To Napa’s Wine Critics: Shame On You!
Ever the observant reporter, Blake Gray has written at Wine Searcher about the move afoot among some in Napa Valley to punish the wine industry for its success; to attempt to roll back the current impact that visitors to Napa are having on the quality of life for locals.
Blake’s article deals primarily with recommendations of a special “growth” commission and whether any of its recommendations limiting winery growth ought to apply retroactively to wineries with existing privileges based on their permits. Of course wineries ought not be restricted in ways they currently are not based on new regulations and of course any new regulations on wineries in Napa Valley ought to only apply to new wineries. But really, this is not the primary issue.
The critics of the Napa Valley wine industry, who regularly refer to wineries as “event centers” and “wine factories” in order to attempt to disparage them, are simply frustrated that there is absolutely nothing they can do about the facts of modern wine industry economics. Nearly ever criticism made of the industry boils down to there being too many visitors to the Valley in their view and the supposed problems that arise from wineries not merely accommodating those visitors but attempting to attract these and more visitors to their wineries.
Traffic, they say, is a problem. Development and the accompanying degradation of the local environment is a problem, they say. They harp on the fact that some wineries see more visitors than their use permits allow. So what do they do? Not a single recommendation they are currently pushing in front of the county will diminish the number of visitors coming to Napa Valley. In fact, there is nothing that can be done to diminish the number of visitors traveling to Napa Valley, let alone curtail the growth in those visitors. So, they lash out with proposals that do nothing but punish the industry and make it more expensive for the industry to operate.
The bottom line is that in today’s economy, without visitation to wineries, the Napa Valley fails as a wine production region. Critics believe that if only Napa wineries made the wine then sold it through the old-fashioned three-tier system and didn’t work hard to sell direct from the winery, all would be well. In fact the vast majority of Napa Valley wineries would fail if they had limited access to visitors and were forced in some way to make wine and sell it to wholesalers.
Often local critics of Napa Valley’s wine industry point to the fact that the primary purpose of Napa’s codified agricultural zones is to produce wine and that marketing is not part of the primary purpose. It’s why there is a simmering argument over what the official definition of “agriculture” ought to be. What critics don’t seem to understand is that without direct to consumer sales of the products they produce here there is no agriculture.
In the end, it’s notable that the current crop of critics of the Napa Valley wine industry don’t propose anything that would impact the number of visitors to Napa Valley…the thing they hate most. The reason they don’t propose any such thing is because there is nothing that can be proposed that will impact visitors. Nothing. Zero. So, they look to change policy in ways that will simply punish wineries. It’s a despicable approach. You know who you are. Shame on you.
Lamenting the changes brought by success is rather hypocritical for a “critic”. When you glorify something you should not be surprised that it’s popularity follows and the quaint, charm and ambiance changes. There are many other fine wine regions, that are not as well recognized where the experience is far less commercial, and yet there seems to be a dearth of effort on the part of the critics to investigate.
God forbid anyone be successful. Profit is a four-letter word, dontchaknow?
Down with the bourgeois!
I think the dialogue is good if it leads to protecting the ‘character’ of Napa. That’s when it gets sticky though, because everyone has a different idea of character. Some remember the ’70s and want that. Others think the 1990s were the right version. But I can say for certain not every winery should be approved in Napa at this stage, and the last thing any of us should want is a strip center like row of wineries on Highway 29 with vines as landscaping. We all have something to gain in the discussion.
That said, I agree with your premise and would add that nothing will get solved no matter what side you are on, until we start from facts. Traffic for instance: Napa did a traffic study and found that the majority of the traffic issues were from employees. If that is the case, and we want less traffic – then the solution should be finding ways to keep employees from commuting instead of tourists from visiting.
But let’s acknowledge there is a traffic problem that likely is helped along with tourists on the weekends and peak tourism season. The solutions that are being discussed are to make it harder for small wineries to succeed and limit their visitation and events. Not discussed anywhere is that (I’m going from memory so give me a little leeway) 60% of the tourists are going to one of 5 wineries in the valley, each of whom have unlimited visitation. So to your point, we can make it harder on the small wineries to succeed, but its not going to impact traffic to limit them. We will still be talking about this a decade from now with this approach to the problem.
Last thing I’d bring up is the Ag Ordinance itself. The narrative is the Ag Ordinance is about protecting agriculture, and yet when the ordinance was made – it was put in place to protect the valley against unfettered RESIDENTIAL DEVELOPMENT. Wineries largely supported the ordinance and considered part of agriculture at the time.
From my perspective, we are all missing the boat. Have you looked at the hillsides change in the past 20 years? More and more gigantic homes are being build changing the viewshed. Far more homes are being built compared to wineries. In fact, the latest information from the County shows the number of wineries in Napa have declined over the past three years.
Here is an interesting article from the Napa Register for some color on that last point:
Excellent points Tom and Rob.
In the most recent traffic study commissioned by the Napa County Transportation and Planning Agency it was discovered that only 21% of the traffic was from tourism. Here is a link to the story from the Napa Valley Register:
In fact it is more likely that added commuters from all these new houses are more the cause of increased traffic than are wineries.
It should also be remembered that if it wasn’t for the wine industry the Napa and Sonoma Valley would be wall to wall housing with freeways down the center. Wineries support the agriculture, not the other way around. Together they save the open space, the two lane roads and the vistas. Housing and commuters are the problem, not tasting rooms.
Having witnessed the growth of the wine industry in Napa for nearly thirty years, I believe we are seeing the deindustrialization of wine production. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Napa County had far fewer small scale producers. The grapes grown in the vineyards on the valley floor were processed in large volume producers such as Mondavi, Martini, Krug, and Sutter Home. As time passed, the prestige and quality of the Napa Valley fruit increased. Wine produced from this fruit sold for two to five times more than wine produced from other grape sources. Smaller estate wineries were established to produce the highest quality wine from this fruit and the larger producers supplement diminishing grapes by importing from other areas like Lodi. The larger wineries can do this because their permits existed before the Winery Definition Ordinance (WDO). The upside of producing higher quality wine in smaller facilities is greater employment and financial return per acre of vineyard. The downside is that these smaller estate wineries need to market and distribute differently than the traditional larger wineries. The complaints that we see are centered on the newer marketing and distribution models. As in most situations, the solution is going to require compromise on all fronts. Napa is extremely fortunate in that we have very qualified people who want to sit on our Board of Supervisors. They are taking the time to gather information to formulate a well informed policy for moving forward. Although the process is a little ugly, I am confident that the outcome will allow the Napa Valley agricultural industry to thrive for at least a decade before we are faced with a new challenge to address.
Still, the event center masquerading as a winery and seeking to skirt commercial zoning laws through 02 license freedoms does little to enhance the sustainable economics, authenticity, experience or the wines of any appellation.