Napa grapples with fears of “Disney-fication”
The line between tourism and agriculture has long been an exceedingly fine one in Napa Valley, which depends on the kindness of strangers opening their wallets to pay for things like police and fire services and teachers. But ever lurking on the horizon for the valley’s (and county’s) guardians is the fearful vision of lurid neon signs, crass motels, shopping malls, chain restaurants, theme parks (“Ride the Gigantic Zin-Coaster! Thrill to the Chard-’O-Death Wine Cup Slosher!”), wax museums (Gee, looks just like Mr. Mondavi), and the inevitable gridlock that would choke not only Highway 29 but the Silverado Trail and all cross-roads between, only to result in public clamor for more roads, wider thoroughfares, perhaps an overpass here and there… Has anyone thought of broadening the Napa River and setting up a ferry service?
Well, you get the idea. That’s what Napa wants to avoid, and who could blame them? It’s in this context (the St. Helena Star reports) that “Recently, a hospitality industry proposal came before county supervisors to loosen some of the restrictions imposed on wineries.” Those restrictions date to the so-called Winery Definition Ordinance (WDO), drafted in 1990 by the Napa County Board of Supervisors, which (more or less severely) limited the types of commercial development allowable in most of Napa Valley, whose highest use was defined as “agricultural land.” The WDO represented a compromise between the valley’s pro- and anti-growth forces. One victim of the compromise was the marketing and hosting of non-wine-related events at wineries, such as weddings, corporate retreats, family reunions and the like. This sort of thing wasn’t so important in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the economy was flying high, but nowadays tourism (even eco-tourism) is off, and some wineries would love to be able to make a few extra bucks by letting Chevron or Bank of America come up for the weekend, or hosting the extended family for Grandma and Grandpa’s 50th wedding anniversary.
All sorts of third rails run through this debate, which consists in equal parts of environmental, economic, philosophical and political elements. So great is the potential for explosion that the Napa Valley Vintners asked the county Board of Supervisors to postpone tackling the issue until an unprecedented coalition of four major interests could attempt to resolve it. The Napa Valley Grapegrowers, Napa County Farm Bureau, Napa Winegrowers and Napa Valley Vintners now have until Jan. 31 “to come up with a plan that balances various competing interests,” in the Star’s words.
Most of the people I know who live and work in Napa Valley are passionately committed to preserving its rural nature. Andy Beckstoffer and Bill Harlan often speak of the valley’s heritage, and credit Robert Mondavi as one of their inspirations. That’s all fine, but let’s remember also that Mr. Mondavi’s eponymous winery is probably the most highly-visited in the valley, and if there ever were a Disney-fied winery it would likely resemble the Robert Mondavi Winery with its arch and campanile and Bufano’s St. Francis. Then too, Mr. Mondavi co-created COPIA, but as that is in downtown Napa city — hardly an ag preserve — we can forgive him for it.
The bar to development perhaps was lowered when the Napa Valley Wine Train was first approved, and then again when St. Helena permitted it to pass through to that town which is the most winey-touristy-charming in all of California. And with Petrified Forests, balloon rides, Vintage 1870 and Calistoga’s mudbaths and geysers drawing in the tourists, it’s not exactly as if the valley is entirely free of commercial taint. I expect the Big Four will come up with something that will let Grandma and Gramps do their 50th while putting some cosmetic limits on attendance, hours and such. It won’t be so bad; it’s not a slippery slope.