A little more than a week after flames from a deadly firestorm leveled his parents’ home and crept dangerously close to overcoming the family’s Sonoma Valley winery, Jeff Bundschu occupied a sound board at Gundlach Bundschu last weekend spinning tunes for a large crowd of visitors lounging on its sun-splashed patio.
Scorched earth at the edge of the outdoor venue leading up the mountainside for as far as the eye could see was a visual reminder of how perilously close the Bundschu family came to losing the winery, which has carried their name since 1858. But the focus this afternoon was on having fun and finding solace among friends.
Bundschu and other members of the family hosted the two-day gathering to raise money for fire relief efforts. Organizers had another goal: to show the world that Wine Country is, by and large, operating normally, and that the region still should be high on the list of getaway plans.
“It’s not necessarily rebuilding, but showing people we are open for business,” said Katie Bundschu, a sixth-generation owner of the winery. “We’re ready to host people.”
Getting that message across could prove crucial to how Sonoma County’s tourism and wine industries rebound from the disaster.
Short-term economic impacts are to be expected in the wake of the fires, which leveled entire neighborhoods, caused widespread power outages and forced numerous road closures, including main highways into the area. Two hotels in Sana Rosa were destroyed. Poor air quality resulting from smoke was another reason to stay away.
‘Permission to travel’
The challenge now is convincing people who are thinking of visiting Wine Country that it still retains its charm despite what they may have seen or read about. Some may stay away over the perceived guilt of enjoying themselves in a place where so many appear to be suffering.
“Permission to travel” is an industry term used to describe the challenges that lie ahead, said Tim Zahner, acting executive director of Sonoma County Tourism. He and other tourism and marketing executives have begun crafting a message and laying out a plan to encourage visitors to return.
Getting there will require some finesse, as the task requires balancing promotion and positivity with acknowledgment of need and pain. Zahner and others point out that many who work in Sonoma County’s tourism and wine industries were themselves victims of the firestorm, if not directly by losing homes then through the lingering fallout of lost jobs or wages.
“It’s their livelihood,” Zahner said.
In that context, visitors may feel good about coming here and spending money on everything Wine Country still has to offer, such as good food and wine, a canoe trip on the Russian River or a luxurious day at a spa.
Some 20,000 jobs at stake
Prior to the wildfires, the local tourism industry was booming, establishing new records last year for hotel occupancy and daily room rates, which averaged $166 a night in 2016. Total travel-related spending in the county rose to $1.9 billion, an increase of 5.7 percent over 2015, and the industry supported more than 20,000 jobs, according to the tourism bureau.
From stunning ocean bluffs and mountain vistas, to redwood forests and renowned wineries, Sonoma County’s world-class visitor experience is still largely intact.
Zahner cited recent hurricanes in Houston and Florida as examples of communities recovering from natural disaster. Closer to home, Napa County’s economy appeared to come through the 2014 South Napa Earthquake in relative fine fashion, although the scope of that disaster pales in comparison to the wildfires, which to date have killed at least 23 people in Sonoma County and caused more than $3 billion in damages.
Sonoma County’s recovery will be on a different magnitude of scale.
Chefs await diners
Glen Ellen, which draws visitors to its charming restaurants and shops, and to a state park bearing the late author Jack London’s name, was shut down for nearly two weeks while fires raged in the Sonoma Valley. It reopened for business Saturday afternoon when officials lifted barricades on Arnold Drive, the village’s main thoroughfare.
Inside the cozy Glen Ellen Star restaurant, owner Ari Weiswasser and Executive Sous Chef Jevon Martin sat at a table in the glow of an overhead light going over a list of produce comprising the fall menu. Only the sound of a refrigerator’s hum and occasional phone call from a farmer disturbed the men’s silence.
Weiswasser estimated he’s lost more than $100,000 as a result of fires forcing closure of his restaurant. It reopened Monday, welcome news for gourmands as well as for the staff of 26.
“We are looking forward to coming back, but it might be a long winter for some people,” Weiswasser said.
At least the local tourism and wine industries can count on a fair amount of goodwill to help fill hotels, restaurants and wineries.
