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Time for a new Napa Valley welcome sign


Every time I drive past the Napa Valley sign–the one near the southern end of the Valley that welcomes you to “this world famous grape growing region–I think it needs to be torn down and replaced with something nicer.

It’s great that there is a sign there on Highway 29. I don’t know whose idea it originally was, but it was a good one. However, I just think it’s tacky design and construction. The wooden parts look like cheap plywood, that hideous grape bunch looks like plastic (and what an awful color, more like cherry Kool-Aid than wine grapes), the big white Napa Valley letters look like they’re made from styrofoam, and the “Welcome” line is amateurish and garishly yellow. Why is “WELCOME” all in caps? It doesn’t make any sense.

It’s old fashioned and drab, like something some kids made in arts and crafts class. We can do better, and should.

My idea is to do what cities do when they have an important building to put up, like the new World Trade Center in New York or the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco: put out a call for artists to submit designs, then have a committee to make the final decision. In Napa’s case, the committee could consist of elder statespersons (Margrit Mondavi comes to mind), who have no motive except to do what’s best for the valley. There could be a public comment period in which ordinary citizens weigh in, but the whole thing should avoid getting politicized.

Think of all the publicity such a contest would generate! Worldwide, I guarantee it. The media would jump on it like a hungry dog on a bone. The Napa Valley Vintners could be the official organizer, and their communications department could work with outside firms to create massive buzz. You know how the Mouton Rothschild artist label gets attention every year? This would be ten times, a hundred times bigger.

And Napa could use a little extra P.R. in these days of recession and gloom. I personally believe that, just beneath the glitzy exterior, the Valley is hurting. Not that I feel particularly sorry for well-heeled owners, but those super-ultrapremium wines aren’t selling like they used to. A huge, worldwide media blitz would inject some energy into Napa.

What should the new sign look like? It should capture tradition, of course. Nothing too modern or startling. Wine regions are all about their past histories, so the new sign should conjure images of the pioneers, of the old days, of continuity.

But Napa also is about the present and, more importantly, the future. The existing sign has nothing whatsoever to do with the future. Heck, it barely has anything to do with the past, unless “the past” is about jug wines. So there should be something about the new sign that’s forward looking. Not edgy: today’s edginess is tomorrow’s joke. Bell bottoms were edgy in the Sixties. Not anymore. So the judges, whoever they are, are going to have to be very careful about their selection, because it’s going to stand for a long time. Maybe there should be an art expert on the committee, someone versed in graphic design and landscape architecture, to help the other members out.

I‘d love to know what my readers think, especially those who live in Napa Valley. Is it sacrilege to call for replacing the “world famous” Napa Valley sign? I don’t think so. It’s been a useful accouterment to the valley’s infrastructure, but its day is done, just as Napa city’s stale old downtown was done and replaced by something better. You have to admit that that old sign is sorely lacking in the main things Napa stands for: class, artistic integrity and good taste.

  1. Steve,

    I agree 100% with you that the Napa Valley welcome sign is horrible and needs to be ripped down and burned to the ground. It is funny that Napa Valley with all of it wealth, prestige and history has an eye soar like this when you come in on Highway 29. This sign really sets the wrong tone to a visitor coming to the Napa Valley for first time.

    As a temporary measure the county should put up a sign similar to red and white AVA signs on silverado trail road. These new AVA signs are way better then the old one they had before.

    You should create a petition to change the sign as i would be the first to sign it as anything is better then the current version.

  2. The new sign should be made from 100% new oak and blinged out with gold and jewels. A rustic, kitschy sign simply does not convey the new money conspicuousness that Napa now symbolizes. It needs to be ostentatious, indulgent and reek of gravitas. Maybe a big sculpture from a trendy artist would be a nice complement. The slogan could be “Welcome to wino Disneyland . . . . and the wine is good as gold!” The sponsors of the new installation could be wine investing and precious metal investing firms. Maybe slap a billboard up there with an image evocative of the “wine lifestyle” while they’re at it.

  3. French or American oak, Greg?

    I personally like the sign and think it is an important piece with some historical significance. The people responsible for that sign were the same people who knew Napa Valley could create world class wines and made Napa Valley the huge success it is.

    I drive by that sign almost everyday and almost everyday I see groups of tourists out there being photographed with the sign. It may be the most photographed thing in the Valley. The tourists seem to like it, the locals don’t seem to mind it, so I vote “keep it”.

  4. Steve,
    I know you did not categorize this as humor but I just had part of my morning java go halfway up my nose as I read the post. You know us Sonoma folk… can’t pass an opportunity to rib our Napa cousins.

    I was just going to ask you if you used the 100 point scale to rate the sign and whether you knew that Parker gave it a 98 because of the ample use of plywood and Kool-Aid. Then my curiosity kicked in and I just needed to know if GUS stopped with you by the sign to…mmmm…. pay his respects by giving it some water. Then, I read Roy’s remarks (I loved the spelling of “eye sore” he used, I’m rushing to trademark it so I can produce a wine to compete with Screaming Eagle. Roy, don’t know who you are, please don’t take it personally, I’m one of the worst spellers on this planet.

