There’s only one Napa Valley
I have a bit of a cold, so I just sort of lazed at home yesterday and watched the telly. Yes, the old boob tube. A local station was playing back-to-back episodes of Sex and the City, a program I always liked. In one of them, Carrie’s on-and-off-again boyfriend, Mr. Big, tells her he’s leaving New York City for Napa Valley, where he’s bought three-quarters of a vineyard. Carrie is shocked! When she asks him why, and he explains he’s just tired of New York, Carrie says, “If you’re tired, you don’t go to Napa, you take a Napa!”
Clever line. But it made me realize what a unique place Napa Valley occupies in the public mind. I doubt very much if the SATC writers even considered having Big move anyplace but Napa, once he decided to buy a vineyard. Temecula? I don’t think so. Is there anyone who hasn’t heard of Napa Valley? Maybe people don’t know where it is (I’m not talking about anyone you or I know, of course…), maybe they don’t even know it’s in California, but there’s one thing they do know: Napa Valley is synonomous with wine.
And not just any old wine…great wine, expensive wine, coveted wine. Wines to die for. I frequently share bottles of wine with friends who know very little about wine (which is fine; not everyone has to be obsessed with it), and when they see that “Napa Valley” on the label, their eyes widen–even when the wine itself is only so-so. Let’s not forget, Napa Valley does produce a lot of mediocre wine, “mediocre” in the Latinate sense of ordinary. But such is the valley’s prestige that most people perceive everything coming from there as superior.
It’s wonderful for America to have a Napa Valley. If Napa didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. Everything of value needs a hierarchy, where something is high up and something else is low down and everything else takes its place accordingly. We measure our films according to how closely they hew to Citizen Kane (or whatever film you think is great). We measure our Presidents by their similarities to Washington, Lincoln, F.D.R. and other Presidents who have had great impact on the country’s fortunes. Subconsciously, I think we measure everything we see, according to some Platonic ideal in our minds. In fact, some of the philosophical proofs of God’s existence are that, since we can conceive of a greatest good, therefore there must be a greatest good.
When you can conceive of a highest good, it puts the pressure on everything below it to be better. That’s the thing about hierarchies: they motivate things (people, qualities) lower on the scale to be better. That which is lower aspires to be higher, which is what makes human existence so dramatic. America, in particular, says anyone can be whatever he or she aspires to, unlike, say, the old class-based system of Europe, where you had to do what your father did, and his father before him, back into the generations. That’s why European wine changed so slowly. America’s genius was to say, “Imagine something really great for yourself. That’s what you can be, if you work at it.” That’s why American, and particularly California, wine is the most innovative on earth.
What Napa Valley represents to every other wine region in America is the possibility that it, too, can be great–that the mere mention of its name will cause even the wine-challenged to go, “Oh, that’s great wine.”
Is there room for other wine regions to achieve that pedestal? Practically speaking, you’d have to concede it’s very difficult. I don’t know much about other states, although I’ve heard there are fabulous wines from New York, Virginia, Texas and what-not. But I do know California. If there’s another region that comes anywhere close to Napa’s cachet, it would be the Russian River Valley, particularly with respect to Pinot Noir. But in all honesty, the distance between Napa Valley’s reputation and Russian River’s is vast, and not likely to close anytime soon.