Is Napa Valley 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 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.