Critics of The Napa Valley Wine Industry Are Losing Badly
There is now and has been for some time, a very serious debate occurring in Napa Valley. On the face of it the debate appears to be over the issue of growth, the Valley’s ability to sustain its essentially rural nature and the role the wine industry plays in both.
Committees have been formed. Government is involved. Community groups have coalesced. Opinion pieces and letters have been written. Recommendations have been made. Action is set to be taken.
Based on the recommendations that have been forwarded to the Planning Commission and to the Board of Supervisors on how to address issues of growth and the Valley’s rural nature, it appears to me the wine industry has dodged a bullet. None of the recommendations for reigning in winery marketing and tasting room activity, for requiring more in-depth reporting of visitors and production or for limits set to be placed on new winery developments will do a thing to halt the juggernaut that is the Napa Valley wine industry.
The funny thing is that nothing short of draconian and unconstitutional limits on the number of visitors coming to Napa Valley or building a wall around the county could stop the juggernaut.
The critics of wineries believe that wineries are entirely to blame for the continued increase in visitors and traffic and growth in the Valley. They point to wineries violating their use permits by having more visitors and more events than allowed. They point to the growth in approvals of new wineries and expansions of older ones. They point to approval of more hotels that they think encourages more traffic and development.
But these things aren’t causing the growth in tourism to Napa Valley and the traffic and development that comes with it. These things are accommodating the growth in tourism to Napa.
I don’t think that the critics of the wine industry have noticed that besides being the source of some of the best wines in the world, Napa Valley also happens to be perfectly situated next to one of the most affluent regions of the country.
Few metropolitan regions in America can claim the affluence that exists in the Bay Area from Napa and Sonoma Counties down to San Jose. The amount of disposable income in the Bay Area is staggering. And it has been this way for quite some time. These people like to spend and Napa Valley beckons. It is remarkably easy for these folks to get to Napa Valley and find great hotels, outstanding wine, and some of the country’s best restaurants at which to spend their money, and all of it surrounded by nature’s beauty and the beauty that comes with rows and rows of vines.
Nothing the critics of the wine industry can do or propose will stop these people from coming. Nothing. More importantly, the affluent population of the Bay Area is going to continue to grow, while the confines of Napa Valley will not. The only option to limiting growth of tourism to Napa Valley and the growth of amenities as well as the growth of people living here is to make it more and more expensive to visit here.
And that is exactly what is going to happen.
If fewer hotels and wineries get approved for development, the ones that already exist will simply raise their prices as the tourism demand increases. Prices of hotel rooms and prices of tastings and prices of wine and prices of tables at restaurant will increase…dramatically.
Additionally, prices of homes will increase. The critics of Napa Valley’s wine industry that live here will find there is little hope for their children to live here. It’s already happening.
If you want a taste of how desperate and out of touch the critics of Napa Valley’s wine industry are, consider that one of the recommendations they have for the County’s Board of Supervisors is that they implement a ban on newly developed wineries including a kitchen on their premises. That’ll take a bite out of traffic on Napa Valley’s roads.
Another proposal is that only wine be sold in tasting rooms. No more hats and tee shirts. I wonder if that will be enough to turn away tourists?
One of the big beefs the critics have of the wineries is their claim that wineries focus as much or more on marketing than they do agriculture and the processing of the grapes into wine. The main coalition that has found the wine industry to be the source of all problems, Napa Vision 2050, has this to say about wine marketing in Napa Valley.
“Over the years the county’s definition of agriculture has expanded to include marketing and sales. More recently food-pairing has been promoted to enhance winery visits resulting in restaurants and event-centers on ag land. Napa Vision 2050 believes this bad.”
The very fact that such a thing would be written on the organization’s website for all to read indicates a profound misunderstanding of the wine industry and probably disqualifies the organization from being taken seriously. However, loud shouts attract attention.
