Wine Country’s Amazing ResiliencyNov 04, 2020 01:38PM ● By Fran Miller
By Fran Endicott Miller
2020 has been a difficult year for all, and it is no secret that Northern California wine country has weathered its own unique challenges. Wildfires, the ups and downs of restaurant and hotel closures and re-openings, and COVID have taken a toll on the region’s hospitality sector. But Sonoma County and Napa County are displaying characteristic resilience and each is welcoming back visitors in the relaxed and unhurried manner that fans have long enjoyed, with ‘safety first’ as a new mantra.
Both regions are open to visitors and communal spirit is stronger than ever. September’s destructive Glass Fire is 100 % contained and most of Napa County’s 45,000 acres of vine were not impacted. Sonoma Valley was relatively untouched by the recent fires; the majority of the damage was up in the mountains and the back-country areas. But COVID of course has continued to present challenges to both regions.
“The Napa County tourism industry, like almost all parts of the world, has been significantly impacted by the health and safety measures required to combat COVID-19,” says Linsey Gallagher, President & CEO of Visit Napa Valley. “Our hotels took that responsibility seriously, with most closing completely from mid-March until non-essential travel was permitted again in June. In response to Visit Napa Valley marketing efforts and pent-up regional demand, we have seen moderate and responsible hotel occupancy growth since June, averaging just over 50 percent in August and September, compared to the usual 80 percent occupancy rate in the summer months, according to Smith Travel Research (STR). During this time hotels continued to reopen and room rate also recovered.”
"Sonoma Valley has been mindful of the reality of COVID since the beginning and we have adapted through expanded outdoor dining and tasting options, physical distancing, mask wearing and enhanced cleaning,” says Tim Zahner, Executive Director of the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau. Effective June 12, most wineries, tasting rooms, distilleries and breweries reopened. “Businesses are using the ‘Sonoma Valley Safe’ logo to show they are adhering to the most rigorous standards required of them.”
Of course, the best way to support each community is to visit. And the timing couldn’t be better. As harvest comes to a close, travelers are welcomed with the start of Cabernet Season – the best time to visit for those in the know. From November through April, summer heat in both regions is replaced with perfectly mild temperatures - think warm days, cool nights, and blue skies. The pace slows down and foliage is at eye level as the vines become dormant. Brilliant yellow wild mustard flowers are scattered through the vineyards and along country lanes. During this time of year, visitors can more easily nab reservations at popular restaurants. Greater access to wineries is another bonus with more opportunities to meet winemakers and receive impromptu glimpses behind the scenes.
Sonoma Valley’s natural beauty is enough to entice anyone to visit, but the region’s recreation activities provide additional incentive. The state and regional parks offer tons of great hiking possibilities, and trails and back roads welcome cyclists. Consider a visit to Safari West to get up close to animals like giraffes and lions; wander the paths of Quarryhill Botanical Garden or Cornerstone’s Sunset Gardens for some sensory stimulation. The area’s wineries and restaurants offer plenty of open-air experiences.
Go the urban route in Napa, with a tour of Downtown’s First Street Napa, a growing hub for shopping, dining, and tasting. Known for its locally owned boutiques and independent restaurants and wineries, the district has recently welcomed a surge of new shops like C’est La Paire for chic boots and handbags, The Bennington Napa Valley for vintage finds, and Copperfield’s Books. The first standalone tasting room dedicated solely to luxury California brandies, California Brandy House opens on First Street on November 6, 2020 for outdoor tastings. For those looking for something on the fizzier side, Napa’s first and only dedicated Champagne & sparkling wine lounge, Be Bubbly, has just opened its doors. Over in Napa’s Oxbow Public Market (a 40,000-square-foot marketplace with an expansive outdoor deck along the Napa River), Bar Lucia opened this summer from the owner behind Kara’s Cupcakes.
A brand-new Napa Valley Welcome Center opens on November 12 as a resource for itinerary-planning. New technology will provide visitors insider tips in a no-touch manner, and an outdoor 16-foot video wall will offer a taste of Napa Valley travel inspiration to pedestrians along First Street.
For those interested in both wine and privacy, Charles Krug, the oldest wine estate in Napa, opened five new private WIFI-enabled outdoor tasting cabanas on the winery's picnic grounds and Trefethen is now offering a nightly after-hours experience permitting only one booking per evening - meaning guests have the whole estate to themselves. And Yountville's Baldacci Family Vineyards will open a new hospitality center in March 2021, featuring new private tasting rooms, a wine bar, and an outdoor patio overlooking wine country vistas.
While a wine country visit might be just a bit different these days, much remains the same in the bucolic region, where hope springs eternal. “By the time the winter rains arrive and the hills again turn emerald green, it will only be a matter of time before we see the wildflowers on the hills and yellow mustard cover crops in the vineyards," says Zahner.