Monday, March 5, 2018

Wine tasting in Napa Valley is like taking an international flight

I love visiting Napa Valley. It's beautiful, and the food in good restaurants may be even better on a world scale than the wine.

I love many of the wines. Napa Valley has such good terroir that it can always surprise you. I'm not a fan of high-alcohol overextracted Cabernets, which the valley is famous for, but there are so many other great (and usually cheaper) wines there that I could drink Napa Valley wine every night for a month and not get tired.

But there's a usually unstated reason I like Napa Valley and it's a little dishonest of writers not to 'fess up about it.

When I visit Napa Valley, I'm a minor VIP. I'm not in first class: I'm not LeBron James (this is my favorite wine sports story ever), I'm not Robert Parker, and I'm not a billionaire, so I don't know exactly how good it is in first class.

But I'm solidly in business class, and it's good. It's very good. I get appointments for just me. Winery owners buy me lunch and ask if I have written anything lately. People hand me bottles of wine to take home. Usually (not always) I stay for free and often I eat for free. Always, I drink for free. I love visiting Napa Valley. Who wouldn't, in business class?

So when one of my non-wine-geek friends asks for a recommendation on where to visit in Napa Valley, I always tell them, go somewhere else.

I got to thinking about this last week after publishing two very different stories about Napa Valley on Wine-Searcher, one about this year's Premiere Napa Valley auction and the other about James Conaway's new book "Napa at Last Light."

I had the Conaway story done before going to the auction but didn't want it to run because I feared Napa Valley Vintners might ban me from the auction again, and I didn't want it to run the day after because I thought it was too discordant. The first story is about Napa at its moneyed peak, showing what many might consider its very best wines. The other is about how the valley has turned from a farming community into a region that harvests tourists and their Amex cards.

Of course, the stories aren't actually discordant at all, I realized after reading both. I didn't see it at first because I was in Business Class at the auction. Of course I was! Only a select few get in (I spotted baseball hall of famer Eddie Murray.) Breakfast and lunch in the Culinary Institute kitchen! Comfort all the way. I didn't fly first-class: I didn't stay at a guest house this year (I have in the past) and I didn't go to a winemaker dinner. But still, I had a luxurious experience.

The buy-in for that for an ordinary person would be that you have to have a friend in the wine trade give you one of his passes, and how much that costs I don't know. It's like getting an upgrade on a flight: they don't give it to just anybody. But if you buy enough wine at $1000 a bottle, a way to get in will emerge.

Now if you are an ordinary wine-loving civilian, your Napa Valley experience is going to be different. You're going to pay $30 to check a bag -- err, taste a winery's entry-level offerings. (In business class we never pay to taste!) If you pay more, you might be able to taste a winery's third-best Cabernet, called their Special Family Reserve or some such, but you'll never get to taste their actual top of the line without an introduction.

But, like the airlines, don't be mistaken -- Napa Valley wants your business. There's a reason that, even though business class is where airlines make the most profits, business class-only airlines don't last very long. The majority of consumers fly coach and airlines (and wineries) need the cashflow.*

*(H/T to two wine business experts for the analogy.)

The analogy breaks down here a little bit because Napa Valley has successful First Class-only wineries -- wineries where even a regular business class visitor like myself has a hard time getting behind the velvet rope. And it abounds in business class-only wineries, where the cheapest wines are $75 or more.

But here is Napa Valley's conundrum: economy-class customers still want to come. And unlike an airline, which can simply shut off sales after selling 105 tickets for 100 seats, Napa Valley can't actually stop anyone from visiting.

Airlines have tried to make the cheapest seats uncomfortable to encourage people to spend more, but they don't want to spend more: they just want to be on the plane. The same is true in Napa Valley. People will bring a lunch to avoid paying restaurant prices. They'll share a tasting. But they still want to come and the numbers are a huge burden on traffic, the environment, and the quality of life. Economy-class Napa visitors may not be getting a first-class experience, but they're getting something they enjoy or they wouldn't keep coming.

I don't know that there is a solution to Napa Valley's overcrowding problem. It's a beautiful place so everyone wants to be there, and that's not going to change unless it gets so uncomfortably crowded that even business class isn't a treat anymore. We're not there yet.

I recommend Conaway's book, though. It's seething with anger, and you get the sense that part of the reason he can act so righteous is that unlike almost everybody else who writes about Napa Valley wines, he spends his visits there in economy class. 

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Bob Rossi said...

