Challenges and competition threaten Napa Valley food and wine reputation
Local Tastes

Challenges and competition threaten Napa Valley food and wine reputation


Here's food for thought: What does it take to stay on top of the game?

The world of food and wine in the Napa Valley has never been as challenging as it is today. With tectonic shifts in demographics, changing consumer preferences, growing environmental instability, labor shortages and ever-increasing competition, it seems as though new obstacles are revealed on a weekly basis.

Losing favor with food critics

In what might be the most scathing food review in recent history, The New York Times’ new California food critic, Tejal Rao, likens her recent trip to the North California’s three-Michelin Star restaurants — The French Laundry and the Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley and Single Thread in Healdsburg — as being: “[an] ideal of luxury: technically flawless, incredibly expensive and, in the end, somewhat predictable.”

She then lobs in a few potentially inflammatory statements, including mentioning President Donald Trump and saying that, “At times, overwhelmed by the opulence, I felt like a character in a sci-fi movie who had sneaked into a spaceship for the 1%, now orbiting a burning planet.”

And if that weren’t enough to send millennials adjusting their bucket lists to scratch off the entire region, she ends the article with “I [have] no plans to make a special journey back.”

For many who view the Napa Valley with high esteem for its role in helping inspire Americans’ appreciation for quality food, wine and professional service, her review seems unbalanced and unfair. Others see it as an honest reflection of today’s zeitgeist.

Regardless, Rao’s review continues a shift in modern food reviewers to distance themselves from any past glory and, in this case, using a tiny subset of Napa Valley restaurants to make socially sensitive assessments thrust atop more typical restaurant criticism.

However uncomfortable for some, such a shift in tone is not going away. Eating has become political, and this reality will continue to expand as concerns of animal welfare, working conditions, economic fairness and pay-to-play privilege overwhelm the simple act of how something tastes and how well it was served.

Also related is a growing mistrust of opulence so that anything served on a golden-rimmed plate will immediately be viewed with suspicion by many. And given the shifts in the food-critic landscape, the pace of these trends will likely accelerate, with the Napa Valley in danger of being cast as the poster child for privilege instead of innovation, farm-to-table organic produce and a place to learn and hone a craft.

Maintaining relevance

In another sign of the valley’s waning culinary relevancy, the new San Francisco Chronicle restaurant reviewer, Soleil Ho, has shifted the paper’s focus. Instead of using a star system to rate some of the Bay Area’s expensive fine-dining establishments that most often leaned heavily on French, Italian and California cuisines, Ho has broadened that range to include more cultural influences. She also appears more conscious of the economic consequences of her reviews than did her predecessor Michael Bauer, who for 32 years often seemed to have a bottomless wallet.

Ho also seems a whole lot less enamored with the Napa Valley than was Bauer. Whereas in 2018 Bauer’s Top 100 Bay Area restaurants included nine Napa Valley restaurants, this year Ho’s list contained three: The French Laundry, The Restaurant at Meadowood and The Charter Oak. Although ebullient about Christopher Kostow, the chef and creative visionary behind The Restaurant at Meadowood and The Charter Oak, she seemingly has no special love for the Napa Valley food scene. Of course, this was Ho’s first year as San Francisco Chronicle reviewer, so we’ll see if the list expands (or shrinks) next year.

A power shift from the Bay Area to Los Angeles

Another factor that points to a shifting food-criticism landscape is the geo-transfer of the culinary power epicenter from Northern California to Southern Califorina. As if to highlight this, Bon Appétit’s 2019 top restaurant was Los Angeles’ Japanese-style sandwich shop Konbi.

Also, Food & Wine recently hired as their new restaurant editor Khushbu Shah, who is focused on being more “inclusive” and intends to “expand and vary the legacy magazine’s coverage from a new bureau in Los Angeles.”

These shifts are just not affecting the rarefied ranks of food reviewers. Some of the finest Napa Valley chefs and service personnel are also migrating south.

Chef Katianna Hong, named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs for 2018, was a chef at The Charter Oak in St. Helena. Prior, she had spent five years working her way up to become the first-ever female chef de cuisine at The Restaurant at Meadowood but has moved to L.A. with her husband, another fine, former local chef, John Hong. They plan to start a family and perhaps a new Korean-inspired restaurant someday.

Talking with Food & Wine about the move, Hong said, “It’s not wrong to have the singular, competitive, creative drive like we used to have. But there is a different level of cooking that excites me now: food that is personal, cooking in a way that’s meaningful. For us, that means connecting with our Korean culture. I have this picture in my mind of John and me at our future restaurant — one of us in the office working on some menus or going through invoices, the other in the kitchen prepping. Our kids are sitting in a corner with cousins and grandparents eating a Korean lunch that we prepared and put our hearts into. The grandparents take all the kids to the park after lunch and we see them at home later.”

Earlier this year, another formerly local chef, Massimo Falsini left Solbar and headed south about the same time that the Michelin guide announced moving beyond the Bay Area to review restaurants throughout California.

Why is this happening?

