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Wine country's next fight is against perception


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The problem with the so-called wine country fires isn't just that the phrase is so awkward for many locals. For businesses in Sonoma County and Napa Valley Wine Country, it's that the next thing that might occur to those outside of the area is, "Oh no—wine country just burned up!"

"I think the perception out there is that Napa Valley was completely destroyed," says Shane Soldinger, general manager at Silver Trident Winery, of the many phone calls, texts and emails the winery received from wine club members and personal contacts across the country. "I think that people are really relieved to find out that the majority of Napa Valley dodged a bullet." Wineries as far away from the fires as Fort Ross-Seaview soon felt it necessary to send reassuring emails telling customers that, yes, the winery is still standing and, yes, the vineyards are fine.

That people feared the worst is no surprise, given media reports like this CBS news spot: A reporter stands amidst smoking ruins off Old Redwood Highway in the path of the Tubbs fire, mentions California's $58 billion wine industry, and says, "And now some of that could go up in smoke." After the video cuts to a flyover of Coffey Park devastation that looks like—well, you know what it looks like—the reporter intones, "Also destroyed, huge expanses of vineyards." Now, to the viewer, "some" looks like "most."

"There is a perception," says Tim Zahner, chief operating officer at Sonoma County Tourism, "and it's a perception not bound in reality—but it's understandable—that Sonoma County wine country is completely burnt and it's completely gone."

That's particularly so among people who don't know the area well and are getting their news from television. Awful as the experience was for everyone here, Zahner notes, locals have processed—or attempted to process—the arc of events from catastrophe toward recovery. "But the people who are just watching it in their living room," says Zahner, "for them, the camera didn't swing the other way." The tourism office is now tasked with reminding out-of-towners that the county is still here, and would be very pleased to have their business. "What also happened is 90 percent of the county did not burn and over 400 wineries are open to the public."

At Silver Trident, Soldinger takes the long view, noting that parts of French wine country have seen some godawful stuff—bubonic plague, trench warfare—yet managed to carry on and bottle another vintage.

"It was real history we just lived through."



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