Since the opening of the Vintner’s Collective in 2002, the number of Napa’s downtown wine tasting rooms has grown like topsy, nearly two dozen, prompting some people to ask, How many is too many?
“We’ve had this conversation before about how many Italian restaurants this town can support, or how many nail salons this town can support,” said Jennifer LaLiberté, Napa’s economic development manager. “That’s something the city doesn’t regulate; the market determines what works.”
For many non-wine merchants, the tasting salons have been a godsend, drawing potential customers to a downtown still pocked with vacancies.
“Had they not come, we’d have had a lot of vacancies for more years,” said Barbara Wiggins, who started The Mustard Seed Clothing Co. in 1982.
“We might be a bit oversaturated now, but it can only help us if these storefronts can’t (otherwise) be filled by retail. When I first opened here (in 1996), there were 15 vacancies on First Street. It’s been an uphill battle, and now I can see the end of that battle,” Wiggins said.
“It’s mostly tourists that talk about the tasting rooms,” said Russell Hamby, manager of the Napa Running Company athletic-shoe store on Main Street. “I don’t think they’re a bad thing — we do embrace that we’re the wine country — but we need more than tasting rooms; we need more shopping.
“How many computer stores are there here? How many furniture stores? That’s where we’re lacking; there’s not option like you’ve got in Walnut Creek, Chestnut Street (in San Francisco), Fourth Street in Berkeley.
“I’m 100 percent for buildings being occupied, because vacancies hurt us more than anything,” Hamby said. “But at this point, having a bit more shopping downtown benefits everyone.”
“It’s wine country, so I’d expect a lot of tasting rooms — the more business, the better,” said Linda Cordair, who co-owns Quent Cordair Fine Art, a studio she and her artist husband moved to First Street from Burlingame in 2008.
“People come here from all over the world to drink wine. I think it’s wonderful that wineries have decided to plant themselves downtown. There’s no crowding downtown; there’s plenty of real estate that’s available. I’m in a non-winery business and I love having the tasting rooms here.”
Several Napa residents visiting downtown Wednesday afternoon declared the flow of wine-based businesses a benefit to the town — even when they hold little interest for themselves.
“There’s a lot more people on the streets now,” Greg Stueland of the Vinerunners running club said during a visit to Napa Running. “Back then there was almost no one walking around at this hour (nearly 6 p.m.). Now downtown feels like it’s alive. Tonight my (running) friends will be going for a run, then going to dinner, and we’ll run into people (downtown) the same as we are.”
“I think it’s a good idea to get more people downtown and spending money,” Mark Elicker said while he and Lane Bieler passed by the Vermeil Wines lounge, which opened on First Street two months ago.
“But the tasting rooms are just the tip of the iceberg. We need to fill these shops with an array of all kinds of things; if you walk down the mall there’s nothing. I’ve been a Napan all my life, and I’ve never set foot if any of them, but I think they’re fine.”
“I don’t see why locals would go there,” said Bieler, “but if it takes money into downtown, I’m for it.”
For Mayor Jill Techel, concerns about the dominance of one type of business have since been overshadowed by the need to refill vacant First Street spaces and especially the mostly empty Shops at Napa Center, which the developer Todd Zapolski purchased last year.
Zapolski’s plan to renovate the quarter-century-old outdoor mall — and build a seven-story hotel on First Street — are the keys to reviving retailing aimed at locals, she said.
“We are on the cusp of redoing Town Center, so I think we will get that result by normal economic trends in the community,” said Techel. “I think it will be more diversifying than what we’ve seen.”