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They planned to visit Napa — but fires have wine tourists heading to Paso instead

Darren and Shawn Selsky from Austin, Texas, have vacationed in Napa/Sonoma for the last 10 years, but when wildfires broke out in the area, their hosts recommended Paso Robes as an alternative. Serving is Melissa Swanson, director of hospitality at Alta Colina. The winery is among those in the Paso Robles area that have seen an upswing in visits as Napa/Sonoma tourism diverts in the wake of devastating fires.
Darren and Shawn Selsky from Austin, Texas, have vacationed in Napa/Sonoma for the last 10 years, but when wildfires broke out in the area, their hosts recommended Paso Robes as an alternative. Serving is Melissa Swanson, director of hospitality at Alta Colina. The winery is among those in the Paso Robles area that have seen an upswing in visits as Napa/Sonoma tourism diverts in the wake of devastating fires. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

For five years, Nancy Parrish and her friends have gathered for a girls’ trip to Napa and Sonoma — a time to travel, catch up and drink wine.

But this fall, devastating fires whipped through Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties, temporarily shutting down much of the booming wine tourism industry in the area.

Suddenly, Parrish and her group found themselves unsure what to do about the trip that they had spent a year planning.

“At first we were like, maybe we should still go? We want to show our support, of course,” said Parrish, who grew up in Santa Barbara and now lives in Washington, D.C. “But we decided it was a great time to give Paso Robles a try.”

Parrish arrived in the North County on Friday, excited about the new possibilities for her trip.

“Paso is a place I wouldn’t have thought to go to,” she said.

Parrish and her friends are some of the many wine tourists now flocking to Paso Robles in the wake of the fires.

Several wineries across the region have reported an influx of visitors in recent weeks. They’re seeing upwards of 20 to 30 percent more visitors to their tasting rooms than normal for this time of year.

At Halter Ranch Vineyard, tasting room manager Tony Quealy said the tasting room has been serving around 115 to 120 visitors each day. That’s compared with about 70 people on a normal weekday, he said.

Many of those visitors are people who had scheduled trips to the Napa Valley instead, he said.

“We had a couple from Philadelphia,” Quealy said. “They flew out here but then had to change their plans. So they came down (to Paso) and fell in love with the area.

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“They had never been here before, but now they are definitely going to be coming back again soon.”

Bob Tillman, winemaker and owner of Alta Colina Vineyard and Winery, said he’s also seen an increase in foot traffic in the past week — especially from groups using limo and wine tour services.

“It’s a mixed bag,” he said. “It’s terrible for everyone up there (in Napa) what is happening; but from that we are seeing a lot of people. We’re running maybe 20 percent above normal right now.”

Beth Burk, operations manager for Paso Robles Vacation Rentals, said the group was sold out of vacation rentals the weekend after the fire. The business manages more than 90 units; Burk estimates that 20 to 25 of those were rented out by people who had planned to be in Napa but rerouted to Paso Robles at the last minute.

Paso Robles Vacation Rentals has also received calls from people hoping to get away from the smoke in the Bay Area, she said.

“It actually really kept the tragedy up there at the front of our minds,” Burk said. “We really feel for those people. It’s terrible what has been happening.”

Christopher Taranto, communications director for the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, said it’s difficult to determine whether an increase in visitors is due to the fire situation in Napa or simply a seasonal increase.

“October typically is a pretty busy month, because it’s during the harvest and people like to visit during that time and see the process,” he said. “Those that are into wine, that’s really attractive to them.”

It’s a mixed bag. It’s terrible for everyone up there (in Napa) what is happening; but from that we are seeing a lot of people.

Bob Tilman, Alta Colina Vineyard and Winery

The Berkeley Fire Department documented their harrowing journey to the scene of the Tubbs Fire, which leveled neighborhoods in Santa Rosa and killed several people. The fire department is asking people to donate to the Sonoma County resilience fun

But Taranto said he’s heard North County wineries are slightly busier than normal.

Adding to the hubbub is Harvest Wine Weekend, one of the wine region’s busiest times of the year. The annual three-day event celebrating harvest season began on Friday; it features more than 100 events such as winemaker dinners, tastings and grape stomps at locations across Paso Robles.

Taranto said some of the events sold out early this year, though he could not say whether it was due to an increase in in the number of tourists.

“Does that happen every year? Well, yeah,” he said. “Is it happening a little faster than usual this year? Possibly.”

The increase in local visitors isn’t only good for Paso Robles. It’s going to help recovery efforts in Napa as well.

Through the end of October, $1 from every bottle sold at participating local wineries will go to the Napa fire relief effort. As of Friday, Taranto said the alliance has more than 90 participating wineries — including both Alta Colina and Halter Ranch.

We’re trying to do something rather than sitting by and just watching what’s happening to our Northern neighbors.

Chris Toronto, Paso Wine Alliance

“We’re trying to do something rather than sitting by and just watching what’s happening to our northern neighbors,” he said. “It’s part of a statewide effort.”

The funds will go to the Napa Valley Community Foundation’s Disaster Relief Fund, the Community Foundation of Sonoma County’s Resilience Fund and the Community Foundation of Mendocino County.

Taranto said a busier-than-normal month will go a long way toward helping the relief effort.

On Friday afternoon, a bit more money made its way to the fund.

Parrish’s group stopped to shop at Niner Estate Wines — one of the wineries that will donate to fire relief — and planned to visit several more local wineries throughout the weekend.

Parrish said she and her friends were “having a great time” exploring Paso Robles and discovering all the region has to offer.

“We have always used #ladiesincarneros,” she said, “but from now on, it’s #ladiesofpaso.”

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928, @kaytyleslie

California wine country has been devastated by wildfires that began to scorch the area on October 8, 2017. At least 41 people have died.

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