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Wine Train highlights problems, opportunities of vino-tourism

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I’m always fascinated by the tension that so often arises in wine country between those who promote tourism and locals who don’t want a bunch of strangers traipsing all over their neighborhoods — even if they come armed with credit cards to spend in the stores and restaurants.

A couple years ago, I recall, there was a big brouhaha up in Knights Valley, that tranquil stretch of the Mayacamas Mountains that separates Alexander Valley from Napa Valley. Kendall-Jackson had wanted to build some kind of visitor’s center. Local residents opposed it. They called me up to see if I’d write about it. I decided not to, but in essence, their complaint was “Look, we have a nice, quiet little piece of God’s country up here, and we don’t want tour buses and traffic jams screwing it up.” I never did find out what happened.

There’ve been similar eruptions of passion in wine country. Another longstanding complaint is that when a region decides to glamorize itself as wine country, the price of real estate soars (well, it used to, anyway, before the housing bubble burst), forcing locals to pull up stakes and move. That happened in the Santa Ynez Valley, where lots of winery employees, who can no longer afford to live there, have to reside in faraway places like Lompoc or Santa Maria. And I remember when Wente wanted to develop the Ruby Hills area of Livermore Valley. Some bad feelings about that one.

Back in the ‘90s, when the owners of the Napa Valley Wine Train wanted to activate it as a tourist draw, the citizens of Napa Valley reacted with fury. It was a real pitched battle. Eventually, of course, the Wine Train was allowed to run along a stretch of Highway 29, but not as far as St. Helena, which surely is the leading tourist destination in the central-north part of the valley. Some of the local shops in St. Helena wouldn’t have minded the train coming into town and discharging tourists eager to spend money in the fancy chochky shops, clothing stores and art galleries. But St. Helena’s general citizenry said, Hell, no.

That was before the Great Recession. Now, the St. Helena Star is reporting that “[T]here’s been a thaw in the cold war between the Napa Valley Wine Train and the city of St. Helena.” Seems the city council has agreed to a trial period in which the train would bring passengers into town at 11 a.m. and let them wander around and spend money for two hours.

The issue of “sustainable tourism” is of worldwide concern, from scuba diving in endangered barrier reefs to eco-tourists plundering through the ancient preserves of indigenous people. In the case of wine, or what has come to be called vino-tourism, the downside was aptly described in this essay about wine tourism in Mexico’s Baja peninsula. Rising real estate prices are bringing about “land wars with aggressive buyers trying to corrupt land transactions,” and hotel and resort owners and wealthy Americans looking for second homes “roaming the valley…bused in from Ensenada to ride ATVs and ORVs, drinking wine and roaming the formerly quiet and peaceful neighborhoods.” Nor is there enough water for all the newcomers.

I imagine this is the very sort of thing the people of St. Helena wish to avoid.

  1. “I never did find out what happened.” K-J built a plant, put up massive flood lights that stay on all night long; and, my friends who owned quiet property in Alexander Valley (right near Jimtown Store) had to sell their home. This is the house where they raised their family, and held all their gatherings and holiday memories. They just HAD to be able to see a night sky, again, so they moved. while their new home is gorgeous, it’s still very sad… Her young adult children still miss having immediate access to their memories.

    These reactions to people invading other peoples’ quietude is called “nativism,” and is akin to the days of Native American’s experiencing Europeans invading their land and taking over their culture. It’s been going on since the beginning of time, and causes all the same emotions, century after century after century.

    When I lived in Maine, you were either “from here” or “from away.”

    While the people of St. Helena are wishing to avoid progress, they’ll have a difficult time holding it back, because time (and money) always marches on, regardless.

  2. The other aspect of this issue is: who benefits and who does not.
    Are the residents of the area better off and is the area’s infrastructure improved by the tourism (in a way that benefits the residents and not just facilitates the arrival of tourists)?

    On any given day in the city where I live, there is one (or more) TV show or movie being filmed in the various neighborhood. It’s a pain in the neck to get stuck on a residential street when I’m rushing to the store or to pick up my kids because the crew needs quiet on the set or they are doing a period piece and my 2005 car will look a tad out of place.

    No doubt this all is an important source of revenue for the town. Still, I am the one sweeping the street in front of my house every week, that pothole in front of the firehouse keeps growing and the local high school is constantly doing some kind of fundraiser….

    Whose ox is being gored?

  3. Actually Jo Diaz is speaking of another issue. Knights Valley and Alexander Valley are two different areas, although the issue was the same.

