Open for business:
Some wineries waiting for power to be restored in order to open for tourists
Napa encourages visitors despite blazes.
On a typical autumn day in Wine Country, shiny limos would be shuttling bachelorette parties through the fresh, verdant countryside, weddings would be underway and international tourists would be sipping wine. Instead, many of those beautiful rolling hills are scorched, black as freshly laid asphalt. The air is thick with a choking haze and a pall of unease.
With no end in sight to the flames, the death toll now standing at 23 and 3,500 structures burned, including several wineries, this tragedy is not only one of lost lives and property. It is a stab in the heart to an area dependent on tourism for its lifeblood.
Despite a suggestion from the region’s visitor bureau, Visit Napa Valley, that tourists make other plans for the time being, some hardy hospitality businesses want people to know they are still up and running.
“We have not been closed at all,” said Alicia Sylvia, behind the bar at the Vintner’s Collective, a multi-winery tasting room on Main Street in downtown Napa. It was one of very few businesses open Wednesday along city streets, as only a handful of people walked the sidewalks, most wearing breathing masks.
“We had people here Monday who were on their honeymoon and hadn’t heard about the fires until they landed at Napa Airport,” she said. “They still wanted to have the Napa experience, and we were able to offer them what they’d taste in the Napa Valley.”
Some tour companies are still fulfilling reservations, though they’ve had numerous cancellations.
“People spend a lot of money when they come to the Wine Country, whether from around the U.S. or locally. They’ve planned months or more in advance,” said Marcus Mitchell, owner of Napa Valley Chauffeur. “Our job is to make sure we give them the best wine experience we can, even in these circumstances.”
Mitchell has contacted his clients to alert them about the smoke and business closures. “We’re buying masks for our clients and letting them know what to expect and finding other places to take them.” He hopes more wineries have power restored and can reopen as the week progresses. “By Thursday or Friday, I wouldn’t be surprised, knowing the valley, that 40 to 50 percent would be back up, powerwise, and able to open.
“These places all need the money, and so do I.”
Beau Wine Tours is “totally functioning, and so are a lot of people,” said Rose Kapsner, director of group sales and events. “But October is our busiest month of the year. We just lost a huge chunk of revenue and so have the wineries, so we can’t lose any time being closed.”
Not everyone is following the same path. Most of the 525 wineries in Napa Valley have been untouched by flame, and many closed early in the week primarily because of power outages and road closures, not fire damage. But as the Wine Country fires show few signs of abating, many vintners are wondering whether it makes sense to reopen to serve mere handfuls of tourists.
As of Wednesday afternoon, a significant number of wineries along Highway 29 remained closed, but a few, like V. Sattui Winery in St. Helena, were open and doing a steady business with people in the tasting room and at the picnic tables.
“We haven’t closed at all,” said the winery’s vice president, John Winkelhaus. “There were people in the valley Monday — tourists who were already here looking for places to go. Our power was out all of Monday, but we were operating on generators.” V. Sattui was one of the few places open where people could get food in its deli. And while they did cancel some tours that day and used “old dinosaur credit card machines,” Winkelhaus said, “we sold some food, sold some wine. And that night, we put on a wedding for 105 people.”
A group of tourists from Charleston, S.C., were sipping wine at the outdoor tables. Their visit planned more than a year ago, they arrived Tuesday, staying at an Airbnb in Napa. “We got a list of places that are open from the Visit Napa website, so we’ve been going to those,” said tourist Sarah Eller. “It’s so terrible what’s happened. But we hope we’re helping the businesses.
“If they’re open,” she added, “we’re gonna support them.”
Despite the thick, smoky air, a group of tourists from South Carolina enjoy wine and snacks at V. Sattui Winery in St. Helena on Wednesday,
Many of the tasting rooms in downtown Napa were closed Wednesday, while a handful remained open for business despite smoky air blanketing the area.
John Winkelhaus says V. Sattui Winery in St. Helena has remained open during the Wine Country fires.