Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Napa County should increase its minimum parcel size

Napa County is considering increasing the minimum parcel size required to build a winery, from 10 to 40 acres. This is a classist move that favors existing wineries and could prevent some small landowners from stepping up to join the elite.

It's also one of the best moves Napa can make right now to address its longterm growth challenges.

Napa County already has 395 wineries, including 49 grandfathered in on rural properties of less than 10 acres. It's likely that among the remaining 5,000 parcels of 10 acres or more, there's another Martha's Vineyard that would really shine if allowed to be made and bottled on its own.

Of course, Martha's is one of Napa's most famous vineyards, yet its owners have not needed to build a winery in order for its grapes to be recognized. Nor have they needed a winery to profit from their land, or increase its value.

Napa decided decades ago that its future is high-end agriculture. No region in the United States, and arguably the world, is better at turning a local name and image into stacks of money.

Napa can't really grow much more without hurting its image.


In 1995, Napa County produced more grapes than it bottled. Today, it bottles more than twice as many grapes as it grows. More wineries doesn't mean more grapes -- it means more demand for grapes, which means Napa brands must use more non-Napa fruit. Even when wines are clearly labeled with a California appellation, if consumers see a Napa brand, they associate it with the Napa Valley brand.

It's always hard for government to balance the needs of the many with the rights of the few. There are multi-generational families in Napa County who own small properties and who hope to move from being growers to vintners. A larger minimum parcel size would prevent that.

But Robert Mondavi taught everyone in Napa that their fortunes rise together. And not just for the wine industry. As long as the Napa Valley brand has power, growers can sell their grapes for more money than growers anywhere else in the country. Even without development rights, Napa vineyard land is the most valuable agricultural land in the country. Napa County has a strong economy and tax base and good public schools and hospitals thanks to the value of its wines.

Napa doesn't need more wineries to maintain its image; if anything, it needs fewer. County leaders need to keep that big picture in mind.

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5 comments:

Jim S. said...

What if we looked at it a different way? Let's say instead of a size minimum, we made it a maximum. For instance, no more than 5 acres, no more than 600 cases produced, no tasting rooms.

Instead of a non-proliferation of giants, we encourage more and more garage wineries, perhaps with communal tasting rooms. I think that might renew interest in the region's wines and promote much needed wine diversity.

W. Blake Gray said...

Jim: For one thing, I just don't believe that "no tasting rooms" and "no visits" can be enforced. That's the law for many small wineries now, but they keep finding exceptions. Most garage wineries quickly find that they can't sell their wine without tasting rooms.

It also doesn't address the larger problem that there aren't sufficient Napa Valley grapes now to make all the wines in Napa Valley. This imbalance is very unusual in the other great wine regions of the world. You don't see Burgundy wineries buying a lot of non-Burgundy grapes, even when Burgundy has a tiny harvest. When there is an occasional use of, say, non-Montalcino grapes in Brunello, it's a scandal.


Jake Stover said...

I am confused as to where the idea that Napa doesn't produce enough fruit comes from? Napa sells roughly 50% of its grapes to wineries outside of Napa. The idea that changing parcel size will fix that issue is ludicrous. Larger parcel sizes will only mean more development costs i.e. necessity to recoup these costs with extravagant Napa Valley adventures. This will only promote a larger exchange of fruit between counties and it increases the notion of "Disneyland" for drunks while taking away the opportunity for diversity, and the advances in quality that come with it. Changing the parcel size will do nothing toward making Napa more like "Burgundy" as you might think. Out of the "5,000" potential parcels, how many can effectively be developed? Is the argument really the image of Napa has pretty much reached its pinnacle so lets put a stop to future growth? Or should we look at new development with a keener eye and change the existing rules, without a shotgun approach that we won't really know the cultural implications of for 20 more years? Neither Napa County, nor the APAC has answers to these questions and it is morally reprehensible to take the view we don't know what to do so lets do something drastic.

@stover_jake

Bob Henry said...

"There are multi-generational families in Napa County who own small properties and who hope to move from being growers to vintners. A larger minimum parcel size would prevent that."

There is a corollary to this.

Multi-generational families in Napa find their scions who wish to follow the family calling and enter the industry, are priced out of the Valley -- forced to move and work in Sonoma or Lake or Mendocino or . . . wherever . . . to start their fledgling winery ventures.

Bob Henry said...

"There are multi-generational families in Napa County who own small properties and who hope to move from being growers to vintners. A larger minimum parcel size would prevent that."

There is a corollary to this.

Multi-generational families in Napa find their scions who wish to follow the family calling and enter the industry, are priced out of the Valley -- forced to move and work in Sonoma or Lake or Mendocino or . . . wherever . . . to start their fledgling winery ventures.