Is Napa Valley Like the Antebellum South?

Napasign Is Napa Valley very much like the classic "Mill Towns" of England and early New England? Or is it more like the Antebellum South?

I've been thinking about the differences between Napa Valley and Sonoma County of late as I've been spending more time in Napa Valley. There has always been something of a rivalry between these two regions, some of it real, some of it a creation of the media.

The difference I see? Napa Valley is a one-trick pony, dependent entirely on the wine industry and the tourism it creates. Sonoma County, while very dependent on the wine industry, is not quite "company town" that is Napa Valley.

"Company Town" isn't quite right, though, is it. It's not as though the entire Valley is owned by a single winery the way the town of Scotia in Northern California was owned by Pacific Lumber or Pullman, Illinois was once owned by the Pullman Sleeping Car Company. No. Napa Valley is more like Detroit, a place so dominated by a single industry that it's present and future prosperity is entirely linked to the prosperity of this one industry: Wine.

Another analogy might be comparing Napa Valley to the Antebellum South where a single crop, cotton, completely dominated the economy. Please don't think I'm comparing Napa Valley to the Antebellum south with any intent of linking Napa Valley to slavery or any form of racism. That's not the point.

But what I'm thinking is that a region that is so completely dominated by a single industry must rise and fall Sonvalsign with the health of that industry. This isn't some amazing revelation. Anyone who cares about the future of Napa Valley (and Sonoma County, for that matter) must, from time to time, worry about the consequences of living in a region that could, over night, be felled by economic disaster.

We aren't ever going to experience another Prohibition. So there's no need to worry about that. And even though many of Napa's wineries and related businesses have been hurt terribly by the "Great Recession", this is not the kind of economic downturn that will fell the famed wine region. However, there are circumstances that could really nail an Industry Town like Napa.

-Massive Crop Failure. The advent of a quick moving, vine killing pest could devastate a region dependent on grape vines

-Contamination Scare. Imagine the impact of an attack on Napa wines whereby folks died as a result of poisoning. If it were widespread the entire Valley's wine producing economy could be effected as folks steer away from wine.

-Depression. Napa Valley is an idea and a region that lives and dies based on the amount of disposable income within the economy. No one buys Napa Cabernet as a staple. They buy it and drink it because it brings them pleasure. In the event of a real depression with unemployment in the 35% range, you can expect this valley to pretty much shut down.

Is there anything that Napa Valley's residents and leaders might do about this predicament? Not really. There is just no possibility of Napa Valley diversifying its economy. Not at this point. Not when everything about the region depends on wine and the tourism it produces. Furthermore, I think it very unlikely that any of the three scenarios listed above are going to come to pass. So, Napa Valley is safe.

But…Sonoma County is much safer.

12 Responses

  1. Stevepaulo - February 23, 2010

    What’s different about Sonoma County that it can’t be said to have the exact same dependence on the wine industry as Napa County?

  2. Tom Wark - February 23, 2010

    It’s a tad more diversified.

  3. Marcia - February 23, 2010

    Tom – For those readers not living in our respective counties, were it not for the very end of your post, they might get the impression that you feel Napans a bit complacent (“Is there anything that Napa Valley’s residents and leaders might do about this predicament?…”) about our mono-agri business. (And, for the record, I don’t think that’s what you meant…entirely.)
    As you are well aware, the challenges to the Napa Cty. WDO of late for allowing weddings/corporate events; proposed changes to parcel divisions regulations; Napa Pipe development; Stanly Ranch/St. Regis development, etcetera, recently have all contributed to several rigorous debates among residents and business owners about the very nature of life and business in the valley. At the very least, it is more than crystal clear that these same persons are all mighty concerned about the future of the valley and its reliance on the wine and tourism biz.
    Napa Valley as the Antebellum South? While the comparison can stand so far as mono-culture structure, your comparison fails since the Antebellum South is now a relic of the past…for very different reasons than those you cited. (Last I checked, we’re not a relic of the past…yet!) And if a nasty pest or other calamity causes catastrophic crop failure here, I’d be awfully surprised if it didn’t make a nasty dent on the other side of the Mayacamas.
    Indeed Napa is considerably smaller (geographically) than Sonoma and is less diverse in business types, but, from the rigorous discussions in council meetings and other venues, I don’t find the residents or politicians complacent about the (potentially) fragile nature of life in Napa Valley.
    Just wanted to clarify a bit for the out-of-town readers… 🙂

