The Napa Valley Wine Industry Has A Big Problem On Its Hands

The results of Napa Valley’s recent electoral battle to determine the future of farming here are officially in: Measure C failed and reason prevailed.

But not by much.

It’s absolutely clear, based on the Measure C campaign and the results, that a good percentage of Napa County residents believe that the wine industry here needs, in some way, to be reined in. The proponents of the failed measure, and surely a number of those who voted for the Measure C, believe the reining in needs to be in the form of even further curtailing vineyard planting on hills. The Yes on C campaign made the case that current regulations don’t inhibit planting on the surrounding hills and the result is “clear cutting”. Many people bought this entirely bogus argument that ignored reality.

Other who voted for and supported Measure C likely believed that vineyards are destroying the region’s water supply. They came to this conclusion despite ZERO evidence offered to support the contention.

Most important, however, is what I think is the primary reason many in Napa County voted for the flawed Measure C: It was a reaction to living in an economy that seems more and more to be designed for the benefit of the wealthy and 1%, rather than for the more common man. The Yes vote was, in large measure, a social spasm reflecting economic discontent.

On his own, the individual of common means can do very little in the battle against the rising cost of living, a housing market completely out of reach for many, and a local economy seemingly built to serve the upper crust. However, the common folk can take a spasmodic whack at the regime. They can throw a rock. They can cast a vote. In the eyes of many, the Napa Valley wine industry is emblematic of an economy and society that aims at serving the rich and powerful, not the average Joe.

The Trump election was certainly such a reaction to spreading wealth and income inequality. Moreover, the tax reform bill passed nearly six months ago is less popular today than it was when it was passed. Less than 40% of Americans support it now and this is likely due to the fact that the average American’s tax burden is barely impacted compared to how the tax plan impacts the wealthy and corporate elite.

Meanwhile, for the past 40 years wage growth has completely stagnated for the American working class and still is. At the same time, wage growth for the top echelon of earners has increased dramatically more than the working class.

Napa Valley is far from immune. There is a severe worker shortage now in the important hospitality industry for the simple reason that those who are qualified to work in that sector can’t afford to live in a decent dwelling anywhere near the Valley, let alone buy a house.

All of this helps explain the very close Measure C election. Despite the proposed measure being poorly drafted, highly likely to be challenged in court, supported by no science, and providing a solution for a non-existent problem, the difference in the Yes and No vote was less than 1%.

In the United States wine has always been a symbol of wealth, success and the upper crust. It is an aspirational product. It is associated with good living and material accumulation. You don’t see candidates for office posing with wine in their hand…at least not on purpose. Beer is the choice of those seeking to connect with the common man. Napa Valley is ground zero for wine as a symbol of wealth and prosperity.

All this boils down to one thing: The Napa Valley wine industry has a problem on its hands. Part of the problem is perception. Part of the problem is systemic and linked to forces far beyond its control. The question is this: Can the wine industry do anything to combat the problems that lead to nearly half the voting public choosing to punish the industry? Yes and No.

The industry itself can do little to battle systemic economic forces that have been in place for nearly four decades that serve to lean on the low and middle-income earners. That train has left the station is moving too fast for a single, regional industry to slow, let alone stop. However, the perception problem Napa Valley wine currently experiences can be impacted. But it’s going to take some real investment.

First, Napa Valley’s environmental record is outstanding. Whether you look at its stewarding of the land, its support for regulations that positively impact the environment or its commitment to preserving the land surrounding the valley, the record of industry conservation is outstanding. The industry should continue to hit back and fight efforts to punish it by rolling back what it can do with the land.

However, if the Napa Valley wine industry expects to be able to attract an effective workforce to the region, if it expects to have the general support of and appreciation of the Valley’s residents and if it hopes to operate within a regional economy that doesn’t constantly breed resentment, then there are some things it can do:

1-Increase wages for hospitality and vineyard workers

2-Support housing initiatives that increase affordability

3-Play an even larger role than it already does in creating and funding a healthy and sustainable community

All these suggestions are expensive. They will eat into industry profits. They will lower margins. But if these kinds of initiatives are not implemented, the Napa Valley wine industry can look forward to future initiatives on the ballot that go well beyond regulating where vineyards can be planted. It can look forward to significantly increased traffic mitigation measures, punitive permit requirements, and moratoriums on most vineyard, winery and hospitality development. How much these kinds of measures will cost go far beyond the fiscal impact of increased investment in the personal and social infrastructure of the community.


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