Napa Vision 2050 follows the previous comment with this one:
“No one wants to own up to the ever-increasing traffic that has mired our two arteries, Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. Yet the wineries demand more visitors to feed their direct-to-consumer sales model; the cities gladly encourage new hotels so they can grab the coveted TOT money and the Visitors Bureau keeps promoting more visitations. But they all deny that they have produced the traffic problems. When is enough, enough?“
It’s as though Napa Vision 2050 folks think that what we have is enough and that we ought to just stop the visitors and the traffic that comes with it. They seem to think that limiting future wineries and hotels will accomplish this. Again, a profound misunderstanding of the issue. But they talk loud.
But if you want an indication of the real problem Napa Vision 2050 has, consider their quip about “…wineries demand more visitors to feed their direct-to-consumer sales model.”
As though this “Model” is one that is an option. The Direct to consumer sales model on display in Napa Valley isn’t a consequence of the modern American wine industry, it’s a feature. There is no choice. It’s the only model that works for the vast majority of wineries in Napa Valley and everywhere else.
And it’s not going to change.
The radical agenda of the critics of the Napa Valley wine industry is being now, and will be in the future, defeated. The sane people know it must be. Geographic circumstances have made Napa Valley a destination for and home to the affluent. It’s happened. It’s going to continue to increase in affluence…even if tee shirts aren’t sold in tasting rooms and winery kitchens are banned.
One final note. It is to the credit of the Napa Valley wine industry that they have not given into the radical agenda of Napa Vision 2050 and others. It would be easy to be very self serving and get on board with keeping out new wineries and limiting tourism to those wineries that exist. Their profits would only increase.
This is very reminiscent of the growth issues we saw in Austin, TX in the 1990’s and even now. The powers decided that if they made expansion and development horribly difficult, people would stop coming. That strategy failed miserably and the folks are still flocking to ATX. As a result, the roads are clogged with catch-up construction everywhere and housing prices are among the highest in Texas.
These folks working hard on creating. A vacuum to which competition is drawn into.
It is a frustrating situation. To me the worst part is the facts aren’t in the narrative.
What is fact is the majority of the traffic during the week goes north in the morning before tasting rooms are open, and it goes south in the afternoon when tourists coming for events ought to be coming north.
In fact, a traffic study was done by the County and the conclusion was the majority of the traffic was coming from “us.” The traffic was from people going to and from work.
Everyone should want to protect the rural character of Napa – winery, grower or tourist. If that became a winery strip mall with decorative vines for landscaping, we would kill the goose that is laying the golden egg, so we all should want to find solutions to congestion, traffic, noise, water, etc. But shouldn’t we define the problems before solving them?
We now have committees who have worked at finding ways to slow down tours and tastings at wineries to what end? Once the Supervisors vote on any of those initiatives, will there be less traffic? Of course not! Because the problem is that we’ve created jobs up valley and people live in less expensive regions. That happens all across the bay area and has for decades now since the bridges were build spanning the bay.
That’s only one example but the solution instead of putting up a wall to keep out tourism, ought to be a committee that figures out why there is traffic first and how will we improve it? For instance, why not employ various forms of encouragement to have non-hospitality workers work out of business offices in the South County closer to affordable housing. Or … what would happen if we staggered opening and closing of tasting rooms so both employees and tourists would be spread out in their travels?
Thanks for writing this thoughtful piece. There is a lot wrong with the current narrative that is public and not enough winery and vineyard owners speaking up to counter the dialogue with reason. As I said, it is in everyone’s interest to retain the nature and beauty of the Napa Valley, so why don’t we start working at that instead of making new laws, rules and restrictions which are tantamount to throwing legislative darts.
Time to put in a parking lot and a subway with lots of stops.
Rob & Tom, nice to see some well reasoned thoughts in this discussion (for a change).
“YES” to your entire comment. And another issue that I didn’t even choose to address is the narrative that somehow the events held at wineries is “too much”. Numerous members and suppers of Napa Vision 2050 make this claim. But Ive seen nothing that suggests the events in the Valley do anything more than help market the wine that is made here. OH…Wait, marketing, bad thing.