Napa Considering Its Future

Ido If you ever doubted the veracity of the idiom, "Necessity is the mother of invention" then just read what the powers that be are considering in Napa.

After 20 years of living under the Winery Definition Ordinance that banned anything but "Appointment only Tastings" and weddings at wineries founded after 1989, there is consideration now of loosening those restrictions. Why? The economy sucks and many who previously saw no need to tempt a "Disneyland-like environment that many see as the natural outgrowth of easy tastings and weddings, are now thinking maybe we need to loosen restrictions on wineries to help them survive this downturn.

This is a very contentious issue in Napa Valley and Napa County. Many in and out of the wine industry fear that allowing too much "marketing" activity in agricultural zones will serve to threaten the agricultural nature of the Valley by encouraging development as well as by clogging the roads with even more cars filled with travelers who are only seeking their next taste of wine.

But then, again, the economy sucks!

From a political perspective, the question seems to be can the anti-development/pro-agriculture crowd come to terms with the pro-winery/pro-commercial group over how to allow greater commercial activity in ag zones.

The point is made by some that without unshackling the wineries so that they may be allowed to do more "marketing" on their land and in their winery, they may not survive. The point made by others is "give the wineries an inch and their lawyers will take a mile."

I look around and I see a lot of wine-related business, businesses that form the core of the economy in this region, hurting like they never have before. Many are being bought up by larger concerns. Others are going into bankruptcy. If there is not a way to give wineries more latitude to market in a way that encourages more sales and economic activity and to do so in a way that satisfies the pro-ag/anti-development crowd, then both sides ought to be ashamed of themselves. In an economy like this, where many people's livelihood and futures on the line, this is not the time to put your back against the wall and insist on the purity of your position.

9 Responses

  1. Randy - November 23, 2009

    Now, perhaps more than ever, would be the time for activists from both Napa and Sonoma counties to come together and invent a regional wine tourism consortium whose purpose is to create interest in the ENTIRE region for tourism, tasting rooms, etc. Counting on the restaurant and retail trades to lead the economic recovery in the wine industry will likely mean an end to more wineries, more jobs lost, and so on.
    The zero-sum mentality of folks on either side of the Mayacamas range needs to end, once and for all.
    (Wow, I apparently have my dander up.)

  2. Marcia - November 23, 2009

    Randy is right. Indeed, this is a ‘third-rail’ type of topic here in Napa, as evidenced by the high volume of negative comments in regards to today’s story in the Napa Register that you cited. However, Tom, in summarizing folks’ fears “that allowing too much “marketing” activity … will … threaten the agricultural nature of the Valley by … clogging the roads with even more cars filled with travelers who are only seeking their next taste of wine” you implied that the proposed changes would, in fact, be bringing considerably more road traffic to the valley. (Or, perhaps, I am inferring too much from your statement…?)
    The specific changes under consideration would not increase the volume of events at wineries. And in turn, the event permits currently in place restrict the volume of traffic allowed at wineries. So the ‘powers-that-be’ are not requesting directly a volume increase of visitors. IF wineries were asking for just a volume increase, this type of change would indeed create overflow parking problems and/or dramatic traffic increases along 29 and Silverado, etc., not to mention the other impacts cited in the ordinance (visual, air quality, noise and groundwater issues).
    At issue right now is the specific definition of “marketing of wine” (section 12071). The ordinance basically says that a winery’s traffic should be restricted to its workers, residents, visitors in the business, vendors and potential buyers (i.e. tasting and touring traffic – specific interest in that winery). What is specifically not permitted at the moment (and someone will correct me if I’m wrong, local folks!) are weddings and corporate events (parties).
    There is a presumption (not necessarily incorrect) that allowing a large gathering of friends, family and associates will dramatically increase valley noise (upsetting neighbors and disturbing the ‘natural’ sounds of birds chirping, the rustle of leaves and, oh, I guess the occasional tractor engine, frost fan and picker!) and increase drunk driving – more so than the current traffic volume from winery activity, tasting and tours.
    What seems lost in all the uproar is the understanding that different types of events bring different types of visitors who might never visit the valley under other circumstances. We all have friends and family near and far who may drink little wine. Or they may only buy wine that is distributed (and purchased) most easily available at their local Piggly Wiggly (insert other grocery store name here) on rare occasion. Now John and Jane BudDrinkers may make their first ever trip to cousin Bette’s wedding in Napa Valley held at “X” winery. BAM! Suddenly they’re exposed to a whole lot of really bitchin’ fine wine. Maybe they love it so much that they not only sign up for the “X’s” DTC wine club (‘cuz they can’t get it in their home state due to the three-tier system/post-Prohibition wine laws [your cue, Mr. Wark :-)]), but they also decide to stay an extra day after Bette’s wedding to visit a whole bunch of wineries up and down the valley. And maybe the light goes on that there’s a whole world of great wine they never knew about and would like to buy and learn more. This is an opportunity for exposure to a much wider audience that is currently blocked to marketers and wineries. That is why we need a wee bit of flexibility in the “marketing of wine” definition.
    They’re not asking for a ton more visitors to drive up to their tasting room. They’re asking to widen the opportunity for the types of visitors using that driveway and tasting their wine. It can be a benefit to the entire Bay Area wine industry. (And, no, I’m not in the industry, and I’m not on any committee to persuade the ‘powers-that-be.’)

