Napa After the Fires: What's Damaged, What's Not

by  Katie Hammel | Oct 27, 2017
Katie Hammel
Katie Hammel

For nearly two weeks in early October, a series of wildfires—the deadliest in California history— swept through the famed wine regions of Napa and Sonoma. As the smoke clears, the region is still reeling from the devastating loss of life and the destruction of thousands of homes.

During the fires, most businesses in Napa and Sonoma closed and tourists cancelled their trips. Now, as wine country begins to pick up the pieces, many residents worry about a lack of visitors. The area relies heavily on tourism dollars for its economy, and yet many businesses are now expecting to see far fewer than tourists than usual in the coming months.

We spent the last weekend in Napa, surveying the damage and talking to winemakers, hoteliers, and other small business owners to find out how people can help with recovery and what visitors should expect. Here’s what you need to know about what it’s like in Napa Valley after the fires, and why now is the best time to visit.

The air is clear, and nearly all businesses are open.

During the fires, the skies over Napa and Sonoma were filled with smoke and the air quality was poor. Even in San Francisco and across the Bay in Oakland, residents saw and felt the effects of the fire. However, now that the fires are contained, the air is clear and the skies over the vineyards are as blue as they’ve always been.

Most businesses are open as well. Out of nearly 500 wineries in Napa Valley, all but four have reopened. All hotels and restaurants have reopened, hot air balloons are once again soaring over the valley, and the Napa Valley Wine Train is running. All fire-related road closures have been lifted.

In Sonoma, recovery is also progressing. There are still more than two dozen roads closed, many of which are in Santa Rosa, which was extremely hard hit by the fires. However, 90 percernt of businesses in Sonoma have reopened, and more reopen each day. Sonoma County Tourism has a full list of businesses that are open.

Visible damage is minimal, but heartbreaking.

In Napa, the fires were mostly on the forested hillsides away from towns and residential areas, which means the valley floor—where most wineries are located—is as beautiful as ever. The most visible damage can be seen on the east side of the Silverado Trail, where scorched hillsides meet leafy vineyards (vineyards are highly resistant to wildfires). Here, one of the most notable losses was Signorello Estate, which was completely destroyed.

Elsewhere in Napa Valley, there’s little to no evidence of the fires, except for the many signs on homes and businesses thanking the courage of the first responders with messages like, “First Responders are Heroes” and “You Saved Our Town.” That gratitude extends to visitors, too. In my many trips to Napa, We've never been so profusely thanked for coming. The devastation is an unavoidable topic of conversation, and while it’s difficult to hear the stories of loss, the stories of bravery, compassion, and community are uplifting. Despite the horror the community has faced, in every tasting room we visited over the course of a weekend, the mood was one of relief and optimism.

There is no reason to cancel your trip—and now is the perfect time to come.  

Those who are considering a visit in coming months shouldn’t be scared off, and in fact, there’s plenty of reason to book a trip now. Harvest is one of the most popular times to visit, thanks to great weather and the beautiful sight of the vine leaves turning red, yellow, and orange. And with fewer-than-normal visitors after the fires, there’s less competition for restaurant reservations, affordable accommodations, and attention at tasting rooms.

“This is the most beautiful time of the year, when the wineries are bustling with activity, and the weather is still very pleasant,” said Katie Leonardini, owner of Whitehall Lane winery. “The wildfires were devastating to those who lost their homes, but the vast majority of our residences and businesses were spared and we have so much to offer our guests in terms of weather, innovative dining experiences, world-class wines, and top-notch hospitality.”

There are multiple ways to help.

Donating to a relief organization, such the Sonoma County Resilience Fund or the Napa Valley Community Foundation will help those most directly affected by the fires. If you plan to show support by buying Napa and Sonoma wine, buy directly from the winery if you can, as that keeps the majority of the money in the local community. Napa Valley tourism has a list of wineries (and other businesses) that are donating to fire relief.

Through October, many businesses are donating a portion of their sales to fire relief efforts, so visitors can help simply by paying for meals, tasting fees, and hotel stays. Wineries including Whitehall Lane, Peju, Grgich Hills, Markham Vineyards, HALL Wines, Duckhorn, Paraduxx, Salvestrin, and Huge Bear Wines are donating tasting fees through the rest of October. And hotels including Brannan Cottage Inn, Indian Springs Resort, Inn on Randolph, and Napa Valley Lodge are contributing a portion of bookings.

The tasting rooms are open, the wine is flowing, and the charred hillsides will be green again soon. The region will recover, but it needs help to do so. Napa and Sonoma rely on tourism, which supports nearly 35,000 jobs in the two counties, so in the long term, the best thing you can to help is visit.

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