Rising From the Ashes: How Event Pros and Venues Recovered After the California Wildfires

In the wake of the wildfires in Northern California, wine country pros offer their insight into the future of the industry.

By Robyn Hagan Cain January 15, 2018, 7:15 AM EST

V. Sattui Winery

Photo: Courtesy of V. Sattui Winery

The wildfires that raged through Northern California’s wine country in October killed 42 people and burned almost 9,000 structures over a two-week period. The destruction, largely limited to residential properties, is devastating, and it will take years for the region to rebuild.

In addition to wine production, Sonoma and Napa counties rely on visitors to fuel their economy. Event planners, however, are hesitant to book wine tastings and destination weddings following the extensive news coverage of the damage.

To see how businesses in the area area handling the aftermath, BizBash spoke with four industry professionals—Ashley Capra of Paula LeDuc Fine Catering; Marcus Marquez of Brasswood Estate; Georg Salzner of Castello di Amorosa winery; and Lillian Phan, director of weddings and events at the Julia Morgan Ballroom—to get their thoughts on the recovery process and the future of the event industry in the region.

On October 9, Ashley Capra, executive vice president of Paula LeDuc Fine Catering in Emeryville, California, woke to a smell she described as “mesquite grilling.” The smoke wasn’t from a grill; it had traveled south to the Bay Area from the Tubbs fire in Sonoma County. After checking on her staffers in the affected areas, Capra started working with planners to relocate weddings that were booked at venues managed by the catering company.

How did the force majeure provision in your vendor contract impact decisions at Paula LeDuc?
The force majeure clause is really written to favor the venue, but it didn’t pose any issues for us. For the clients that called wanting to get out of the contract because of the fires, we let them. It was the right thing to do.

Now that the smoke has cleared, what message should wine country be sending to the rest of the world?
My big message is that wine country is open for business. The wineries need the business right now. The wedding venues are available. Don’t be afraid. Don’t stay away.

Marcus Marquez, general manager of Brasswood Estate in St. Helena, California, and chair of the board of directors for the St. Helena Chamber of Commerce, also emphasized that Napa is open for business. According to Marquez, fewer than 10 of Napa Valley’s more than 400 wineries had to close due to the fires. The struggle now is attracting visitors to the restaurants and hotels.

Have the fires impacted wine production?
Most of Napa’s wine was already harvested, so we won’t know until it’s released in 2019 or 2020. One of the things about Napa Valley being one of the world’s best growing regions is the grapes speak for themselves. It’s up to the winemakers to ruin the vintage. This is the true test: If there were any flaws from the grapes, this is where they get to use their skills to make great wine.

How do you handle concerns that it’s too soon to be promoting Napa Valley as a tourism and event destination?
It is hard because we’re a global brand; we do get the pushback that it’s too soon, but the people who put this product together are the ones we’re doing it for. This is their livelihood. If Napa Valley burns down, they can’t just start over. When you’re born and raised in wine country, it’s what you do. It’s generational. It goes deeper than a bottle of wine, it starts in the vineyards and the community farms. When we want to spread the message that we’re open, it’s to get the people back to work and the economy going.

Georg Salzner is president of Castello di Amorosa castle and winery in Calistoga, California. Castello di Amorosa is unique because it’s located in the only true castle in Napa Valley and it only sells directly to customers. “We are one of the very few wineries in Napa Valley or the world who have that strategy,” Salzner says. “For us, when there are no visitors coming, it has an even stronger impact.“ According to Salzner, visits are down 50 percent year over year due to the misconception that all of wine country was destroyed.

Were any events at your wineries affected?
Our sister winery V. Sattui actually had a wedding on Monday [October 9]. The fire started on Sunday. They had no electricity. The bride and the groom and everyone were already here. Despite the fires, they held the wedding. They were cooking on gas stoves outside. They brought a generator and had some light strings around it, and they had the whole wedding despite the fire in the surrounding areas. The groom and the bride insisted that they wanted to do the wedding since everyone was there, and they pulled it off. That was quite remarkable.

What is Castello di Amoroso doing to spread the word that you’re still open?
We doubled and tripled our telemarketing because, not only do we want to sell wine over the phone, but we want to call people and tell them that Napa is fine. People want to hear from us. Obviously, we’re a bit scared because we know our colleagues across the hill [in Sonoma County] got damaged badly. We got lucky. Napa Valley is extremely fortunate, but the only way we can help our people on the other side—because a lot of our workers live in those areas—is making sure we can give work to all those people.

While the damage from the fires was confined to wine country, event industry professionals in San Francisco were impacted too. The morning after the fires broke out, Lillian Phan, director of weddings and events at the Julia Morgan Ballroom in San Francisco, received a call from a couple that had lost their venue to the flames in Sonoma and needed a new location for their wedding, which was only five days away. Phan has planned more than 200 weddings and events in her four years at the Julia Morgan Ballroom, but that request put her planning skills to the test.

How did you plan a wedding in five days?
The couple had toured with me originally when they were looking for their venue. When [the fires] happened, the bride had my cell phone number and she actually texted and called me. Just by looking through our availabilities, I was able to finalize her wedding relocation within a day. Fortunately, all of her vendors—the florist, DJ, photographer—were able to attend. The only thing we really needed to accommodate was the rentals—the tables and furniture—and the food and beverage, which we have all on site. Over that weekend and the following weekend, [our team] actually took on four additional weddings and three rehearsal dinners between our three venues.

Your properties serve a lot of Northern California wines. What is your team doing to support recovery?
We are based in the Bay Area and we love that we’re just a drive away from Napa and Sonoma. Our owner, Clint Reilly, has a vineyard on the top of Mount Veeder, which was really scary. Luckily nothing bad happened. We closely support [wine country], and we actually started a YouCaring site that’s giving back to the first responders and families who were affected.

This story appeared in the Winter 2017 digital edition of BizBash.

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