Wine Country Wildfire Aftermath — Planning for the Next Crisis

The true cost of the wildfires that ravaged Napa and Sonoma wine country last fall was in human lives and lost homes, but for the hundreds of wineries in these counties, questions remain. Did the wineries and the industry handle the crisis well? What could they have done better? What do they need to do in the future?

These were questions posed by Alf Nucifora, chairman of the Luxury Marketing Council of San Francisco to me and my fellow panelists at the council’s 2018 Winery Boot Camp on Feb. 28 at Lincoln Theater, Yountville, Calif. The answer from panelists to the 300 winery representatives in attendance was clear — prepare for the unthinkable. Specifically, every winery, big and small, needs a crisis management plan.

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photo by Art & Clarity

Joining me on stage were Jen Locke, SVP-Direct to Consumer of Treasury Wine Estates, Leigh Oshirak, consultant and former SVP Brand Marketing, PR, Social Media, Williams-Sonoma, Inc., Lisa Poppen, VP, Marketing & Communications, Visit Napa Valley, and Eric Savitz, partner, Brunswick Group.

Together we spelled out what these plans should look like: evaluating and planning for all risks (beyond wildfires), breaking down contact information with phone trees and back-up contacts, utilizing internal and external resources — from county emergency responders to insurance companies and public relations experts — and spelling out roles and responsibilities clearly. Even the smallest winery can and should have a plan, and those plans should be shared with everyone who needs to have them, practiced and updated each year.

Beyond crisis planning, the discussion turned to why the industry, which is represented by several tourism and winery trade associations, needs to respond quickly in these circumstances with a unified voice. While the industry lost significant revenues in the first months of the fires, occupancy numbers have recovered. Visit Napa Valley and others have pounded the message — “We are open for business.”

But it will take some months to fully know what the long-term impact will be. Reports indicate most vineyards survived unscathed. Out of nearly 500 wineries in Napa Valley, fewer than a dozen were destroyed or saw significant damage. However, the truth is we don’t know how consumer behavior will be affected by the images spread through media and social media during the height of the fires.

The crucial months for Northern California wineries are before them now, and I urged those in attendance to communicate with their audiences, using video and other media, to show them exactly what their wineries look like and answer questions on their guest’s minds before they’re asked. The wineries should also be reaching out to the media now and using social media to spread their word.

The strong reputations built by Napa and Sonoma wineries over many years should be strong allies as they approach this season. Those reputations should be paramount as they face any short-term obstacles, however painful they may be. If the wineries communicate effectively, stay open and honest about any impact on their vines or grapes, and pull together as an industry, their reputation will carry them.

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