Redefining Paradise: Fanning the Flame of Napa Valley

That which has not been found cannot be lost.

On October 11, 2022, several people sent me an article from L.A. Mag by Colman Andrews’ titled “Paradise Lost: The Flame Out of Napa Valley’s Iconic Wine Country.” While a well-written and vividly descriptive read, I found myself, a 6th generation Napan and Wine & Spirits Education Trust certification recipient, balking at his views that Napa’s wine tourism industry is flaming out. The article read as harsh criticism based on an outsider’s misguided and toxic nostalgia. His assertions that Napa isn’t what it was 50 years ago, in his youth, ignored that during that time, Napa Valley’s wine industry was barely a blossom on the vine. It hadn’t found its footing in the American wine tourism industry, and I would argue that now is a better time than ever to experience the Valley. Yes, Napa Valley is still adapting to suit an ever-evolving world economy and increasingly inhospitable climate, but recent augmentations to the tourist experience better benefit the vintner and the visitor.

Once upon a time, you could pop unannounced into a winery’s tasting room and get a free splash of fermented grape juice. But is that spontaneity what defined Napa as a wine region, or was it simply a reflection of the time? Napa Valley’s charm doesn’t stem from how it is experienced, but from what is experienced – the lovely and rare Mediterranean climate with long summers that stretch into October, the 33 distinct soil orders that streak the hillsides with a rich collection of minerals, producing a wide array of different wines, the family-owned boutique wineries that outrank the big brand names in terms of quality. The frills and ribbons which adorn Napa’s dirt-stained frocks have changed since the wine industry boom of the 1960s, but the fundamentals certainly have not.

For context, the Napa Valley produces only 4% of the entire wine production volume of California. It is surprisingly small despite its notoriety. According to the Napa Valley Vintners’ Association, there are not 1700 wineries as Andrews asserts, but closer to a modest 500, with over 700 grape growers who sell their crops to vintners but do not make wine themselves. Perhaps Andrews’ tally is derived from the 1000+ wine labels from Napa Valley. However, many wineries produce multiple labels, usually representing different winemaking philosophies or price points, but these offshoots do not constitute their own winery. On a quick side note about factual verification, Andrews claimed that Napa Valley is home to three 3-star Michelin-rated restaurants. This is not correct. At the time of the “Paradise Lost” publication, Napa Valley boasted three restaurants with at least one Michelin star – Kenzo and La Toque, which both have one star each, and the French Laundry, which is our only 3-star rated restaurant. Andrews is correct that our second 3-star Michelin restaurant, The Restaurant at Meadowood, was destroyed in the 2020 wildfire storm and is in the process of being rebuilt, with no projected opening date. When it eventually reopens, it will have to earn back it’s Michelin rating.

Consider for a moment the history of the Valley. Napa’s fabled wine industry was built on the backs of central and eastern European immigrants, the likes of the Beringer brothers from Germany, Charles Krug from Prussia, and Agoston Haraszthy from Hungary. The earliest wineries were founded in the mid-to-late 1800s, but prohibition, a parasitic infestation of the pest known as Phylloxera, and a lack of demand due to low import costs caused the original wine boom to dwindle. By the 1960s there were only 18 wineries in Napa Valley. The second boom arrived swiftly, boosted by wine pioneers like Robert Mondavi, who founded his namesake facility in 1966. Before wine, the mainstays of Napa’s agricultural economy were pears, stone fruit, walnuts, and cows, much more diverse than the current viticultural monoculture. If you want to argue that the Napa of today is the shell of what it was 50 years ago, you must also acknowledge that the Napa of yesterday had a wholly different landscape from the Napa of yesteryear.

That fairytale Napa where one could drop in unannounced to a winery’s tasting room and get some free alcohol is a still-life of a time before competition and dilution caused the profitability of Napa’s boutique wine industry to steeply decline, back when it was financially feasible to give away free stuff. Some may perceive this competition as a detractor, and I do agree that 500 wineries are a lot for one small valley, but with so many options there is something for everyone. Not all winery experiences are the same. Some are intimate one-on-ones with the winemaker, some are group tours concluding with small bites or wood-fired pizza, and some are as simple as sitting on a terrace while sipping wine and gazing at the vineyard-covered hills. Yes, wineries now charge tasting fees and require appointments for visitations. But this change was not borne out of a desire for exclusivity and wealth. It was developed as a way to secure an income to the wineries, to pay the bills. There is a false narrative that winery owners live glamourous, richly privileged lives, and while that may be true for the handful of mega-corporations and celebrities who have added Napa wineries as investments to their portfolios, 95% of all Napa Valley wineries are still family-owned. For those families, this is their livelihood, their sole income, and they are lucky if they break even. Within the last 10 years or so, these winery owners noticed a shift in wine tourism. The majority of visitors are young to middle-aged media-lovers looking to experience the romance of what they’ve seen onscreen and across social media. They want to taste the wine and take pictures amongst the vines, but they rarely buy large quantities for their private collections, and the wineries were suffering from that loss of revenue. Almost unanimously, Napa Valley wineries began reformatting their tastings as structured experiences lasting anywhere from 45-90 minutes. Average tasting fees are $50-75 per person for a standard experience or $75-150 for an elevated experience that may include food, tours, cave tastings, or limited production wines. That’s the price of a single bottle of wine, and many wineries will waive the fee if you make a purchase during your visit. Put that way, it’s not so bad.

Imagine that you are an artist. To sell your work, you set up a booth at a local fair or farmer’s market and give out free stickers featuring your art as a promotional tool. The onlookers tell you how much they love your art and how talented you are, but they never buy a painting or a sculpture or even a calendar. You’re not making any money, and you can’t pay your bills. So, to recoup some of that lost revenue from the gawkers who aren’t collecting, you start charging a small amount for the stickers. That’s what it’s like in a tasting room.

So, while Colman Andrews’ opinion is that Napa Valley is fizzling, mine is that Napa Valley is continually gaining steam, and what I appreciate most about his article is that he inspired me to take a deeper look at what defines Napa as it is, was, and will be. I encourage everyone to visit the Valley and form your own opinions. Experience the boutique shops of St. Helena, the walkable, resort-like atmosphere of Yountville, the historic hot springs of Calistoga, the rapidly expanding downtown of the city of Napa, and even the wildlife-filled wetlands of American Canyon. Napa has no niche, apart from the overarching theme of “Wine Country.” It’s up to you to define what that means.

Leave a Reply