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Fires give wineries, hotels another challenge as summer winds down

Wineries, hospitality industry officials are still banking on regional visitors for fall grape harvest season.|

In recent years, when wildfire smoke choked the air in Sonoma County, Clay Mauritson, co-owner of Mauritson Wines in the Dry Creek Valley, would close the winery’s outdoor patio and only host visitors inside the tasting room.

This time around, however, coronavirus restrictions on indoor dining and drinking have taken that option off the table. So after the Walbridge fire erupted in the hills near Healdsburg two weeks ago, Mauritson decided to close the winery to the public until Sept. 2.

That’s meant canceled wine tasting reservations and lost revenue for the family-owned operation as it recovers from a nearly three-month, pandemic-induced shutdown that was lifted in late May.

“We’re going to roll with the punches,” Mauritson said. “That’s what the theme of this year has been.”

The Walbridge fire has dealt another blow to the local tourism sector, showing signs of life yet reeling from the pandemic. Even so, those in the industry remain cautiously optimistic that as firefighters gain the upper hand on the blaze, visitors will return to the area in time for Labor Day weekend and the fall grape harvest season.

“While (wildfires) can seem to be super impactful in creating angst and uncertainty among us locally, people are getting very used to this scenario everywhere,” Sonoma County Tourism President Claudia Vecchio said.

Recent visitors to Sonoma County have tended to be from nearby in the Bay Area, Vecchio said, and they have grown accustomed to California’s increasingly active fire seasons.

Michael Haney, executive director of the trade group Sonoma County Vintners, said it’s important for local wineries to communicate to visitors that Walbridge fire’s direct hit on vineyards was limited. He said only three of Sonoma County’s 17 grape-growing regions were touched by flames.

They include the Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast regions.

“The messaging for tourists is that we’re not all burned down,” Haney said. “You can come out, and it’s still OK.”

Still, fire officials warned although the blazes in North Bay counties may no longer be growing at a fast pace, they could continue burning in hard-to-access woodland sections, potentially causing smoke that will keep fouling local air quality.

While the fires have largely interrupted tourist travel in the county the past two weeks, many area hotels have stayed busy hosting evacuees and firefighters sent here from outside the region.

“Right now, the important part is people are staying away so that we can take care of our own community,” said Amanda Frank, regional director of sales for Evolution Hospitality. The company manages six hotels in Napa and Sonoma counties, including the recently opened AC Marriott near downtown Santa Rosa.

Frank said since Sonoma County hotels were allowed to reopen for business and leisure travel, a growing number of Northern California residents had been booking weekend trips and shorter excursions that don’t require the risk of boarding a flight.

In July, hotel occupancy in the county broke 50% for the first time since the start of the pandemic, according to data from Sonoma County Tourism. The occupancy level, however, doesn’t account for hotels that have yet to reopen as public health restrictions loosened.

Frank expects tourist reservations to pick back up by fall, even if visitors decide to wait a bit longer to make sure the fires are under control.

“Would that have a year-over-year impact on revenue? Absolutely,” Frank said. “But this year, I think that we would just take it in stride. … We’ll be here when people are ready, whether that’s Labor Day or Thanksgiving.”

Along the Sonoma Coast and lower Russian River, local residents have complained of overtourism in recent months as people flock to local beaches and vacation homes. Mandatory evacuation orders for communities around Guerneville and Jenner because of Walbridge and Meyers fires had put a stop to most visitors. But farther north near the Sea Ranch, the vacation rental industry has continued to boom.

“(The fires) actually increased the activity,” said Cathleen Crosby, owner of Coasting Home, which manages vacation rentals on the Sonoma and Mendocino county coasts. “We’re essentially sold out well through September.”

Crosby said many of those booked are looking to escape the smoke from wildfires still burning in Northern California. Some are reserving extended stays now that they can work remotely during the pandemic.

“We’ve been really busy because people are dying to get away, and people are mobile now,” she said.

Mauritson, the winery owner, expects guests will return once tastings resume this week, although at about half the number compared with what he can expect during a normal late summer season without a deadly pandemic.

Going forward, he said the main challenge will be following state-mandated coronavirus public health and sanitation protocols for safe wine tastings. Those in the local tourism industry agreed that ensuring visitors feel safe will be a prolonged effort.

“The much bigger concern from a hospitality standpoint really is COVID,” Mauritson said.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

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