Critics of The Napa Valley Wine Industry Are Losing Badly

napa2There 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 napatraffic 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.

napa3Another 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.

28 Responses

  1. Roger Beery - October 27, 2015

    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.

  2. Roger King - October 27, 2015

    These folks working hard on creating. A vacuum to which competition is drawn into.

  3. Rob McMillan - October 27, 2015

    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.


  4. Cato - October 27, 2015

    Time to put in a parking lot and a subway with lots of stops.

  5. Jim Caudill - October 27, 2015

    Rob & Tom, nice to see some well reasoned thoughts in this discussion (for a change).

  6. Tom Wark - October 27, 2015


    “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.


  7. Caren Glasser - October 27, 2015

    Tom…. great article and discussion. When are they going to wake up and smell the wine? I hope that they will continue to be defeated in their efforts to “control” the tourism that feeds all of us.

  8. Mary Rocca - October 27, 2015

    Thanks for a thoughtful and articulate article. You and Rob both made some excellent points. I’ve always wondered why people don’t want to support an industry which keeps our beautiful valley from being paved over with housing – which would happen if wineries were no longer able to remain profitable.
    In addition to my winery in the Napa Valley, I am also the proprietor of a grocery store in the charming village of Point Reyes Station. I’d like to point out that Napa is not the only place facing a huge influx of visitors. We have seen a major increase in the numbers of visitors to the Point Reyes Seashore area over the last few years. Towns all over the greater Bay Area are facing these challenges – it would be great if we could learn from each other how to manage visitors in a way that maintains the beauty and charm of these destinations.

  9. Picking A Side In the Napa Winery Fight - VineCentral - October 27, 2015

    […] midweek from Tom Wark who wrote a piece yesterday in his Fermentation Daily Wine Blog entitled Critics of the Napa Valley Wine Industry are Losing Badly. It’s a passionate opinion piece of the goings-on in Napa County politics which are […]

  10. Clif Tinker - October 28, 2015

    Great article. You could follow up with another article on how teachers, store clerks, and other people in normal everyday jobs will no longer be able to afford to live in Napa, but will have to commute long distances to get to work, just like in Santa Barbara, Carmel, etc… Without the vines, it would become another outlying suburb.
    Clif Tinker

  11. Steven Rea - October 28, 2015

    Thank you Tom and Rob for your thoughtful, timely and reason/fact based commentaries.

    With the industry voice having been so silent, I believe it’s been a bit tough for the County leadership to focus on what’s really important, which is finding real solutions to the traffic issues which we all share. The very vocal minority has been the main voice they have heard, so after more than a year of hearing such things over and over again at every hearings and in letters/comments in the papers, it would be hard for them not to be swayed.

    I know it’s tough for people in the wine industry to attend hearings, as we all work, but hopefully, many more individuals from not just the wine industry but also the interconnected industries (suppliers, hotels, restaurants, insurance, legal, etc.) will speak up to provide the Board of Supervisors strong support to keep a clear focus on the real issues and real solutions.

    As many have mentioned, the facts show that we all share a responsibility in the cause of the traffic and therefore should engage in a comprehensive and collaborative effort to solve it. We all love our quality of life in Napa and whether resident, visitor or worker, we all want to preserve this. I am confident it can be done if we keep a clear focus.

    It would be great to see the thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars that are being spent on ancillary issues be redirected towards a clear focus on real solutions to the traffic situation.

    Thank you both!

  12. Morgan - October 28, 2015


    You write that limiting growth – wineries and hotels – will drive prices up and that growers and others are short-sighted about limiting tourism. You don’t touch on the negative consequences of tourism, nor do you offer any alternatives.

    Would you like to see 5 more hotels in Yountville? Perhaps a few new subdivisions?

    Frankly, the only point I gathered from this post is that you don’t like the anti-growth ppl.

  13. Ross Workman - October 28, 2015

    Is there enough winemaking capacity in existing Napa wineries to vinify all the Napa grapes? Almost certainly there is, given that many non-Napa grapes are brought in to Napa wineries. So, if no new wineries were built, would all the Napa grapes still end up in bottles of Napa Valley wine? Of course it would because taking the Napa grapes someplace else would reduce the value of the wine produced from them. Maybe the incremental wineries do not increase the number of visitors on the roads, or maybe they do, but they certainly do increase them number of winery employees on the road, so they do increase traffic. And the incremental employees drive into Napa Valley from elsewhere due to the cost of Napa housing. So the new wineries are not needed to make more Napa wine, but they do increase traffic. If the incremental wineries do impose a burden on the residents of Napa and they are not needed to support the vineyards is it unreasonable for Napa residents to question whether more wineries are needed?

