One of Napa Valley’s famous welcome signs appears a little less welcoming these days.
Yellow plastic “caution” tape has been strung up to form a de facto barrier in front of the longtime “Welcome to ... Napa Valley” sign located along Highway 29 near Oakville.
Napa Valley Wine Train owners strung up the tape this winter in front of the railroad tracks, next to the spot where tourists pull over and walk across the tracks to get close to the sign. The train and its tracks are owned by Seattle-based Noble House Hotels & Resorts, Ltd. and Brooks Street.
According to an email from Tony Giaccio, CEO/CFO of the Napa Valley Wine Train, the goal of the taped barrier is to “discourage foot traffic” along an active railroad.
However, to many visitors, nothing says “you are here” like a photo at one of the Napa Valley’s two welcome signs along Highway 29.
“Welcome to this world famous wine growing region... and the wine is bottled poetry...” it reads.
There are actually two matching welcome signs in the valley. The south sign is located near Oakville, south of Robert Mondavi Winery on the edge of the historic To Kalon vineyard. The north sign is just south of Calistoga.
Blocking access to the south sign seems “heavy handed,” said Laurence Platt of Napa Winery Shuttle.
For years, Platt has stopped at the signs while escorting visitors around the valley.
“It’s a destination,” he said. “This is Napa Valley, we get visitors, they want to be photographed. You can’t just block people away.”
In reality, the thin tape is hardly enough to stop anyone who is determined to get closer to the south welcome sign. A visitor need only duck under the tape or simply walk around the end posts holding the tape.
When asked what kind of message the barrier sends to the many visitors who want to take a photo next to this classic sign, Giaccio replied: “To be cautious around railroad tracks.”
Giaccio said the Wine Train does not plan to create a more permanent fence at this site.
In fact, there is talk to relocate the sign to a safer spot, he said.
However, “I don’t know who is actually working on it or where they may be considering moving it. The sign seems to be owned by the Napa Valley Vintners, so probably them.”
“The Napa Valley signs are iconic and beloved,” said Patsy McGaughy, communications director of the Napa Valley Vintners. The Vintners are the caretakers of both signs.
McGaughy said as far as she knows the northern sign has not been taped off. That sign is not located near railroad tracks, she noted.
“We hope the southern sign will be accessible again soon,” McGaughy said.
What kind of message does a caution-tape-barricaded sign send visitors?
“Obviously, that might not send a great message,” McGaughy acknowledged.
Clay Gregory, CEO of Visit Napa Valley, said he was working with the Napa Valley Vintners and the county to find a place “that would be more appropriate for the south sign than where it is now.”
When the south welcome sign was installed, there was nothing south of it for a visitor to note, Gregory said.
But now that the Napa Valley has grown significantly, “It needs to be in a different place,” he said. “We just haven’t figured out a spot for it to go.”
In addition to being on the wrong side of the railroad tracks, the south welcome sign ‘”is also causing traffic problems, especially during this time of year when the mustard is out. People pull over and stop in inappropriate ways,” Gregory said. “It’s dangerous.”
Napa Valley is known to be a place that is friendly and hospitable to visitors, said Gregory. If yellow caution tape is making a local landmark seem less welcoming, then “we need to do something about that.”
Platt said he understands that the tracks are Wine Train property and that the company has safety concerns. Legally, “they have the right to do it,” he said.
But the train only passes several times a day, he said. “We’re not talking about high-speed rail. It’s a little country railroad. You’ve got to be blind if you can’t see the train.”
According to Platt, while you can still take a photo at the site, “the sign is now way in the distance. It’s unfortunate for the visitors.”
If the taped barrier was meant to be a deterrent, it’s working. Since the tape went up in recent weeks, Platt has seen fewer visitors at the site.
“People have been warned,” he said. “Now it becomes you breaking the law by going up to the sign.”
“I think the lawyers have had a field day with this one.”
According to the St. Helena Historical Society, the signs were built in 1949 by Wooden Valley artist Roland Hauck for the Napa Valley Vintners trade association. On June 30, 1950, a select group of NVV members, including Robert Mondavi, attended a dedication ceremony held at the southern sign.
In a 2012 interview, Terry Hall, the then-communications director for the Napa Valley Vintners, said the signs were installed “to build awareness of the Napa Valley at a time when there was a handful of wineries.”
In the years after the end of World War II, the wine industry was not the economic behemoth it is now, he said.
The southern welcome sign is located on a vineyard owned by Robert Mondavi Winery. According to the Napa County Assessor-Recorder’s Office, as of 2012, the northern sign was on vineyard property owned by Diageo North America.