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Paso Robles, Sonoma, Napa: What’s the right amount of growth?



The thing about America is that the easy issues have been solved. What’s left are the hard ones, and among those—hardly the most pressing, but troubling if you live in wine country—is how much development to allow.

Basically, the two sides are these: on the one hand are tourists who bring in the dollars that pay for police, firemen, road repair, teachers and the like. They want to visit wine country and have a lot of fun stuff to do, and wineries are eager to provide them with the opportunity.

On the other hand are people who actually live in wine country and find the increasingly crowded roads a real hassle. Whether you’re a fourth generation Napan, Sonoman or Paso Roblan, or someone who moved there six months ago for a quieter, simpler way of life, the influx of thousands of extra tourists has got to be annoying.

This is not a new issue in wine country, but it is increasing to epic proportions. As Angela Hart, at the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, and Esther Mobley, at the San Francisco Chronicle, point out, things are reaching the boiling point.

Both Hart’s article, in Saturday’s Press-Democrat, and Mobley’s, in yesterday’s Chronicle, are balanced and objective looks at the two sides. Mobley provides continuing coverage of the brouhaha over Justin Winery’s removal of oak trees, which really freaked out lots of locals. Hart looks at Sonoma County’s approval of 300 new wineries in the last sixteen years, which opponents say sparks “unruly crowds, loud noise and traffic on narrow, winding roads [that] is detracting from the peace and quiet of their neighborhoods.” Neither of these journalists takes a side; neither do I. These are political decisions and a reporter should not engage in politics.

I’ve followed these debates for a long time. There’s never an easy answer. You can’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg, which in this case is the dollars the flow into formerly rural communities that badly need the money. But you can’t take a farming community and turn it, willy nilly, into Fisherman’s Wharf. What is needed is a reasonable amount of growth. You can’t have no growth; that train has left the station long ago. Nor can you have unlimited growth: nobody wants to see Motel 6’s and Taco Bells sprawling along the Silverado Trail.

The Justin case is not quite the same as the Sonoma case. Justin did something that even they admit was a horrible mistake, and they’re trying their hardest to apologize and make amends. Still, Mobley got it right in her analysis that this tempest has brought Paso Robles, formerly a sleepy little wine community, its “first real dose of Wine Country growing pains.” Wine country is nothing if not charming, but as we all have experienced, there’s nothing charming about a traffic jam that extends from Yountville to Calistoga—20 miles—that takes 45 minutes to negotiate.

The answer? Like I said, the easy issues have already been solved. What we’re left with in America—problems of policing, of homelessness, of the environment and climate change and healthcare—are seemingly intractable. They can only be addressed when both sides are reasonable and open to compromise—and “compromise” has turned into a dirty word, in all too many cases. Wine country should be an exception. It should be a place where reasonable people can get together and reach reasonable accommodations that may not satisfy everyone, but that give enough to all parties to keep the peace, allowing for managed, but not unlimited, growth.

  1. Bob Henry says:

    Pivoting to a discussion of managing tourism in Napa Valley, Rob McMillan of Silicon Valley Bank expressed these ideas in his blog titled “How Important Are Tasting Rooms to Success?”

    [“Lightly” edited by me. ~~ Bob]

    I have buckets of ideas . . .

    For instance, why not have financial support staff at a winery work from home or in the city near their own homes, versus at the winery. Leave that for hospitality.

    If consumers are coming in [to Napa] for the day to taste and are without any agenda, they aren’t as likely to be the kind of customer that will join a club and be part of a winery’s experience.

    It is in the region’s best interests to put up and promote a Napa wine community in the Airport Center . . . in the south of the county.

    That will allow day trippers . . . [to] get an understanding of the art, science, agriculture, wine and history of Napa and spend more time at the winery learning about the region, instead of sitting in their cars for another 90 minutes going to Calistoga and back.

    And determine from that [Airport Center experience] if they want to visit a winery specifically on a separate visit.

    The “by appointment” approach yields more effective experience and sales. Its rifled in sales to consumers.

    A winery with a Type 2 California permit could participate in that if they felt that was worthwhile. That reduces traffic, reduces car exhaust in wandering, and allows consumers more time to shop and spend.

    While a little more of a reach, I’d also propose a parking structure be placed in the south county and small ferries run up the Napa river on a schedule to the redeveloped downtown where those consumers can take public transit for their traveling around, or be shuttled to hotels by hotel livery. Make parking free for those who park and take the ferry to a downtown terminal — encouraging getting out of cars, reducing the temptation to drink and drive, and directing tourism to downtown. Charge parking for those who are coming for the day and staying to enjoy the Visit Napa complex described above.

    That’s just scratching the surface of ideas that can be discussed to better address the Napa situation.

  2. Bob Henry says:

    A non-rhetorical question to readers of Steve’s blog:

    Thousands of American oak trees clear-cut at Justin Winery . . . does anyone know if they could have been “repurposed” to make wine barrels?

    Justin’s owners the Resnicks would have gone from goats to heroes by embracing an “after-life” for those felled trees.

    Some years ago they launched a “carbon negative” campaign in support of FIJI water.

    “FIJI Water: Carbon Negative?” (Harvard Business School case study)

    What’s the carbon footprint of removing pollution-absorbing oak trees?

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