Wine Business Institute launches wildfire impact study

If Sonoma County is known for anything, it’s wine. So it’s no surprise that many are wondering what impact the recent wildfires had on the North Coast wine industry. To address that exact question, the Wine Business Institute at Sonoma State University is doing a wildfire impact assessment study, one that started just three days after the fires broke out. 

Organizers of the study say they hope it will shed light on the immediate and long-term effects of the recent wildfires and provide data they will use for the next stages of recovery and revitalization. 

“The assessment will become the basis for developing plans for immediate and long-term recovery,” said William Silver, dean of the School of Business and Economics. “Our business owners, policy makers and community leaders need accurate information on the effects of the fires, best practices for rapid recovery and strategies to prevent future losses.” 

Silver said the goals include specifying the damages to the wine industry and translating that information to percentage terms to the region affected by fires. 

The study also will look at developing tools for reviving the local tourism industry, which has taken a hit with the fire. Understandably, fewer people are coming up to visit the region and go wine tasting. 

The study also will look at how vineyards acted as firebreaks, stopping the spread of fires and protecting structures.

And finally, they hope to come up with a plan for how the wine business can recover and rebound.

According to Silver, the idea to create this study originated from conversations among wine industry leaders.

“Early accounts of the fires led to inaccurate reports of the damage to wineries and vineyards,” Silver said. “The impact assessment will provide stakeholders with clear, objective data that can be used to drive plans for recovery and revitalization.”

Wine Business Executive in Residence Honore Comfort also emphasized this study’s importance, to offer solutions and practices to help the wine community.

“Our hope and expectation is that the findings and outcomes of this study will offer other wine regions the opportunity to learn from our situation and solutions, and apply best practices to protect the health of their own industry, economy, and communities,” Comfort said.

According to Comfort, those involved with the study include a wide array of people. 

The project team will include leading economists, data analysts, regional association executives, industry leaders and scientists working across economic sectors to develop the fact-based assessment. If possible, the team will also include SSU faculty and students.  

Comfort said they are in the early stages of gathering data, so they have no findings yet other than anecdotal information. But she said they should have their preliminary findings by early 2018.

Comfort also stated that they will collect the data from methods such as surveys, questionnaires and interviews.

Although they do not have their findings yet, Comfort said the overall damage has not been as destructive to the vineyards as some may assume.

“Overall, the fires directly affected a small percentage of the total vineyard acres and wineries in the North Coast,” she said. “Indirect effects, such as the slowdown in hospitality and visitor numbers, has been more widespread.”

Although the Wine Spectator Learning Center, which will be the new home for the Wine Business Institute, is still under construction at Sonoma State it will not impact the study, since most of the research will happen off-campus in partnership with the local wine industry. 

Silver said they will finish most of the construction for the Wine Spectator Learning Center in the next few weeks. Over the next few months, the university will be moving in furniture and people, installing the technology and testing the system and operations. There will be a formal opening in May and the building will be fully operating by the 2018 fall semester. 

Silver said this study is important because leaders in the wine business are looking for answers and guidance from the Wine Business Institute after the recent wildfires.

“SSU’s Wine Business Institute is the global leader in wine business education and research,” Silver said. “The challenges and opportunities growing out of the wildfires demand leadership. We are positioned to not only help with the current crisis, but as importantly, to help prepare the next generation of wine industry leaders for the next one.”