CALIFORNIA ALBUM : Napa Left High and Dry by Flood : Tourism in wine country has plummeted after television viewers saw images of flooded vineyards in neighboring Sonoma Valley. But they want everyone to know they are open for business.
Here in the heart of the wine country, the flood of 1995 will long be remembered as the deluge that swept the tourists away.
It was not that the Napa River inundated the region; the river barely overflowed its banks. But when the rest of the nation heard there was flooding in the wine country, tourism in the Napa Valley plummeted.
“The reports of flooding were greatly exaggerated,” said Kim Wolf, manager of Mustards Grill near Yountville. “The only water we got in the restaurant was what we shook off the umbrellas.”
In an effort to lure visitors back, businesses have begun an educational campaign that stresses basic geography: the Russian River, where the most serious flooding occurred, is not in the Napa Valley but in Sonoma Valley about 25 miles to the west.
Setting aside their competitive instincts, owners of bed-and-breakfasts and small inns have banded together to buy radio ads announcing that Napa Valley is open for business.
“Bed-and-breakfast rooms have the shelf life of potato salad,” said Jim Beazley, whose Napa inn is high and dry but has experienced a flood of cancellations. “After that one day, it’s gone. You can never resell that room.”
In some ways, Napa Valley is the victim of its own success. Years of promotional advertising have helped make the name “Napa” synonymous with “wine country"--even though wine is produced in many other parts of the state.
When the floods struck the wine-growing region along the Russian River in Sonoma County, television viewers across the nation saw images of vineyards under water and emergency helicopters landing at a winery to rescue refugees.
As a result, people who had planned to vacation in Napa began canceling their reservations for January, February and March. Some callers questioned whether the floodwaters would recede by June.
“It was like a switch,” said Chuck Foster, head of the Napa Valley Conference and Visitors Bureau. “We love the media. It’s a big part of what made us famous. But it’s tough when they show pictures of flooding in Guerneville and say ‘wine country.’ ”
Inns, restaurants and wineries in Napa County reported a drop in business from 20% to 50% since the flooding began Jan. 8, compared to a year ago.
“We’ve never experienced that volume of cancellations in such a short time,” said Kim Markovich, director of sales at the three-star Vintage Inn in Yountville.
Some Napa business owners complain bitterly about television reports they say failed to make clear that the heavy flood damage was confined to specific areas, primarily along the Russian River.
“We’re not digging out from mud,” said Beazley, who operates the Beazley House with his wife, Carol. “We’re not worried about water in the vineyards. We’re worried about the flood of red ink that is the byproduct of flood coverage.”
During the flood, the Russian River rose 16 feet above flood stage, damaging or destroying nearly 1,500 homes and businesses and dislocating an estimated 3,000 residents in Guerneville and nearby river communities, Sonoma County officials said.
In Napa County, emergency officials said the Napa River overflowed its banks north of Yountville and forced the closure of some roads for as long as two days.
Floodwaters from the Napa River and nearby creeks caused varying amounts of damage to about 135 homes and businesses in low-lying areas. About 500 people were temporarily displaced, they said. Given the scale of the damage, the Federal Emergency Management Agency did not even bother to open a center in Napa County to process claims.
County emergency officials agree that Napa’s tourist industry has suffered from a case of mistaken identity.
“What actually happened is people got parts of Napa mixed up with Sonoma County and the Russian River,” said Napa County emergency services coordinator Jim Volpi. “Most of the damage here was due to flash flooding that lasted anywhere from a few minutes to a couple of hours.”
For a stretch of more than 20 miles along California 29 and the Silverado Trail, dozens of wineries, large and small, offer tours and tasting rooms as a way of promoting goodwill and attracting business.
Ed Farver, president of the Domaine Chandon winery, said his business fell 50% and estimated that it could be summer before crowds are back to normal.
Even so, he said, the floods could benefit the wine industry.
Although floodwaters inundated many vineyards, washing away topsoil in some places and leaving behind debris, there was little harm to the vines, which are dormant this time of year.
And after years of drought, Farver said, the water will replenish the water table and give a boost to the deep-rooted plants during this year’s growing season. After all, he noted, 1986--when the last big floods occurred--was a great year for wine.
“As far as the valley goes overall, I think the vines kind of enjoyed it,” he said.
At the V. Sattui Winery in St. Helena, President Tom Davies had more trouble finding a bright spot. His winery, like other small winemakers, does not distribute its wares anywhere else and depends solely on walk-in traffic. After the reports of flooding, Davies said, sales dropped $50,000 in just nine days, compared to the same period last year, and he was forced to lay off some employees.
“People stopped showing up,” he said. “Our business was cut in half. The real disaster was not the flood but the economic impact from the reporting of the so-called flood.”