  4. Charlie Olken - February 23, 2010

    Napa as company AVA. True enough. But, there is also much more independent money in Napa than in Sonoma and while so much of the tourist trade is dependent on wine, there are natural advantages (a cohesive bit of real estate, for example), mud baths, geysers, horse ranches and fancy resorts capable of standing on their own in Napa.
    Besides, both Healdsburg and Sonoma towns are company towns as well. And the Alexander and Dry Creek Valleys are almost as “monoculturish” as the Napa Valley.
    The curses you cite as dangers to Napa are equal curses in many ways in Sonoma. Let’s do our best to keep them away from all of us.

  5. Thomas Pellechia - February 23, 2010

    Never going to get Prohibition again?
    Tom, can I borrow your infallible crystal ball? 😉

  6. Hardy Wallace - February 23, 2010

    Napa can’t fry a chicken like the South, plus, we had The Dukes of Hazzard and Matlock–
    Please don’t insult Ms. Dixie like that ever again… 😉

  7. - February 24, 2010

    If population grew but GDP and number of jobs did not grow, then that would be disastrous. When more
    are unable to find work, then they would likely go for benefits. When more are unable to find work, then
    they might have to sell their houses in the end. Ultimately, prices would fall, and maybe more mortgagee
    sales may occur. Include unemployment and GDP and social impact into the prediction of house prices if
    you want, otherwise, no point predicting long term house prices based on just population prediction alone.

  8. joeinwinesales - February 24, 2010

    1. Bordeaux says no.
    2. Hardy is correct, please don’t insult the South. We get it bad enough as it is.

  9. Oenophilus - February 24, 2010

    “NO-body knows the trouble I seen….”

  10. Oenophilus - February 24, 2010

    Healdsburg is so much more than wine & tourism. Yes, they are healthy employers and revenue generators. No, they do not dominate life beyond the Plaza. I love the eno-culinary destination Healdsburg has become, I also love the diversity that I encounter there. General agriculture, industry, and even defense contracting have a strong hold on the local culture and economy. That said, I’m off to Cyrus for a drink!

  11. JohnLopresti - February 24, 2010

    I can remember endless horse ranch acreage, cattle, a deer farm, along Silverado Trail. Alexander Valley now lacks the pungent harvest of prunes wafting aromas over southern Healdsburg. Northern Alexander Valley was an alluvium perfect for oat hay operations, cattle. It is true: monoculture is a recipe for pest instigated disaster. Some of the neat insights Napa has embraced are the biodynamic or at least natural approaches to viticulture and vinification; Sonoma County too has become strong in trying to lessen the innate susceptibilities of monoculture regimes as valley floors have become all grapevines. I appreciate the analogy to independent financing structure in Napa. I have wondered what northern Virginia is beginning to look like, too, as vineyards finally take hold in humid east subregions. I think a further escalation in disemployment would impact budget conscious Sonoma agribusiness more than Napa, although those $50. cabernets would begin a winnowing into different blends to preserve market share at various migrating pricepoints. Maybe there will be a sag in consumerism for a few more fiscal quarters, but modern US has adopted a wine lifestyle readily. I think the wine may be what saves a lot of after dinner conversations in both counties, and beyond. These are creative, hard working, and imaginative folks.

  12. Swirl Smell Slurp - March 7, 2010

    Marcia is right on in her observation: “Indeed Napa is considerably smaller (geographically) than Sonoma and is less diverse in business types, but, from the rigorous discussions in council meetings and other venues, I don’t find the residents or politicians complacent about the (potentially) fragile nature of life in Napa Valley.”
    Arts Council Napa Valley is a growing, important voice in the Valley’s economic diversification and community development and is also worth paying attention to. (And participating in.)

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