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How crowded can Napa Valley get?



There’s an ill wind blowing in Napa these days. The county seems torn about how it sees its future, which is really about how it sees its current status and its past. This all was the subject of a letter in the St. Helena Star newspaper written by Bill Ryan, who I believe is a columnist. Development versus non-development always is an issue in wine country, but Napa seems to be the most sensitive about it of all regions, perhaps because it is the most famous and most sought after destination for wine tourism.

Mr. Ryan’s letter is a reply to critics who he perceives are “trashing” Napa Valley’s wineries. He seeks to convince readers that all is not “doom and gloom” in Napa. I agree with him—up to a point.

Here’s my take. Traffic really has risen to insane proportions along Highway 29. It’s terrible, but hardly unusual; in post-Recession California, traffic has become worse than ever, from L.A. through the Bay Area to Sacramento and right up to wine country, and it shows no signs of getting better. In my opinion, Governor Brown ought to declare a State of Emergency, summon the Legislature into Emergency Session, and convene a committee of wise men and women to figure out where we go from here. I myself have no idea if there’s a solution, but that’s why we need experts to consider all the alternatives.

To the extent Napa is battling with traffic, concerns about new wineries or winery permits for special events are understandable. I would hate to have to drive between St. Helena and anywhere south, in the morning or during the evening commute.

Mr. Ryan correctly points out that Napa’s golden age, the 1960s and 1970s, accomplishedsomething that had never been done before in all of history – create a New World wine district that competed favorably with the famous regions of Europe.” Indeed it did. He is proud of his compatriots for so doing. I am too. He suggests that today’s men and women of Napa Valley can help to “find a positive pathway to aiding winery growth and prosperity,” a judgment with which surely no one can disagree. There are such men and women. I don’t know if outsiders who got rich elsewhere and then bought themselves a Napa Valley lifestyle are the kind of people who can lead Napa through its travails, as opposed to the families who have lived there for a long time. Maybe some of them are.

Mr. Ryan also puts his finger on a big issue: “Our key item, cabernet sauvignon, is quickly losing sales and position against pinot noirs and other more drinkable reds.” This is surely true. The reasons are not clear. Is it because of alcohol levels? My own pulse-taking of the market suggests that Cabernet may be down, but you can never count it out. In modern America, fashion has the lifespan of a gnat. Woe be to the winery that bases its long-range business plan on temporary trends.

If Napa Valley really is losing traction to “Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley and Dundee Hills,” as Mr. Ryan fears, is it too late to reverse the trend? No. But Napa’s biggest enemy may be itself. When every winery in the valley started charging an arm and a leg just to taste a few wines, I thought that was a mistake. A weekend for two now in Napa, including lodging and good meals, will set the happy couple back close to $1,000. You can go out to Jenner or Boonville for a lot less, and less traffic, too. Napa Valley will never be a cheap place to go. But it really has to make sure that it doesn’t price everyone out except Silicon Valley millionaires and rich overseas tourists. The golden age that Mr. Ryan celebrates would have been shocked to sense that nobody except the uber-rich could afford to visit.

  1. “Our key item, cabernet sauvignon, is quickly losing sales and position against pinot noirs and other more drinkable reds.”

    Come on, Steve. Are you really taking this on face value with no proof?

  2. Having lived in Napa Valley for 40+ years, here’s how it looks to me:
    When the recession hit in 2008 many wineries were hurting due to the decline in visitation and disarray in the three-tier system. Hotel taxes were raised to support the marketing program named Visit Napa Valley which has been very effective (many would say they’ve done too good a job). County rules were loosened to allow more events at wineries in support of DTC sales. The County Planning Commission bent over backwards to approve projects, readily granting variances to their own regulations. Wineries found to be non-compliant to regulations have until recently been quick to receive County assistance in becoming compliant.

    There are two kinds of newcomers who I see as being problematic. There are new winery developers who push the limits such that they cross the line in functioning more like event centers instead of agricultural-based enterprises. Then there are those who move here because of the green belt provided by the vineyards, but then are shocked by the noise of wind machines in frost season or sulfur spraying at night or workers commuting to vineyards on “their” country lanes. These two fringe groups are at each other’s throats right now–but I think those of us in the middle, with a longer view, who know how hard it was to create the Ag Preserve (which so far keeps the housing tracts and malls at a distance) will prevail in finding a middle path that limits and controls the problems accompanying further development, such as traffic and water.

  3. just wait til the taco bell’s start popping up…

  4. When Taco Bell tried to come into Calistoga years ago, the City Council passed an ordinance to prevent franchises and chain stores. St. Helena prevented a Smith-Hawkins outlet because it was a “chain” (disappointing some of us). The development pressures we face up-valley are from high end resort developments, not fast food outlets.

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