Wine Country leaders say industry largely unscathed by October fires

Wine Country is open for business, and an early look at tourism activity and impacts to vineyards since the destructive October fires show the region’s signature industry may have gotten out mostly unscathed, industry leaders and state lawmakers said Friday.

Of Sonoma County’s nearly 60,000 acres of vineyards, just ?4 percent, or 2,400 acres, were in the fire zones and faced any loss, Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, told lawmakers at a hearing in Healdsburg on Friday. Of that total, only 92 acres were reported to the county’s agricultural commissioner to have experienced any damage or crop loss.

“The good news - if there is good news coming out of the October fires - is that this viable, economic resource and agriculture in our community really did have very little damage,” Kruse told lawmakers gathered at Healdsburg City Hall to discuss the industry’s post-fire recovery.

Napa County’s figures were similar, according to Garrett Buckland, president of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers. Just ?126 vineyard acres burned, he said.

The hearing was convened by Sens. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, and Bill Dodd, D-Napa, and included Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-?Winters. It was meant to review initial data and conduct a six-month check-in on the wine industry, a major economic engine for the fire-scarred region.

“While the grape harvest and much of the wine industry was fortunate to largely escape extensive damage during the fires, there have been numerous repercussions since,” said McGuire. “The long-term impacts are still being realized. There are still many unknowns.”

Tourism activity is one of the main concerns.

Hotels have stayed relatively full since the fires, but much of that has come from displaced families and workers traveling to the area to assist with immediate recovery efforts. Because of that, the usual metric - the occupancy rate - used to help define the strength of visitation is not especially telling.

However, passenger numbers were up 18 percent at Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport in February, compared to the same month last year - a sign that outside perception of the disaster’s wake is not keeping tourists away.

McGuire said figure that was particularly heartening given a 17 percent decrease in passenger numbers at the airport during the month of the fires.

The goal now, said wine and tourism panelists from Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties, is to keep that level of business going.

“We were very concerned that the impacts would be far broader, far more devastating both to vineyards and to wineries than they’ve turned out to be,” said Honore Comfort, executive in residence at Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute. “And while we recognize the devastating effects across our communities, we also saw that it was vital that we share with the world that the fires were much more localized in terms of their impacts on the industry.”

Sonoma County has more than ?425 wineries, and survey data produced by the Wine Business Institute show that 93 percent of the region’s wineries reported being unaffected by the fires. The lone Sonoma County winery destroyed by the fires was Paradise Ridge in Fountaingrove.

The institute’s survey also showed that 99.5 percent of the total grape crop value was successfully harvested in 2017, despite the fires. Many vineyards had completed their pick in the weeks and days ahead of the October firestorm.

Several panelists pointed out that vineyards acted as firebreaks in some cases - a fact backed by Cal Fire - and should be considered in future land-use decisions as a potential buffer against the spread of wildfire.

The physical effects of fire on grapevines are still being assessed, just as further research is being considered for a better understanding of possible impacts of smoke on fermented grapes. Much of the 2017 vintage is currently being bottled, and industry insiders said they are confident Northern California’s quality will again shine through, even if - like the North Bay’s tourism future - it’s not yet fully known.

“We are still waiting to see what the actual results will be in terms of how the vineyards will be able to rejuvenate,” said Comfort. “However, we continue to be increasingly hopeful that those impacts will be less than originally expected.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at ?On Twitter @kfixler.

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