    Anyhow, good eye Steve. Sounds to me that Roy’s idea to burn it down is not so bad, but I think they would be better off to auction the old sign at the next Napa auction, there’s got to be some historical value in those planks. Just please, do not open the debate of what the new sign should say to the public… unless you want to get suggestions from them crazy Sonoma folk!

  5. At this point, I think the “world famous” sign is too iconic to replace. The Statue of Liberty is also outdated — immigrants stopped passing through Ellis Island in 1954. Should we remove that while we’re at it?

  6. I’m with David White.

    Another sign that comes immediately to mind is the “world famous” Las Vegas sign.

    Some matters of old school tradition are always cool and the Napa sign and the Vegas sign shouldn’t be tampered with.

  7. Well….I kinda like that sign. Everytime I drive by it, it brings back some pleasant thoughts of times gone by in another era….when the NapaVlly was real. When you could actually buy a tractor in StHelena (maybe you still can…it’s not obvious driving down 29). When I saw this little ole lady at 7:00am walking down MainSt in StHelena in her blue terrycloth robe and blue scuffs, hair askew…out to buy the morning newspaper I presume….behavior that would probably drive the botique owners there apoplectic and is now probably illegal as hell. When you could actually make a left turn onto Hwy29. Good times.
    So I say…keep the sign. If you want a sign more in keeping of a “modern” NapaVlly, go a couple a hundred feet further South down the road and erect a monumental edifice more in keeping. And, this time, put it on the right side of the road.

  8. I’ll have to send you the photo I took last year when someone vandalized the last A in Napa.

  9. Steve, you know that it would become politicized – very much so – everyone would be involved and each and every person from Napa Town to Calistoga with any interest whatsoever, would want the sign redone their way. It would get bogged down for years in the Napa Bureaucracy, there would likely be allegations of bribes, favoritism, elitism, etc. and the sign eventually approved would very likely be even worse than the staid and stolid sign that is there now. So, let’s just leave it… Not that I want to give anyone a cynic’s view of Napa – it’s lovely and I love the place, but there are some hard realities of life in dealing with the County, City, Wine bureaucracy…

  10. Chuck Hayward says:

    Actually, I am more interested in the history of the sign. When was it put up, who did it, who is in charge of maintenance. Sounds like an interesting story to be had…

  11. Steve et al,

    Make it ten times bigger, a la everything else “americana.” Oh, and fancy blinking lights would be great. I’m kidding… kinda.

    I grew up in the valley and surprisingly enough, have the pleasure of working here now. I’d keep it the same. Just give it some TLC. Remember when the Hollywood sign looked terrible?

    If you need a sign to tell you you are in Napa ‘Valley’ , then the sign needs to be in American Canyon, right?

  12. I vote to keep the sign but perhaps update the colors a bit. I agree the grapes could be a bit more purple (or green for that matter). The sign could be updated while still keeping the vintage feel… no pun intended.

  13. “If you need a sign to tell you you are in Napa ‘Valley’ , then the sign needs to be in American Canyon, right?”

    They can put it in between the Wal Mart Supercenter and Holiday Inn Express.

  14. With so little in the way of historical touchstones remaining of what Napa Valley was thirty years ago, I would be unhappy to see the sign go because it would soon be forgotten. It is these types of icons that represent the engrained culture of an area in small ways. Have you ever driven down a street and notice a building had been demolished and thought to yourself what used to be there? Then a year later a twenty story has replaced it. Small things become threads in the fabric of our experience, and experience forms our memories. Having pictures taken in front of this sign (I see it happen regularly) is likely on the must do list of hundreds of thousands of visitors, sure it is kitschy, but adds to the charm of a visit. As you may know, there is another, identical sign at the North entrance to the valley, in Calistoga. I don’t recall when the signs went up or who did them but I imagine the Napa Valley Vintners along with the county had their input at the time. I like that it looks like farmers made them.

  15. Bill Smart says:

    Is anyone else humming in their head that song by 80’s rock band Tesla? Signs, signs, signs everywhere there’s signs….l

    Yep, definitley dating myself now. Back to work.

  16. That thing is kind of like the Hollywood sign, tacky, probably, out of date, yes, but too historic to take down. With all the “contemporary” gateways to the $$$-laden wineries, with their star architects and even art collections, I don’t think we need another piece of glitz right there.

  17. That sign welcomed me to the Napa Valley 45 years ago, it and the Napa Valley struck my imagination enough to take a class in winemaking at Davis. The sign was outdated then and in the 70’s there was talk of changing it. A lot has changed in the valley, but it’s nice that a few things have remained the same. Worrying about the whether the sign is cool or uncool seems a little silly.

  18. Yes this sign has to go, it is too high in alcohol to be a good sign. (LOL)

  19. gdfo: My understanding is that Michel Rolland consulted on the production of the sign.


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