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Wildfires and Wine: How Napa Valley Endures, Recovers

California’s Wine Country was in a state of emergency as more than a dozen wildfires burned through large swaths of land in Napa and Sonoma counties. The fires destroyed at least 8,000 homes, caused more than 40 fatalities, and forced residents throughout the area to evacuate.

YPO members Silver Oak Cellars President David Duncan and HALL Wines LLC President Mike Reynolds both remained in Napa Valley while the wildfires burned nearby. The YPO Wine and Hospitality Networks recently sponsored a global conference call with them, giving them the opportunity to share their personal experiences as well as their insights on the impact of the fires on the wineries, tourism, future vintages and more.

“Part of the challenge was trying to help our staff and make sure they were safe and their homes were safe,” says Reynolds. “Simultaneously, we were at the peak of our harvest. We had a lot of grapes to pick, a lot of grapes to process and a lot fermentation to get started. We were in a deficit of information. The internet didn’t work, the power was out in most places, cell phones didn’t work in all places and just the basics that we take for granted were not available to us.”

A thick haze of smoke spread around the region and some of the worst air quality recorded engulfed the Bay Area of Northern California. According to Reynolds, there was less than half a mile visibility, people were wearing masks and it was challenging to work due to the air quality. Another challenge was access. Not only were people kept out of the fire areas but also out of the areas that could potentially burn. As a result, huge portions of the Napa Valley were blocked off. Even though HALL Wines had grapes to pick, their employees weren’t about to get to them right away.

“For a lot of people, coming back to work provided a sense of normalcy in their lives with all this chaos going on,” says Reynolds. “One of the things we did was we gave people jobs when we really didn’t need them because they needed to work, they needed to get a paycheck so they could pay their bills.”

Silver Oak also told its employees take care of what was important first — their families and homes — and paid staff for the week they were unable to work. “Having that experience does change your mindset a bit,” says Duncan. “Every single person that lost their home had the same response: It’s just stuff.”

Reynolds and his wife found out what was important to them when they were forced to pack up everything they could in their cars and evacuate their home in the middle of the night.

“We took photo albums, computers and records of our family,” says Reynolds. “We came very quickly to the reality that if the house burned down it was out of our control. What you’re really worried about is your family, your friends, your dogs, and making sure that everybody is safe. Everything else is not that important.”

Moving forward

The outpouring of support from local residents as well as people from afar has helped the community get back on its feet quickly. Right now the best way to continue to support the area is to buy Napa and Sonoma wines and to come visit the region and vineyards. Hospitality drives the area and there was a substantial decline in tourism in the fall as a result of the fires. This slower season is an ideal time to visit. According to Reynolds, visitors can “get up close and personal with people in the wine country when there’s less competition.”

Napa and Sonoma are very much back in business. And the fires will have very little impact on what a visitor experiences or the wines the vineyards produce.

“We’re not going to put something in the bottle that’s not great. Anything affected by the fire will be quite minimal,” says Duncan. “2017 is shaping up shaping up to be a nice vintage.”

Melissa Fleming has previously worked for Catchafire, Fast Company, Harper’s Bazaar, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Time Out New York Kids, Town & Country and Vogue, among others.