I took a quick stroll around downtown Napa, not sure what to expect.
A 6.0-magnitude earthquake had rocked the area Aug. 24, two weeks before my initial visit, but I had heard the damage wasn't as bad as first reported. When I stopped by the Visit Napa Valley Welcome Center, the organization's president, Clay Gregory, said the same. "The vast majority of our restaurants and wineries are back up and running," he said.
But Gregory's positive words didn't match what I saw during my walk. Downtown Napa, near the epicenter of the temblor, was a shambles. Streets were closed, steeples and other sections of buildings had tumbled, and rubble lay everywhere.
Now, more than a month after the quake, which killed one person and caused $300 million in propert damage, wreckage is still evident, but some things have changed. Parts of downtown Napa are still fenced off, but streets have reopened and cleanup continues.
For most visitors, the wine still flows and the party goes on. If you're staying outside of Napa proper — especially north of the city — you'll see little of the quake's impact.
Most tourist-oriented businesses are open, and Napa Valley icons such as the Wine Train are running at full capacity. The 25-year-old attraction, which offers lunch and dinner tours through the valley, closed briefly after the quake so rails and overpasses could be inspected.
"Trains are designed to move," said Kira Devitt, granddaughter of the train's founder and director of marketing. "When the earthquake rolled through, the train moved with it, which is why we had no damage."
It's also business as usual for the vintners in California's most popular wine region. The quake struck in the middle of the crush, the annual harvest season that runs through the end of October. Regardless of how many bottles of wine were lost when they crashed onto warehouse and showroom floors, a new season of grapes is ready to be picked. And Mother Nature can't wait.
Instead of concentrating on their losses — estimated at more than $80 million in property damage and loss of wines — vintners are focusing on harvesting their crops. In some cases, that takes place in the cool of the night or in early morning fog. I watched one night at 11 o'clock as crews steamrolled their way up and down the well-tended rows of a hillside vineyard, handpicking Pinot Noir grapes that would eventually become Saintsbury wine.
Saintsbury lost its "library" wines — 400 bottles of vintages dating to 1981 — during the quake. "Those wines are irreplaceable," said Heidi Soldinger, company representative. "But we have to move on."
And stay the course. Visitors at this time of year pay top dollar for a chance to see the harvest and watch other winemaking processes.
This year will be no different. At high-end resorts such as Auberge du Soleil, known for its Michelin-starred restaurant, hotel rates start at $575 a night. The quake initially caused some cancellations, but they occurred within the first few days, said Bradley Reynolds, general manager, adding that "there's really a strong demand now; our occupancy average is higher than last year at this season."
Weekend occupancy rates are nearly 100%, although weekdays are a bit slower than last year, said Gregory of Visit Napa.
Farther north in the valley, at Calistoga Ranch, a 157-acre mountainside property that caters to celebrities and royals seeking seclusion, "We had a total of three cancellations and 25 bookings," said Mike Moran, director of sales. Rates at Calistoga start at $995 a night.
Most of downtown Napa's hotels have now reopened, except for Andaz Napa, a five-story, 141-room Hyatt group hotel that's expected to be closed until the end of October. Like the city itself, Andaz bore the brunt of the damage when the quake struck.
"We just want to get beyond the negative impact of all those photos of damaged buildings," Gregory said. "It clearly was a very bad thing, but it's not a catastrophe."
Quake damage turns Napa into a disaster-tourism destination
John and Denise Gearty were taking a self-guided tour. It wound through the streets of downtown Napa, Calif., and stopped in front of buildings with toppled steeples, broken walls and piles of rubble. At some stops they took photos.
The San Francisco couple had become part of a phenomenon that occurs after events such as Napa's 6.0-magnitude quake: disaster tourism.
"We could feel the quake in San Francisco," John Gearty said. "We wanted to see the damage."
On my recent visit to Napa, I saw several people taking photos.
Disaster tourism isn't new. Pompeii, swallowed by ash and soot when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, has drawn tourists for more than 250 years.
In New York City, 15 million people have visited the World Trade Center site since it opened in 2011, according to the 9/11 Memorial website. The neighborhood surrounding it now has 18 hotels with more than 4,000 rooms.
New Orleans also has its share of companies that profit from disaster: Several tour companies run Hurricane Katrina tours, featuring the sites of the major destruction from the August 2005 hurricane and subsequent flooding.
