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.
Read all of the PD's fire coverage here