Why We Need to Keep Talking About Wine Country

The majority of the people and places affected by October’s wildfires are agricultural workers and family-owned wineries. Locals are banding together to help the victims—and you can help, too.

Why We Need to Keep Talking About Wine Country

Photo by Emma K. Morris

The fires that swept through California wine country in early October are out. Tasting rooms are open, the wine is flowing, and hotels and restaurants are accepting reservations. In other words: Wine country is open for business. And there’s never been a better time to visit, buy wine, or attend events that will support the fire relief efforts.

It’s still early days, but according to the preliminary data, nearly 9,000 structures were destroyed throughout the region, with the majority of the impact in Sonoma County, where at least 6,000 structures were destroyed, many of them homes belonging to lower-income families.

“Some people think, Oh, it’s wine country, they’re super-rich people, they’ll be fine,” said Chris Strieter of Rebuild Wine Country. “But the people who lost their homes are primarily agricultural workers.”

Wine country, however, is a tight-knit community and everyone is jumping in to help, from small, family-run wineries to organizations such as Rebuild Wine Country, which partnered with Habitat for Humanity and aims to raise at least $5 million to help low-income families repair or rebuild their homes.

Rebuilding will take time. Organizations such as Habitat and FEMA are looking into providing temporary housing solutions (such as tiny homes) for the nearly 20,000 people who are still displaced. Strieter estimates that it will take until the end of the year for the HAZMAT cleaning and another couple of months for cities and counties to issue permits for new structures.

“Everyone wants to have everything cleaned up by the end of this year and then start rebuilding in early 2018,” Strieter said. Rebuild Wine Country’s goal is to repair at least 70 homes and rebuild at least 100, although, according to Strieter, “There are so many homes that need to be rebuilt, it’s literally the sky’s the limit. It’s just a matter of dollars and mobilizing.”

Smaller family wineries are also facing setbacks. Donelan Family Wines essentially lost its prized Obsidian vineyard, which sustained enough fire damage that it will likely need to be scraped and replanted.

“[That vineyard] will be out for anywhere from three to five years,” said Cushing Donelan, who handles sales and marketing for the family business. “It’s a huge bummer, you know? But we still have plenty of wine to sell, and we’re out here under sunny skies, so we can still host people and tell them how great wine country is.”

The winery is among the dozens throughout Napa and Sonoma that are donating a portion of all proceeds to the relief efforts. Others include Cliff Lede, which donated 5 percent of all proceeds to the Napa Valley Family Foundation in the month following the fires, and Bryter, which will donate 10 percent of all online sales to relief efforts through the end of November.

Ultimately, say those in the industry, the best way to support wine country—and the tens of thousands of people who work and live there, is by visiting.

“The area is open for business and people are so happy to host,” Strieter said. “All of wine county is very strong and resilient. We’re moving forward and we’re not looking back.”

Here are a handful of other ways you can contribute.

If you want to join an event

Buy a ticket to The Grateful Table Benefit, hosted by Visit California in partnership with Outstanding in the Field. On Tuesday, November 21, Food Network chef Tyler Florence will serve 1,000 people a Thanksgiving meal at a winery on the Napa-Sonoma county line. All proceeds will be donated to relief efforts.

Participate in Chefsgiving week, November 13-19, during which more than 100 Bay Area restaurants will offer special menus or menu items to raise funds, or join the Chefsgiving gala—a live auction and food and wine event—in San Francisco on November 19. The Chefsgiving organization aims to raise at least $1 million.

If you want to donate cash, goods, or time

Visit Rebuild Wine County, which is working in partnership with Habitat for Humanity to repair and rebuild homes. The volunteer-run organization ensures that every dollar or item that’s donated goes to those in need. Currently, the organization is accepting cash or in-kind items (household goods, furniture), but it will post volunteer opportunities on its site in the months to come.

If you want to visit or buy wine

Lyft partnered with the winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley, a wine region in Sonoma County, to offer discounts to travelers. “Now through the end of December, new and existing customers can use the code LYFT2DCV to get $10 off their first five rides to and around the Sonoma County wine region of Dry Creek Valley,” said the company in a press release.

Through December 15, the Stag’s Leap District is donating $100 from each 2014 Appellation Collection sold (a 17-bottle gift set that includes one special bottle of cabernet sauvignon from every member winery in the district) to the Napa Valley Community Foundation.

Here’s a list of many more wineries making contributions to local relief efforts.

Aislyn Greene is the associate director of podacsts at Afar, where she produces the Unpacked by Afar podcast and hosts Afar’s Travel Tales podcast. She lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.
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