    • Morgan - October 28, 2015

      Ross, good point. Perfectly logical. Other ppl are commenting here that without growing/profitable wineries Napa would become a suburb of SF and “paved over”. That is exactly why the Ag preserve was enacted in 1968. The Ag preserve does not depend on the growth of tourism.

    • Rob McMillan - October 29, 2015

      Ross – to your point above: when will we have enough wineries to produce wine from County grapes, the answer could be now. But the reality is there is no way for the County to enforce such an action and since the problem with traffic is more an issue with more jobs being created, doing so won’t solve your problem either.

      Landowners have property rights too. There is however a way to enforce planned expansion…. set metrics of developing infrastructure prior to approving the next incremental winery. That is very simplistic but it’s to your point.

      What is really needed is for the public to realize what we are experiencing in Napa vis a vis traffic, is an outflow of not only the success of the existing wine business, but the growth and success of the adjoining technology businesses in the Bay Area as a whole.

      Tourists do impact traffic but you aren’t going to improve traffic by declining the next winery. You aren’t going to improve traffic by rejecting wineries requested changes to their use permits – unless you are willing to take all the wineries that were here prior to the Winery Definition Ordinance, tell them they can’t have open tastings, revoke a percentage of the By Appointment Only wineries permits, and then get a bloated County enforcement department.

      The solution has to start with a clear definition of what the problem is and where we want to go with the Valley. When we clear that muddied mess up, then we might start to focus on solutions that will improve the situation.

  14. Tom Wark - October 28, 2015


    Just a quick point of clarification, why would wines made from NV grapes that are taken out of the Valley to be made be worth less?

  15. Tom Wark - October 28, 2015

    To answer you question, if those 5 Yountville hotels were appropriately placed, I would certainly support them being built.

  16. Bob Henry - October 29, 2015

    Regarding this blog posted by Tom Wark on Sep 14, 2015:

    “Which Wine Industry Authority Should You Trust?”

    I am resurrecting / reposting my “[still] awaiting moderation” comment here (sans the embedded links, should those give Tom’s blog the hiccups):

    Bob Henry – September 20, 2015
    your comment is awaiting moderation.


    You have created a false dichotomy by setting up the argument as being limited to choosing from one POV (Campbell’s) or other’s (Bliss’s).

    I demur. There are more POVs / more positions waiting to be heard on this issue.

    I don’t know Patrick Campbell, but I am well acquainted with his work at Laurel Glen.

    “I was born in Baltimore in 1947, grew up on the fringes of the southern California wine industry, and studied English Literature at Pomona College and Philosophy of Religion at Harvard University. I have a degree in neither viticulture nor enology. In short, I have the proper credentials for winemaking.”

    Source: https [colon] //www [dot] tierradivinavineyards [dot] com/about-us/

    (Same source as your head shot for Mr. Campbell.)

    I don’t know Shepherd Bliss, but a little research on the Web reveals he is a lecturer at Sonoma State, who own Kokopelli Farm (which specializes in organic berries and free range chicken eggs).


    https [colon] //www [dot] linkedin [dot] com/pub/dr-shepherd-bliss-iii/6/814/60b

    http [colon] //www [dot] freestone [dot] com/lostchance/shepardtalk [dot] html

    Both gentlemen have studied religion at college.

    Neither is a trained economist.

    As we saw in the debate that rages over whether The Fed should raise the short-term interest rate, economists disagree among themselves all the time.

    ~~ Bob

    • Bob Henry - October 29, 2015


      “You have created a false dichotomy by setting up the argument as being limited to choosing from one POV (Campbell’s) or another’s (Bliss’s).”

  17. Bob Henry - October 30, 2015


    Last night I left this comment on Rob’s blog post titled “”Picking A Side In the Napa Winery Fight.”

    Let me disseminate it more widely on yours.


    “For readers of your blog who reside outside of Napa Valley, please compose an addendum to this mid-week piece about local public transit . . . as the ‘wine country’ sounds like a single-occupant car culture region.

    “If a vineyard or winery employee (not residing at or near a property) wished to commute to work, what are her/his options?

    “North/south bus routes? West/east bus routes? Frequency of departures? One-way transit time? Relative expense of one-way and daily fares?

    “Throw in any discussion about the prospect of commuter and tourist light rail in the Valley?

    “Urban and suburban readers would benefit from some context here about this unique agrarian society.