Lisa Baker of Mill Valley and her two sisters, both from outside California, took it upon themselves to stimulate Sonoma’s local economy by driving to the city’s historic Plaza Saturday for a picnic. The trio noshed on cheese while sipping wine from a bottle they purchased at a Plaza winery.
“They need the money,” said Baker, an assistant human resources director for Marin County.
Weddings, limos canceled
At Gundlach Bundschu, Jennifer Oliver of Camarillo, who lives outside Los Angeles, said she was convinced to not cancel a visit to Sonoma this weekend after she received a text from her close friend and former college roommate — winemaker Sara Roach.
“Come,” the text read. “Sonoma needs you.”
On Saturday, the pair stood next to one another at the tasting room bar, both to enjoy wines and in Roach’s case, to show solidarity for a fellow winery family.
“It’s cathartic to talk about your experiences and come together as a community,” Roach said.
Still, Oliver said the fires forced her family to cancel a planned birthday celebration for her brother at the upscale Meadowood Resort in Napa County. The event’s cancellation — it was scheduled to draw 50 people — points to some of the immediate economic fallout from the fires.
A limousine driver from Windsor who was parked at the Plaza and who asked not to be identified said he lost about $1,800 in pay due to cancellations the past two weeks, forcing him to dip into savings to cover his mortgage and other living expenses for his family, including two sons. He said the company that employs him lost about 75 percent of its business due to cancellations.
Unsold cheeses discarded
Across the street, the Sonoma Cheese Factory was not nearly as bustling as it otherwise would be on a weekend afternoon in October. The business was without power for five days, forcing employees to toss perishables in the trash.
“It’d be a line out the door to get sandwiches, and buses and buses coming in. But it’s our second day open, and we’ve had a good turnout,” manager Claudette Muchmore said Saturday.
Along Highway 12 through Kenwood, a number of iconic wineries remained closed to the public last weekend, including Kunde Estates, Chateau St. Jean and Ledson. Armed National Guard personnel stood sentry at several streets to prevent members of the public from going into areas where recovery work is ongoing.
Ledson reopened Monday, urging guests to return.
“Now in recovery mode, many have asked what they can do to help. The best thing you can do is continue to support Sonoma County by supporting businesses, drinking great wines and visiting the Sonoma wine country,” Ledson wrote in a Facebook post.
The tasting room at St. Anne’s Crossing, which has views of fire-scarred Sugarloaf Ridge State Park across Highway 12, was one of the exceptions, drawing a lively crowd Saturday afternoon. They included Michael and Lisa Gallegioni, who drove from Corte Madera to pick up wine club shipments. The journey took them past destroyed homes and hillsides blackened by flames.
“When you start to see standing chimneys, it’s eerie,” Michael Gallegioni said.
The fire destroyed Paradise Ridge winery in Santa Rosa and damaged the property of 13 vintners in the hardest hit area of Sonoma Valley, a fraction of the county’s 600 wineries, tasting rooms and custom crush facilities, said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Wine Growers.
The grapes escaped
Only about 1 percent of the county’s vineyards — or about 600 acres — had grapes still hanging on the vine during the wildfires, she said.
“It was too late in the season for any of the grapes to actually get any smoke taint issue,” Kruse said. “Had these fires happened in July and August, when the grapes were just starting to ripen and going through veraison, you’d have much more impact from smoke.”
She struck an optimistic note that the 2017 vintage will be a good one.
“The 2017 vintage, for the most part, was in, processed and barreled,” Kruse said. “It’s going to be great. We’re going to have wine to sell and you should expect the same quality of wine you expect out of Sonoma County.”
Dave Homewood, owner of the Sonoma Valley winery bearing his name, said he’s still short about five tons of Roussanne grapes hanging on vines in Lovell Valley, where access has been limited. At Gundlach Bundschu on Saturday, Homewood acknowledged the unknown long-term impacts on the industry he devotes his life to.
“It depends on how long until people feel it’s safe to come here,” Homewood said. “A lot of places are open. We’d be happy to host them.”