California wildfires threaten wine country tourism lifeblood

By Noel Randewich

NAPA, Calif. (Reuters) – The wildfires burning through Northern California are sending visitors packing, threatening the $2 billion-plus spent annually by tourists on wine tours, fine food, limousine rides and much more, business leaders said.

At the Inn on First bed and breakfast in the famous wine town of Napa, co-owner Jamie Cherry was encouraging callers to postpone rather than cancel visits, as wildfires burned largely unchecked across the region.

“People are cancelling as far as November already,” Cherry said. “It’s going to be devastating in terms of financial loss for everybody.”

The fast-moving fires have killed at least 26 people and left hundreds missing in an area less than an hour’s drive from San Francisco.

With hundreds of wineries, expensive restaurants and bucolic rolling scenery, the wine country of Sonoma and Napa counties is a major draw for visitors. Limousines and buses clog parking lots at weekends as visitors sip Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignons in towns known for their mix of rural and cosmopolitan vibes.

Now, with at least 13 burned wineries, shuttered tasting rooms and thick smoke in the air from nearly two dozen fires that have charred more than 190,000 acres across the state, it is unclear how quickly the region can lure back tourists.

“WE’D GO BACK”

Napa Valley welcomed 3.5 million visitors last year, with overnight guests spending on average $402 per day, according to Visit Napa Valley, the region’s tourism marketing group.

“There is a good amount of infrastructure that has burned down, homes have burned down, wineries have burned. There are restaurants that are not going to open quickly,” said Clay Gregory of Visit Napa Valley.

On Thursday, tasting rooms remained closed and the famous Napa Valley Wine Train, which ferries tourists through the vineyards, said it planned to reopen on Sunday.

Dozens of limousines and tour buses, their polish dulled by a film of ash, sat in a parking lot and warehouse on the outskirts of…

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