as teachers looking to earn part-time pay.

“In the discussion of our housing challenges, I can’t think of anything more important,” Toulze said. “It’s a significant income for a large population.”

Vendor competition

Competition is increasing in the local events sector given the demand. Even wineries are seeing some challenges, such as the Vintners Inn near Santa Rosa that underwent a $17 million renovation that included adding a spa; and Olympia’s Valley Estate, a farmstead west of Petaluma, that features an old barn that hosts wedding receptions. In addition, some wedding parties have rented large estates and brought in their own out-of-town vendors. Those in the local events sector are not happy about those events, which are growing in number.

The Milestone events survey found that 51% of respondents said competition from vendors for weddings and other activities that come from outside Sonoma County has increased in the last year.

Also, enterprises that depend on wedding parties for a portion of revenue worry that the increasing incidence and severity of wildfires in Sonoma County have given other places such as Santa Barbara County and Paso Robles a chance to gain greater market share and take valuable destination wedding business from this county.

“We could lose this business easily,” said Sondra Bernstein, founder of The Girl and the Fig. “Business is hard enough as it is.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223..

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