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Travel: After fires, businesses urge visitors to see wine country

After wildfires spread across some of California's most iconic wine regions last month, tourism professionals across northern California are urging visitors to come to the area in an effort to boost a crucial economic engine: its hospitality and tourism industry. (Bob McClenahan/Courtesy of Visit Napa Valley)1 / 3
In the wake of October's devastating Northern California wildfires, Napa Valley's hospitality and tourism industry offers a simple message: We are open for business. (Brandon Bourdages/Dreamstime/TNS)2 / 3
Napa County saw $1.4 billion in tourism spending in 2016, with the industry employing nearly 14,000 people. (Bob McClenahan/Courtesy of Visit Napa Valley)3 / 3

SAN JOSE, Calif. — As the recovery continues from last month's devastating Northern California wildfires, the iconic wine regions are looking to kick-start their important hospitality and tourism industry with a simple message: We are open for business.

The damage to some areas was indeed devastating. In the 22 days from the start of the fires to when they were completely contained, 43 people were killed and thousands of homes and other structures were destroyed. But in this tourism-heavy area, businesses are opening their arms to visitors, saying economic recovery depends on it.

"There is a misperception that everything is gone," said Tim Zahner, chief operating officer of Sonoma County Tourism, but that is not the case. "Sonoma County has more than 1 million acres."

The region has more than 1,200 wineries, and fewer than 10 were heavily damaged, according to a news release from Visit California, the state's tourism and marketing arm. While a slew of businesses across the region were forced to close during the fires — either because of evacuations, power outages or fire damage — most tasting rooms have reopened.

"Now we need to do our part to help the recovery," said Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of Visit California. "If you're already planning a trip, don't cancel — Wine Country residents need your business now more than ever."

Rick Corcoran, general manager of The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, said the hotel lost millions of dollars worth of reservations as the fires struck in mid-October — typically a month that is among the busiest time for the hotel. It first had to evacuate and close the property, then reopened at low rates to house insurance groups and emergency responders. It is now open for the public, but Corcoran fears that the news of the fires is driving away visitors.

"If you looked at news and you were outside of California, you would have perhaps thought Napa and Sonoma were completely devastated, but we wanted to counter that," Corcoran said. Now, he wants to get the word out that the hotel and region are again welcoming visitors.

"We want to put our own people back on their feet. Four of our colleagues lost everything they had," he said. "I feel like I'm responsible for 500 livelihoods."

To draw people back in, the hotel is offering a discounted rate on rooms and spa services, what Corcoran calls its "Sonoma Strong" rates.

"We've made our rates very attractive," Corcoran said. "This would be a great time to come and visit."

Other businesses are trying to send the same message, and many are donating proceeds to relief funds for victims of the fire. Grgich Hills Estate announced on its website that its tasting room is open and the winery will donate 100 percent of its proceeds in the month of November to the Napa Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund.

Iconic Michelin-starred restaurant The French Laundry reopened Oct. 17 after closing for several days during the fires and said via Facebook that it would be donating some proceeds to relief efforts. The restaurant, which is notoriously difficult to book, actually has some reservation slots open for four-person tables in November and December, though it's unclear whether that is because of cancellations or other factors.

"We want people to come and support these causes — most of the tasting room fees are being donated to fire relief," said Angela Jackson, director of media relations for Visit Napa Valley, which is promoting "cabernet season" in the valley, as well as events like the Napa Valley Film Festival. "There really isn't a better time to come. The skies are blue. It still is warm and beautiful."

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