Partly it’s because consumers are constantly looking for something new. Partly it’s the high cost of living and limited access to affordable housing in the Napa Valley. But another big part is that today’s diners have changed with a greater interest in fast-casual meals and simpler or more ethnically diverse options. Talk with most people younger than 40 and ask them to pay $300 for a French-influenced meal that will take three to four hours to complete and you’ll most likely receive a polite excuse as to why they can’t attend. They might even be offended.

As a real-world example of these changes, in Yountville Thomas Keller, chef/owner of The French Laundry et al., recently opened the Oaxacan-focused Mexican restaurant La Calenda and is rumored to have purchased the old Redd restaurant to bring in an upscale Korean steakhouse (Cote) that has a popular location already in New York.

Just across from La Calenda, now sits Coqueta, a second location for Chef Michael Chiarello’s Spanish- tapas-focused eatery (the other one is in San Francisco).

Beyond Yountville, Calistoga’s old-school Italian-focused bistro Bosko’s Trattoria will become a high-end Japanese restaurant this year, thus competing with Napa’s other three high-end Japanese-influenced restaurants, Morimoto, Miminashi, Kenzo, along with Hal, another Napa Japanese restaurant, in its soft-opening phase.

Do these changes mean that the days of The French Laundry and haute cuisine are dead? Absolutely not. For the foreseeable future, a market for these types of experiences will remain. However, these shifts toward casual and world cuisines are likely to continue with a big impact on the Napa Valley food scene and also on another important Napa Valley industry – wine.

The White Claw effect

White Claw is a “hard seltzer,” which means it’s carbonated water with a “hint” of fruit flavor and a spike of alcohol. The alcohol is likely made from corn sugar, but the source is not listed on the label — only that the alcohol is made from gluten-free grains. Launched in 2016 by the producers of Mike’s Hard Lemonade, this 100-calorie, 5% alcohol by volume with only two carbohydrates drink is basically the alcoholic version of the widely popular LaCroix. The simple concoction has become a phenomenon with younger drinkers wanting a sugar-free, pretension-free, and near taste-free alternative to beer, wine or spirits.

According to CNN, there is now a nationwide shortage of the drink. Based on data collected by Nielsen, they report that sales of White Claw have grown faster than expected – 283% so far in 2019.

Another reason White Claw is so popular is that it goes with nearly any food. Because of its nearly nondescript flavor profile consumers could conceivably enjoy it with anything from a grilled steak with Korean Ssamjang to poached halibut with Béarnaise or even carnitas tacos. Plus, these beverages can be cheap. At the casual new Lincoln Avenue Brewery in Calistoga that sells a burger for $10 and black-bean quesadillas for $8, they were — last time I checked —selling cans of White Claw for $4 each.

There are some who believe (me included) that this shift toward less-expensive and simpler beverages will expand and cut into Napa Valley wine sales.

Looking back to see forward — 1926 vs. 2019

In Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel “The Sun Also Rises” one of the characters, Bill, asks his friend Mike how he went bankrupt. His friend’s now-famous reply is simple yet telling: “Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

Hemingway wrote the novel post-World War I but pre-Great Depression. The story highlights the challenges of growing up during what was a tumultuous time, fraught with a combination of economic exuberance (the markets were way up and had been climbing steadily for years), greater equality between the sexes (the 19th Amendment that gave women the vote in national elections had been passed in 1920), and an increasing sense of apprehension in both America and beyond. In the U.S., Prohibition had become enforceable in 1920; the Ku Klux Klan was on the rise; and Congress had passed the Immigration Law of 1924, establishing a quota system that discriminated against many groups — especially Asians, Jews and Catholics — and favored northern and western Europeans. And then there was the infamous 1925 “Scopes Monkey Trial” in which the state of Tennessee convicted a substitute high school science teacher — John T. Scopes — for presenting Darwinian theories of evolution to his class.

In 1926, the broader world was also going through its own dramatic changes: The Russian Revolution of 1917 had laid the groundwork for establishing the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; “Red Scare” had spread across nearly all pro-Western countries; and suspicion had grown that any labor unions or worldwide workers’-rights movements were actually the instruments of Moscow. And there was a growing power struggle in China between the increasingly dominant Communist Party of China and a collection of the then-ruling regional warlords, whereas the Middle East was in turmoil after World War I had sparked numerous wars in independence movements, such as the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, the Turkish War of Independence between 1919 and 1923, the beginnings of the Iraqi-Kurdish conflict, the “Great Syrian Revolt” and many other wars and skirmishes between groups and factions all vying for the increasingly valuable oil fields that had first been found in the region in 1908 by British Petroleum in Persia (now Iran).

In 2019, we have conditions that are vaguely similar to 1926, and the generation that is coming of age now is probably very similar to Hemingway’s — often feeling apprehensive and vulnerable. America was changing as the world was changing then as it is now. That generation ended up becoming frugal, culturally curious and much more social than previous generations.

The future of food and wine in the Napa Valley

The Napa Valley was once one of three primary culinary epicenters in the United States with San Francisco and New York being the other two (OK, Chicago natives, maybe there were four), but now there are hundreds of culinary destinations. And whereas the Napa Valley was once arguably the premier wine region dozens of places around the country now make fine wine and extol their beautiful scenery. And with food and wine, like with most other products, change at first happens gradually but then suddenly.

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