    When KJ built the Stonestreet facility there was a real big outcry from the Alexander Valley locals. At the local meetings KJ representitives were not treated that well from a few of the neighbors. I lived next to the Jimtown Store at the time and looked right at the facility.

    Jo is inccorrect when she claims there were massive flood lights that stayed on all night. KJ bent over backwards to be a good neighbor and light pollution was a major issue that they handled properly.

    If you want to talk about light pollution, take a look at the Casino that was rammed down the throats of the residents of the Alexander Valley. At least with KJ they showed some consideration on how they developed the land they owned within the rules that they had to abide by.

  4. This isn’t how it was explained to me by my friends, who were living in that house, and dealt with the flood lights. I spent a night at the house B-B-Q’ing, and the lights were on… Since the house was actually (eventually) purchased by K-J, maybe there’s more to the story than meets the eye… ;^)

  5. Re the Wine Train: It’s always come to St. Helena; the town just wouldn’t let passengers off. It stopped, then the engine moved to the other end and it returned to Napa. Passengers could get off at Domaine Chandon in Yountville and Grgich Hills.

    It’s worth noting that late3 owner Vince DeDomenico originally wanted it to transport visitors from Napa or the Vallejo Bay Link Ferry to wineries so they wouldn’t have to drive. Most wineries fought it, and some had to pay to restore the tracks they had disturbed. Most thought train passengers wouldn’t buy cases of wine because of the problem of transporting them and wouldn’t be attractive customers.

    Vince twice brought in self-propelled rail cars (like Muni cars with diesel engines) and offered to provide an alternative to the traffic on Highway 29.

    The county nixed the plan as encouraging unwanted “tourists and commuters.”

    Now the county is studying restoring rail service. It’s starting to promote tourism for the first time. And it’s clear that the Wine Train cares that much about dropping off passe3ngers/customers for St. Helena’s struggling merchants.

    Ironically, there were once two rail services to Calistoga, steam and electric.

  6. Re the Wine Train: It’s always come to St. Helena; the town just wouldn’t let passengers off. It stopped, then the engine moved to the other end and it returned to Napa. Passengers could get off at Domaine Chandon in Yountville and Grgich Hills.

    It’s worth noting that late owner Vince DeDomenico originally wanted it to transport visitors from Napa or the Vallejo Bay Link Ferry to wineries so they wouldn’t have to drive. Most wineries fought it, and some had to pay to restore the tracks they had disturbed. Most thought train passengers wouldn’t buy cases of wine because of the problem of transporting them and wouldn’t be attractive customers.

    Vince twice brought in self-propelled rail cars (like Muni cars with diesel engines) and offered to provide an alternative to the traffic on Highway 29.

    The county nixed the plan as encouraging unwanted “tourists and commuters.”

    So Vince started an excursion train and it’s been very successful (look at the crowds — and the prices! though for excellent food and service).
    Now the county is studying restoring rail service. It’s starting to promote tourism for the first time. And it’s not clear that the Wine Train cares that much about dropping off passengers/customers for St. Helena’s struggling merchants.

    Ironically, there were once two rail services to Calistoga, steam and electric. Now the tracks end past Charles Krug at Deer Park Road, too bad as Calistoga is hurting even more than the rest of the valley and would love to have a few more customers for its stores and restaurants.

  7. The Knights Valley winery proposal was just approved several weeks ago. Here’s one blog along the lines of Jo’s comment: http://zinquisition.blogspot.com/2009/03/right-choice-to-approve-jacksons-new.html.

    On the Wine Train: Mike Grgich invited passengers to disembark at his winery and he laughs each day at St. Helena on his way to the bank.

  8. JD in Napa says:

    The Wine Train actually does go to St. Helena, where the train stops, the locomotive swaps ends, and you trundle back down The Valley. You just can’t get off the train in St. Helena. On certain days of the week, one can, however, get off at Grgich or Domaine Chandon; I assume the train picks you back up later.

    The whole St. Helena thing remains controversial, where the merchants feel that letting passengers off for a few hours of shopping would be a good thing, but the residents seem to want none of it. Those Upvalley folks can be downright snooty.

  9. Paul, many thanks for this interesting history.

  10. Paul, your historical perspective is wonderful!

  11. I never realized the incredible tension regarding tourism in this area. It’s a paradox how the intent of resistance is to protect the integrity of the area, yet not allowing tourism would undermine the health of the community.

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