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Napa grapples with fears of “Disney-fication”

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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.

  1. Steve-

    The one thing that is not mentioned that bothers me the most about the WDO: the prohibition of food.

    It seems at odds with the message when every winery tells you how well their wine goes with food but the county makes it illegal to demonstrate this.

  2. Ted, good point.

  3. Very true Ted. It drives me mad that so many wineries are not permitted to serve any food or allow picnicking. Sure some wineries do not want to deal with the hassle and that is fine but you would think allowing people to picnic or eat at wineries would make the valley much safer with people drinking less and spending more time at each winery while balancing consumption of alcohol with food.

    It is true Napa is trying hard to keep it’s ag history intact but the financial failings of a county will do nothing to support the ag areas in the future.

  4. Morton Leslie says:

    This is really just a re-hashing of a long process that occurred over two decades ago which successfully defined a winery and its place in the ag preserve. The vintners and growers did the right then, and they will do the right thing now. The wine business is both agriculture and entertainment and that is what makes it such a great business. Both can co-exist.

    One small point. The County of Napa and St. Helena had no choice in whether or not the Wine Train passed through the valley or any town; the railroad had the right of way. The city, however, did have a choice whether or not passengers could disembark in the town and they chose not. So Napa County and St. Helena did everything it could to not lower the bar. Unfortunately the PUC, which could have controlled the wine train, had no balls.

  5. wine tourism helps for direct cellar sells and building of reputation of wine so its necessary to minimize the restrictions….

  6. I think it’s just a matter of being self-aware. As long as Napa follows the effects of allowing greater tourism, they can always pull back the reigns when it loses balance. Not a slippery slope at all.

  7. This is interesting, especially juxtaposition to the “great new hope for Bordeaux” where they are now talking about a 55-million euro wine cultural centre that will either be shining beacon of wine tourism to come or a great waste of resources. Napa and Bordeaux may be like apples and oranges but the premise of what these regions are struggling with remains the same, how do we succeed in improving the accessibility of products, increasing market-share and flexibility yet retain some connection to the agricultural, economic and social contexts which gave rise to such great wine culture.

  8. Sounds like Bordeaux wants to build the next version of Copia.

    What both regions are struggling with, if struggling is the right word for places that can sell wine at three digit prices and maintain its place in the market, is that every one there wants an even bigger piece of the pie. You do not see many established Napa wineries struggling and the same is true in Bordeaux.

    But, in reality, despite their great popularity, they are not Disneyish. There are not endless T-Shirt stores and cheap pubs. For that, see places like Fisherman’s Wharf in SF or Carcassonne or parts of London, Paris, Rome, Florence, Venice. Wine country tourism has not sunk to that level yet, but both Sonoma town and Healdsburg come closer than does any town in Napa. What Napa has not been able to prevent was places like Chateau Boswell or Castello di Amarosa–surely bigger blights on the landscape than the Wine Train.

  9. Seth, considering some historic estates in Bordeaux are now urban wineries, I’d say they lost that battle a long time ago. In general, I thought the commercial nature of the city of Bordeaux is what led to the rise of the Bordelais, as it is a city full of bankers (though, not sure if that is worse than dot-commers).

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