Much of wine country open, but agent finds it a tough sell

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Travelers are reluctant to book or follow through on planned trips to Northern California's wine country despite most of the Napa Valley being open for business.

Fears from wildfires are lingering, said Dani Johnson, vice president of Garden Grove, Calif.-based Coastline Travel Advisors. She specializes in high-end wine country excursions.

Many couples and groups have been dissuaded even though wildfires have been largely contained but some continued to burn early Thursday, said Johnson. She had been assured by contacts at various wineries that there was little to be concerned about in the Napa Valley.

"I tried to get my clients to mellow out and wait, but over the weekend, they all freaked out," said Johnson, who estimated that she sells about $200,000 in wine country trips and tours a year. "Their idea is that all of Napa is demolished and that there's nothing left of it. I tried to explain that Yountville, Napa and Calistoga are all fine."

The fires across Sonoma, Napa and Yuba counties, which some consider to be the worst in the state's history, destroyed much of Santa Rosa and resulted in the deaths of 42 people, including 23 in Sonoma County and seven in Napa County.

For the wineries and wine lovers, the timing could've been worse. About 90% of this year's grape crop had already been picked by the time the fires started, said Johnson, citing conversations she's had with vintners this week.

Johnson, who works regularly with wineries such as Arkenstone, Cimarossa and Marston, as well as Meadowood resort, estimated that it will take about two years to determine whether the fires impacted the quality of the remaining 10% of the grapes on the vine.

Still, the timing was bad from a tourism angle because the fires struck during the middle of the popular harvest season, when wine lovers flock to the area from mid-September to late October for activities that celebrate the harvest. Such trips are especially popular for couples and groups celebrating milestone birthdays.

While she is dissuading clients from exploring the Sonoma area right now, Johnson said she will make a concerted effort to sell the Napa Valley.

She will tell customers that suppliers will be "bending over backwards for you to make that trip good."

"I'm letting them know they can still have an amazing experience," she said.

Correction: Meadowood Napa Valley is a resort in the region and not a winery itself.

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