  3. Stu Smith - November 23, 2009

    As I like to say wineries can hold marketing events where women can be casually attired or they can be formally attired, I even think it’s not against the law if they jump out of their clothes and run around naked, but God forbid wineries hold a marketing event and put a woman in a white dress because then we’ve broken the law. No weddings allowed at Napa wineries. How utterly ridiculous!
    This small change in the WDO will not be the end of Napa as we know it. The Ag Preserve will not perish; I’d guess that most of Napa wineries aren’t even in the Ag Preserve. This is not the slippery slope to anything negative, but 21st century marketing and competing in the real world.
    The real issue is that the large corporate wineries want to do high end corporate schmoozing, which they are now doing under the radar, but they are afraid of too much change to the WDO. They don’t want smaller wineries to have the same rights that they do, such as hosting tours and tastings without appointments and they certainly don’t want smaller wineries mucking up the WDO by allowing weddings. Also in this mix, are those “elitist” vintners who are so pleased to tell everyone else what they shouldn’t be doing.
    Ain’t Napa grand!
    Stu Smith

  4. Roger King - November 24, 2009

    The funny thing is that Napa is already a major destination for travel in California currently, within the top competitive set of destination attractions in the state. The demand generators are and have been in place for years. If there had ever been an effective destination marketing organization the impacts would already be felt without any change to the rules of engagement.
    Don’t look for any sudden surge in visitor volumes that will destroy all life styles, there is so much competition for wedding venue in CA the share change will be negligible (partially due to a total travel infrastructure that cannot grow volume, starting with the constrained level of hotel rooms available) What might result with better marketing is the concept of targeting and isolating the segments that present strong economic impacts yet can be managed to critical time periods of lower demand. That business is out there, it takes finding it.

  5. Richard - November 24, 2009

    Ohhh! Not in our backyard! We’re purer than pure and have to retain the… the… uh… the… way it is! That’s what we have to retain – I mean if we start having weddings, that could mean s – e – x! Right here in Napa City! and the Napa Valley! Demon Alcohol has already spread throughout and look what it’s done! Brought and economy and pesky tourists and, well, wait. My point is – anything new is bad, bad, bad! Let’s definitely stop it because we have our “River City Blinders” on! It’s evil, evil I say! Keep Napa the way it is – no more demon alcohol, no more sex, no weddings, let’s close down the two major highways in and out and only let people who live in the valley in!

  6. wine clubs - November 24, 2009

    I think we need to take the shackles off the wineries, especially in Napa if we expect them to survive. For most of us, it’s not like there is going to be an increase in traffic or congestion. I think this is a smart move, one that will allow family winemakers in Napa to survive.

  7. Dylan - November 24, 2009

    This slope isn’t as slippery as some might make it out to be. If tourism gets “out of hand,” whatever that actually means in the region’s case, then you can always reinstate restrictions.

  8. Joe - November 25, 2009

    I think if allowing more marketing from small wineries can allow them to exist independently (rather than be purchased by conglomerates), then it better-preserves the individuality of the small wineries, which is- to me- much of the appeal of wine country.

  9. Banito - November 29, 2009

    The small wineries and winery related businesses will only survive if the entire economy revs up. People still need to have the discretionary income to get to Napa (and Sonoma) in the first place…never mind buy wine. Have you seen how impossible it is to navigate Highway 29 even now? Forget about making a left turn heading south! A visitor suggested to me that a freeway be built up the center of the valley where there was plenty of space to ease congestion…yea right! A slippery slope?

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