During this last year or so it has seemed like one long endless “summer of discontent” with folks ceaselessly attacking our local wine industry for infringing on their “quality of life.” Their stated goal is to preserve agriculture in the Napa Valley apparently by stopping new wineries on small parcels, limiting the growth of existing ones, abolishing variances and putting the kibosh on sales and marketing events. The wine industry of the 1970s and 1980s was OK according to them, but no longer.
Upon starting Smith-Madrone in 1971 I became embroiled in a contretemps with folks who had good intentions. From then until now, I’ve watched just about every new winery run a gauntlet of newbyism opposition. The complaints are always the same; first they espouse support for local agriculture then oppose just “this” project because of the unique issues that this particular winery will pose to traffic, lighting, air and noise pollution, size, water usage and of course degradation of their “quality of life.” I’ve become deaf to this cacophony of complaining and whining, which, to me, defines in real time the word “hypocrisy.”
It would be in my financial interest to support more restrictive uses for new wineries, yet I, too, want to preserve agriculture in the Napa Valley, and I believe that preservation can only be accomplished by keeping the wine industry economically viable. A healthy wine industry is the only true firewall against subdivisions. The Napa Valley is not a national park run for a few well-heeled folks for the enhancement of their own personal lifestyle; it is private property where the laws of the marketplace rule. While I wished it wasn’t so, in the long run, if the stakes are high enough then zoning regulations will always give way to greed.
Long-term agricultural sustainability is not possible without economic viability. Wine grapes are the “climax” agricultural product. There is no other agricultural product of such value that can compete economically with housing developments. Napa’s agricultural future comes down to only two options. First, to keep Napa Valley in agriculture we must all realize and embrace the fact that our wine industry must be dynamic, innovative and vibrant — it needs to be able to change with the times or it will die. The wine industry of today is not the wine industry of yesterday, nor will it be the wine industry of tomorrow. The second option is to give in to all the naysayers and their continuing fight for a Napa Valley of the past. This option will lead to failure and should remind us of the old cliché that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Economics is pure in the long run and the marketplace, not the Board of Supervisors, will decide who wins and who loses.
Forty-five years ago the Napa Valley wine industry was a small, provincial, unsophisticated group of 30-plus wineries and livestock was the dominant agricultural product. Today the Napa Valley wine industry must compete on the world stage. We must compete against well over 100,000 other labels for limited space on retail shelves and wine lists. Our wines are more expensive because our land prices are double, even triple that of our California neighbors. When compared to Oregon and Washington it might be as much as 10 times the price. Then consider that our Winery Definition Ordinance and our Conservation Ordinance are the most restrictive in the nation. Add on to that the enormous expense of obtaining a basic winery permit and maybe you’re getting the idea that a winery operating in Napa Valley does so at a large competitive disadvantage compared to other regions and countries. And just to give some teeth to what I say, earlier this year Entertainment Properties Trust, with connections to St. Helena, announced it was leaving the wine industry after losing $130 million over the last six years.
We don’t tell Safeway stores, the Napa Valley Roasting Co., Target or Steves Hardware how many customers they’re allowed to sell to, so why are small wineries limited to how many customers they can sell to in a day? Here’s yet another competitive disadvantage directed at small wineries from our local “Department of Sales Prevention” regulators.
Fortunately, in the pre-WDO world, the NV wine industry of the early 1970s changed, innovating in both production and marketing to become a pre-eminent wine producing region of the world. The Robert Mondavi Winery is the prototypical modern winery with stylish architecture, modern equipment and direct marketing to consumers with gracious hospitality and seemingly continuous marketing events along with entertainment in the form of their summer concerts. If the NV wine industry hadn’t changed and embraced the “event wineries” concept we’d be mostly houses now, much like what the Livermore Valley is today.
I suspect that much of the criticism aimed at the wine industry is frustration over traffic. It is not the wine industry’s fault that the population in Napa County has increased by well over double during the last 45 years.
It is not the wine industry’s fault that a citizens’ group called UNVA stopped Highway 29 from being expanded into four lanes in the Upvalley.
It is not the wine industry’s fault that nothing was accomplished for a St. Helena bypass during these last 40 years, except adding three traffic signals with a fourth one coming soon. If blame for the traffic congestion is to be assigned then I reference Walt Kelly’s poster celebrating the first Earth Day featuring his cartoon character Pogo saying, “We have met the enemy, and it is us.”
I view our critics kind of like freeloaders. They enjoy the fruits of the Napa Valley wine industry (that being our beautiful vineyards and valley) and then they are both indignant and intolerant of having to witness us doing the labor necessary to operate a successful industry, which, in turn, provides them with the beauty that is the Napa Valley they like so much — a Catch-22 that would make Joseph Heller proud.
Smith is the co-owner of Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery, St. Helena.