Tom's blog

Napa's changing landscape

If you have read one of James Conaway's triologies or heard him speak on Napa Valley, you can't help but be moved. Conaway, who has been writing eloquently about the Napa wine industry since the mid 1980s, has more respect for the grape farmer whose family has been tilling soil for generations than he is for the magnate who pays big money to have someone else do it for him.  

Conaway has a term for the fly-ins: "lifestyle vintners." I like it. A lifestyle vintner is someone who has made a bundle in another field and who buys a winery without any idea how to make wine or even grow grapes. He -- often a movie star, a professional athlete, or a mega-millionaire who just sold a tech company -- hires winemakers and viticulturists to do the work and then plasters his name on the label, charges consumers $100 for a bottle of over-ripe cabernet to raise his cachet, and names the vineyards after his kids or grandkids. I saw the same thing in Virginia where millionaires wanted to look at vineyards from their country home. President Trump has such a place.

Conaway laments that the pioneering days of Napa Valley are long gone. Those farmers who came from Europe to plant some of the valley's first grapes are long dead -- and so are their ideals for the soil and environment. As mega-conglomerates -- Constellation, Kendall-Jackson, Gallo, Treasury Wine Estates -- scarf up family-owned, small wineries, the goal of making good wine has been replaced by making good money. That's not true for every expansionist company, of course. Ernst and Julio Galo, for instance, were among the pioneers to plant vineyards in California. The brothers are long gone but their family remains in place and hellbent on expanding. 

Conaway argues that grape farmer and Napa resident were once respectful and appreciative of one another. Today, however, residents are engaged in lawsuits and feuds with lifestyle vintners who want to raze forests to make room for more vineyards. Resources, particularly water, is in short supply but local zoning officials seem incapable of stopping this parade.

Conaway is very pessimistic about Napa's future because winery owners and zoning officials just don't know when to say "stop." He over-generalizes and incidentally denigrates conscious producers who despite their background practice responsible farming. However, there is no argument that the landscape has changed in Napa Valley and it isn't for the better. Conaway wants people to pause when they sip their next Napa wine.  Tasting wine should be a holistic experience that includes history, stewardship, responsibility and honesty. 

I get it.