    ~~ Bob”

  18. Bill McIver - October 30, 2015

    Tom, appreciate much your thoughts on this subject. The reason tourist visit wine country is also because hundreds of small wineries made great wines and get great press. Personally, I have no interest in Napa land use problems; my interest and concern is about what is happening in Sonoma. There I agree with a writer who responded to your article is what I hope for for Sonoma: to protect it “from wanton growth, deforestation of the hillsides, unfettered growth in new wineries, ruination of streams and habitat, and the destruction of the nature and character of … [Sonoma]. We don’t need every winery approved without planning for infrastructure. Surprised with that? Why be surprised? Shouldn’t we all want to protect the resource that allows us to produce and sell our product?” In Sonoma there should not be tasting rooms in vineyards where the wine is produced somewhere else, such as Matanzas Creek…a tasting room that puts tourists on Bennett Valley Road to visit Matanzas Creek Winery were no wine is produced. Vast structures built in ag lands purely for Events should not be allowed. County governments have ample power to protect the environment and agriculture…they should not let wineries get away with producing beyond their permits, not allow more traffic to tasting rooms than permitted. Tasting rooms should not be allowed on narrow, crooked, often dead ended roads like Sonoma Mountain Road.

    • Rob McMillan - October 30, 2015

      Though taken out of the full context of the blog I posted, I agreed until you got to “there should not be tasting rooms…”

      Everyone gets to have an opinion and yours is just that, an opinion. Its one perspective. But what should and shouldn’t be, has to take into consideration others property rights. I believe we can thread the needle and find balance between winery and vineyard development, tourist access, and protection of the nature of our regions. We have to build out infrastructure and find proper balance. That means we dont get every winery approved, and we don’t get to tell others they can’t develop their land.

      • Bill McIver - October 30, 2015

        Rob, way back in late ’80s I supported, as president of the Bennett Valley Homeowners Association (that included Sonoma mtn rd), Patrick Campbell’s petition for a tasting room for his Laurel Glen winery…it was denied; and denied for a good reason. Sonoma mtn rd couldn’t handle tasting room traffic…and often in winters the road was completely a dead end. neighbors and conditions should always be considered by county planners. Tasting rooms by appointment may be appropriate in such conditions, but at Matanzas Creek we operated for a long time for tasting by appointment only and did not want a tasting room… but guess what? consumers kept coming without an appt…not by invitation but because our wines attracted so much attention. We finally had to get a permit and establish a tasting room. The Sonoma industry is in a very difficult position. Consumers keep coming, and wineries can’t turn them away even though they exceed production permits and tasting room/event permits. The community acting through their elected officials have a tough problem…I say let the people decide through their elected supervisors. I just hate to see the thing that produced the golden egg…sonoma’s rural, backwoods destroyed and overrun by poor planning and enforcement of winery production and tasting/event permits…that’s what’s happening.

    • Bob Henry - October 31, 2015

      Bill writes:

      “In Sonoma there should not be tasting rooms in vineyards where the wine is produced somewhere else, such as Matanzas Creek…a tasting room that puts tourists on Bennett Valley Road to visit Matanzas Creek Winery were no wine is produced. ”

      A rare example of someone arguing against the commercial interests of his “progency.”

      (Aside: I “think” I missed a Robert Balzer-guided wine appreciation course visit to Matanzas Creek. My loss, as the mid- to-late 1980s Merlots showed well at my 1985 to 1991 California Merlots single blind comparative tasting down here in Los Angeles:

      http [colon] //www [dot] kirktech [dot] com/bob_henry/ )

  19. Bill McIver - October 30, 2015

    Rob, by the way. I totally agree with your second paragraph.

    • Rob McMillan - October 31, 2015

      Bill – I agree with the evolution of your thoughts. Planning of infrastructure is a key an neglected component. In Matanzas Creeks example, obviously the County needed a road.

      Napa only approves by-appointment wineries now. The thinking is that would slow traffic impact. Maybe it did, but the reality is the impact comes as a result of success both of Napa and the Bay Area. We’ve created jobs and are attracting tourists. We need economic vitality so we dont want fewer jobs. We don’t have any control over the success in the Bay Area as a whole, and that’s the pathogen. If we do nothing, our regions will still grow with housing, traffic, and tourism. If we somehow reduced the number of wineries, we wouldn’t significantly impact the traffic flow either.

      Both Napa and Sonoma have to come to grips with the reality the issue here is poor planning for infrastructure and zoning. Stopping winery development won’t help. Stopping tastings won’t help. Napa got it right with their Ag ordinance which is a major help in keeping rural zoning. Sonoma should do the same. Keep cities bottled up in cities. After that, it becomes a question of what kind of transportation systems will be built to support traffic.

      • Bill McIver - October 31, 2015

        rob, would like to continue discussion, but not on Tom’s site…i’m [email protected]

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