Disaster Tourism, a British tour company, says on its website: "Disaster tourism offers a unique experience for those who have exhausted the normal mundane package holiday. We guarantee your holiday will be a complete disaster and leave you wanting more."
Some people say such tours are unethical because they take advantage of other people's misery. But others counter that the tours spur economic recovery.
Napa business owner Dayle Sanborn appreciated the new customers who wandered into her boutique and salon, N'Ovations, after the quake.
"Some people have stayed away because of it, but others have come and spent money here," she said. "That helps."
As far as the Geartys are concerned, their trip to Napa had an unintended consequence. "Seeing this damage made us realize we're not prepared for a quake," John said.
Denise added, "We decided we're going to start practicing drills."
Events at historic Trefethen wine tasting room on hold
At the Trefethen Family Vineyard, a Napa Valley winery known for its Chardonnays and Cabs, a special tour called Twilight at Trefethen takes place after the tasting room is closed for the day. The $100-a-person event begins with a cheese and charcuterie reception and moves on to a "celebration of the craftsmanship of our historic 19th-century winery, where you will have the opportunity to taste an aging Cabernet, straight from the barrel," according to its website.
The tour, along with other events taking place in the winery's tasting room, is on hold. The building, on the National Register of Historic Places, shifted 4 feet to the west when the earthquake struck Aug. 24 and now leans at a crazy Dali-esque angle.
"It's being held up by tractors, jacks and a lot of positive thinking," said winery scion Hayley Trefethen, granddaughter of the founders.
Napa wineries suffered more than $80 million in damage to wine and property in the 6.0-magnitude quake. Most tasting rooms are now open, and the Trefethen family will open a temporary tasting room this week. Eventually, they hope to reopen the historic building, which had survived small and large earthquakes since its construction in 1886.
Meanwhile, they're concentrating on the current harvest.
"We're farmers," Trefethen said. "We have 440 acres of wonderful grapes that are happy and ready to be picked. That's our first priority right now."
If you go
WHERE TO STAY
Napa River Inn, 500 Main St., Napa; (877) 251-8500, www.napariverinn.com. Unlike many downtown Napa hotels, this popular inn didn't need to close for repairs after the earthquake, even though it's within a landmark 1884 building. Minor cosmetic damage, such as cracks in the stucco, occurred, but overall it's as welcoming as usual. Some fireplaces, river views. Rates start at $369, double occupancy ($269, November-April).
Chablis Inn, 3360 Solano Ave., Napa; (707) 257-1944 or (800) 443-3490, www.chablisinn.com. This simple motel, which backs up to busy California 29, lost 22 TVs during the quake, but all have been replaced with flat screens. Rates start at $121.50 per night, double occupancy; rates under $100 by late fall.
Farmhouse Inn, 7871 River Road, Forestville; (707) 887-3300 or (800) 464-6642, www.farmhouseinn.com. If you want to put some space between you and the quake epicenter, consider this boutique inn. Near the Russian River, it combines a rustic look with luxurious trappings. Pool, fireplaces, restaurant. Rates start at $495 per night, double occupancy, including breakfast, snacks and wine.
WHERE TO EAT
C Casa Taco Lounge, 610 1st St., Suite 6, Napa; (707) 226-7700, www.myccasa.com. Innovative Mexican dishes draw long lines of budget-conscious customers at this shop in Napa's excellent Oxbow Public Market. Takeout or dine at the market's tables. Entrees $7.50-$22.
Glen Ellen Star, 13648 Arnold Drive, Glen Ellen; (707) 343-1384, www.glenellenstar.com. The new star in this picturesque Sonoma County wine town is a 2-year-old farm-to-table bistro that features wood-oven specialties such as pizza ($14-$18), plus imaginative entrees and appetizers (the bountiful wood-grilled veggies are a hit at $10.50). Entrees from $24.
Napa Valley Wine Train, 1275 McKinstry St., Napa; (800) 427-4124, winetrain.com. Scenic wine, dine and ride tour shut down for two days after the quake but was quickly back up to speed. It's a fun way to see the valley, toast the wineries and sample wines. Lunch and dinner tours from $119 per person.
TO LEARN MORE
Napa Valley Welcome Center, 600 Main St., Napa; (855) 847-6272, www.visitnapavalley.com