Smartly dressed customers at the elegant Charleston Grill toast with Domaine Carneros by Taittinger Rosé, Schramsberg J. Schram Brut, and Mazzocco Cabernet Sauvignon Dry Creek Valley. The guests are there to enjoy California wines, yes, but there’s a much more important reason why there are 40 of the state’s wines on a by-the-glass list at the Charleston Grill in Charleston, South Carolina, this particular night: to raise money in support of wine-country disaster relief.
The inferno that swept through California’s wine country in October left at least 43 dead, 5,700 homes and buildings destroyed, and thousands of acres burned. But while there was some concern that there might be lasting damage among vintners in the area, a white paper written by James T. Lapsley and Daniel A. Sumner of the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology stated that there was little destruction to last year’s wine grape harvest.
“Right now we don’t see any significant variation in terms of supply to a restaurant wine list,” says Cate Conniff, communications manager of the Napa Valley Vintners trade association.
Of course, hospitality professionals aren’t as concerned about potential changes to their wine lists as they are supporting California’s wine industry through fundraising and awareness.
“Our immediate concern is the needs of those in the wine industry—the farmers, the pickers, the people who work in the hospitality centers, the waiters who lost their wages, the workers who lost their houses,” says Charleston Grill general manager Mickey Bakst, who masterminded the idea of creating the “Let’s Raise the Glass” fundraiser. Bakst is campaigning for restaurants nationwide to join in the effort.
Barry Himel, director of wine and spirits for the Dickie Brennan & Company restaurant group in New Orleans, says that no matter what kind of availability issues might arise after the fires, increasing prices on California wines isn’t an option.
“If anything, we want to promote California wineries,” he says. “The best way to help them is to sell their wonderful products. Inflation and lean availability are common issues we buyers deal with daily. I believe the Sonoma and Napa regions will come back stronger than ever.”
An estimated 90 percent of the grapes were picked and in tank before the fires started. Wine that was already bottled had been shipped to warehouses in other areas. Most of the remaining grapes were cabernet sauvignon, which are thicker-skinned and more resistant to smoke taint. Lab tests were being conducted to determine if smoke taint on those grapes will be a problem.
“People are picking and testing and crushing and testing again,” Conniff says. “Napa Valley is a brand of quality winemaking, and no one wants any short-term gain to harm that reputation.”
Though the Napa Valley wine country is the postcard image for the state, most California wine comes from the Central Valley. Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino combined account for only about 12 percent of California wine grape production (Napa alone for only 4 percent), although many of the state’s premier wines are in those regions.
There are approximately 1,900 wineries in these counties. Of those, about a dozen are believed to have been destroyed or severely damaged. Some others sustained damage but were still able to receive visitors and make wine.
Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, a beverage distributor, is one company down the wine supply chain that’s chipping in to help. It kicked off a GoFundMe campaign to benefit the Napa Valley Community Foundation Disaster Relief Fund and the Sonoma County Community Foundation Resilience Fund. These funds will be distributing grants to organizations providing crucial services for those impacted by the devastating fires in California, including medical care, temporary shelter, meals, and counseling.
Winemaking in the Napa Valley region employs 325,000 people—40 percent of the workforce in Napa County alone. Wine tourism attracts more than 23 million visitors annually, which exceeds the number who visit the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Florida. Wine tourism generates billions of dollars for the wineries, hotels, restaurants, and other services in the area. At least 60 tasting rooms were closed while the fires burned during what is normally one of the busiest tourist seasons.
“If you were generating $10,000 a day out of your tasting room and you were closed for 20 days, that was one-quarter-of-a-million dollars lost even if you didn’t lose any inventory,” says Dan Hoffman, corporate director of food and beverage programs for Marriott International. The tasting rooms raced to reopen as soon as possible. The trick now is to encourage visitors to keep going to wine country and to keep buying wine, eating in restaurants, and staying in hotels.
Some of the major wineries have donated substantial sums to help the cause. “Gallo has donated over $1 million. Many are donating $50,000–$100,000,” Hoffman says. Many, such as Krug, Hall, and Beaulieu, are donating substantial percentages if not all the proceeds from their sales to relief efforts. Vintner Jean-Charles Boisset and his team at Raymond in Napa Valley were to release Honoris, a 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon priced at $75, and all the proceeds will be donated to Napa and Sonoma relief efforts.
Numerous restaurants in California, including Atelier Crenn, Mourad, and Slanted Door—and even restaurants on the East Coast, like the Charleston Grill—have organized benefits. A group of leading San Francisco chefs, including such luminaries as Traci des Jardins and Stuart Brioza, joined forces to create SF Fights Fire to provide thousands of meals a day to fire victims. Bon Appétit Management Group’s teams were on the front lines dishing food.
It is hoped these efforts will help those displaced by the fires, as well as help smaller damaged wineries to rebuild. If it turns out that some vines were killed, those vineyards will have to be replanted, and it can take five to seven years for them to mature.
It remains to be seen how the market might react to conditions such as these. For now, though, industry professionals are raising their glasses to peers in California in hopes that the region might quickly recover.