I'm really glad that I got to spend time in Napa Valley before it became totally overrun and upscale. My wife and I first started going there around 35 years ago, and continued to go to both Napa and Sonoma for several years. When we first went there was no charge for tasting anywhere, except I believe Beringer if you wanted to taste their high-end wines. After awhile we spent most of our time in Sonoma, since we found that Napa had gotten too touristy and upscale. Back then, I don't believe that any winery in Sonoma charged for tasting, and usually the entire range was available to try. We stopped visiting California wine country between 25-30 years ago, and have mostly visited France since then. There, when you show up to taste, it's often with the winemaker or his/her family members, and the "tasting room" might be a shed.

Zzzz said...

That was a damned fine lunch at CIA, wasn't it? Randomly met a few new people even though I was just digging in to tasty vittles.

On my past week in Napa, there was something unique about it in that I've never spent the night in Napa before and then I spent 7! It was readily clear that infrastructure needs to be addressed. Ideally some light rail to shuttle the hordes up and down the valley but seeing as that is probably impossible, a very regular bus that starts at the ferry in Vallejo (so people can come from SF without a car) and runs the course is critical. The roads are a mess and my recent trip impressed upon me how small the actual valley is. We'll see how much of that comes to be...


Unknown said...

Another brilliant article - thanks! We moved to Napa in 2014, write a wine blog, and import wine, so I guess we are in business class as well. It is a fascinating Valley to live in - such class divide overall, not just with wine consumers. There are the "old time" people in Napa who can't afford Torc, or Le Toque, or Charlie Palmer, or even La Taberna or Tarla. For them, the "new" Napa is outpriced and there are very few "coach" places to eat anymore. The middle has been squeezed out by the top places, so what remains are haute cuisine on one end and pizza or burrito places on the other.

We never expected to import wine as residents of Napa, but the ever-increasing price of tastings and wine ($100/bottle we used to think of as an "anniversary" or "milestone birthday" purchase - now we ask "hmmm, that's pretty cheap, what's wrong with it) drove us to bring in quality wines for half, or even a quarter, of Napa prices.

What goes up must come down - my parents' property in Las Vegas tells that story. Napa will get hit hard when we get to our next downturn and we'll see how it all shakes out.

grape grower said...

Don't give up on California just because Napa and Sonoma have become touristy and overpriced. There are many other wine countries in California producing good/very good wines at reasonable prices where you can still meet the owners or winemakers behind the bar. The Sierra Foothills, especially Amador and El Dorado counties, Paso Robles, Mendocino, et al.

Great article and very apt metaphor for the Napa experience.

Bob Henry said...

Bob R. and Miquel and John and Blake:

Back in 1971, Northwestern Business School professors Philip Kotler & Sidney J. Levy published an article in the Harvard Business Review titled "Demarketing, yes demarketing."

It presciently addressed issues of excess demand for products and services in limited supply, through "shaping" the demand curve via "demarketing" efforts.

HBR article excerpt:

"In this article we will describe three different types of demarketing:

"1. General demarketing, which is required when a company wants to shrink the level of total demand.
"2. Selective demarketing, which is required when a company wants to discourage the demand coming from certain customer classes.
"3. Ostensible demarketing, which involves the appearance of trying to discourage demand as a device for actually increasing it.
"(A fourth type, unintentional demarketing, is also important but does not need to be considered here. So many abortive efforts to increase demand, resulting actually in driving customers away, have been reported in recent years that the dreary tale does not need to be told again.)"

A modern day example would be dealing with the popularity of Economy Class and Business Class and First Class visitors to Napa Valley.

Using Google's search engine, you can read (with a little bit of effort using the right side slider bar) the now out-of-print article, reproduced in Sidney J. Levy's book titled "Brands, Consumers, Symbols and Research":

Aalternately, you can purchase a copy of the article here:

(As for me, both Kotler and Levy were each kind enough to mail me a HBR hard copy.)

jnkowens said...

Having read Conaway’s books, and been a fairly regular visitor to Napa & Sonoma over the last few decades. I can certainly understand why those of us in coach would be seething with anger. My last visit to Napa was early fall of 2016. The place is a zoo. We stayed in Yountville and took the backroads to the Silverado Trail to avoid the insanity of 29 when we could. The tastings are crowded and overpriced. The restaurants are impossible to book. It’s an unpleasant experience and I doubt I’ll be back.
We reside in NC, less than 4 hours from the Jefferson wine trail of Virginia, where Conaway has a home. The wines aren’t up to Napa standards (yet), but the experience is always exceptional. Those wineries are excited to see us. They offer up their best wines at reasonable tasting prices. Charlottesville has a lovely restaurant scene, the hotel rates are affordable, and the roads are never crowded.
You know, like Napa and Sonoma used to be for coach flyers.

Unknown said...

Can you possibly work-in frisbee throwing into a wine article, or perhaps drinking a merlot on the Nikkei trading floor? Be in touch, my old friend. Email limked to this I assume.