What We Talk About When We Talk About Napa

Napa Valley is a place. A stretch of land. Napa is a city. Napa is a state of mind. It’s a state of wine. What’s the first thing you think of when you think of “Napa?” The answer probably has more to do with you than it does with the place, the people who live in and visit Napa Valley, or the wines that are made there.

To some it’s the heart and soul of authenticity. To others it’s one big, empty, plastic joke. Of course neither of these extremes are representations of fact.

People intermingle the wine with the place. Discussion of something as simple as the predominant style of wine produced in Napa changing unleashes vehement and colorfully worded responses that often have nothing to do with the wine itself — such as admonitions to stay away from Napa’s overpriced restaurants, punctuated by the inevitable “that’s why I go to Sonoma.” Things can get convoluted. So, some people hear the word Napa and think of the Wine Country Adult Disneyland of tasting rooms in castles, fake trolley cars and $500-tasting menus. Others hear it and think of the remarkable revitalization that has been transforming Downtown Napa since the city planners managed to engineer the river so it doesn’t put half the city under water every year. Still others will think first, and perhaps only, of a style of wine, for good or ill. Others hear more broadly a brand image, a way of life, a vacation destination. Still others are, puzzlingly, obsessed with what they feel to be subpar spas and bad masseuses. So it’s fair to say many people have their own interpretations of what Napa means.

But are the wine and the place hopelessly, inexorably entwined?

In much of France and Italy the names of the places and the grapes grown and wine made in them are inseparable from each other. Burgundy. Bordeaux. Chianti. Chablis. Barolo. Champagne.

But that’s not so in the United States. Right? Well, let’s just say those other countries have a couple of hundred years head start and leave it at that (though the ’70s, when we made “California Burgundy” on the West Coast was no doubt an exciting time).

Napa’s a marketing term, some might say. And as such, it’s lost its meaning. It’s stronger than ever. It’s reinvented itself. Whatever your take, the name recognition of the place and the AVA (American Viticultural Area) have come a long way. Not all of that way good.

Napa now produces about 4 percent of the wine grapes grown in California, but the area has an outsize economic and reputational impact.

There was a time when if people thought of Napa at all they thought of lunatics (no, not winemakers, but those institutionalized in sanitariums). The hot springs of Calistoga were the main tourist draw a hundred hears ago. Through the next 50 years, the Napa Valley was just a pretty place full of oak trees and orchards and dotted with wineries and vineyards, more known for its mental hospital than its wine. The Judgment of Paris famously changed all of that, cementing the reputation of the region as a place where world-class wines are made. But it didn’t turn into “Napa” overnight. As one old school winemaker recently told me, recounting a meeting in 1976, “There was no place to eat in Napa Valley, except Jonesy’s Steakhouse by the airport,” so that was there they went. Bill Harlan opened Meadowood in 1979. In the ’80s the Mondovino-industrial complex, shaped in part by the Napa winemakers themselves, landed. Thomas Keller came to town in 1994 when he bought The French Laundry. The first vintage of Screaming Eagle was released in 1996.

By the oughts the likes of Fred Franzia (he of the Two-Buck Chuck) was among the largest producers of Napa-AVA labeled wine — selling more than half a million cases of it a year by his own estimation. A sore spot for many. (And one which prompted the adoption of stricter regulation for what can be labeled Napa Valley wine).

The wine Napa Valley makes the most of by volume is not cabernet or chardonnay. It’s probably white zinfandel.

In front of the Ferry Building in SF, circa 1913


I‘ve been told by friends who live on the southern end of the valley — and with a straight face, mind you — that it takes them less time to get to San Francisco than St. Helena. I think they may have inadvertently substituted the mental distance for the physical.

And that psychic distance can be vast.

There is a split locally between what constitutes the “real” Napa Valley. Whatever that means. The split might run roughly along the lines of what you’d consider Up-Valley and Down-Valley, but then one needs to consider Calistoga, which seems to want it both ways. A billboard on route 29 near St. Helena proudly declares “Calistoga: Up the road and down to earth.” (For the record, Sonoma has its own billboard welcoming visitors to “real” wine country.)

For some who live below the Up-Down-Valley split, the area between Downtown Napa and Calistoga might as well not exist. They wouldn’t be caught dead in St. Helena, unless maybe they were stopping at Giugni’s to pick up a sandwich on the way to watch Outlaw sprint car racing at Calistoga Speedway.

There’s a feeling, not wholly unfounded, that these places — Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena — are for tourists. I’ve been asked repeatedly after entering shops in St. Helena (where I live), “Where are you visiting from?” only to be greeted with a puzzled expression when I reply that I actually live in town. The shop clerks themselves can’t even fathom why someone who lives locally would frequent their own establishments, which are beginning to resemble nothing so much as a string of museum gift shops.

To draw the gross exaggerations in how tourist dollars drive the local economies into sharp relief one need only examine the per capita sales tax figures for the various towns in Napa Valley and their Bay Area neighbors. In St. Helena and especially Yountville, sales tax collected per resident (which is how this is calculated despite the fact the residents likely aren’t the ones doing the spending) for food products is grossly disproportionate to that from any other category; we can assume this is the result of restaurant receipts.

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In Yountville the year before last, $230 in food sales tax was collected per person, as opposed to $24 in general retail and $1 or less in transportation, construction, B-to-B, or anything else. By contrast, the city of Napa shows a much more even distribution in all these categories, as do many of its neighbors. Then again, when calculating the sales tax collected in Yountville on a diverse range of services and products one might as well be doing the same for Main Street USA in a theme park.

There is a dichotomous nature to the valley — the rural feel of the place clashing with the more outlandish luxury accoutrements. There is agriculture here. A fuck-ton of it (albeit at the service of a mono-crop). It’s a place where Thomas Keller can pretend he’s wandered off into the wilderness. For every quaint country store (and even those are run by Dean and Delucca) there are hermetically-sealed wine caves and wineries with a dragon in the moat out in front of their castles.

It all adds up to something of a Rorschach test. People see what they want in the mix of wineries, limos, picturesque vineyard views, bachelorette parties, monoculture, cult wines that cost thousands of dollars, fine food, cheesy hotels, family farms, corporate concerns, exotic automobiles, pick-up trucks, quaint country stores, fleece vests, luxury spas, nature preserves, over-development, pool-side soirees, dive bars, adventurous and experimental wines, farmers, B&Bs, hot air balloons, natural beauty, plastic bitches tottering on high heels, bombastic fruit-driven wines, millionaires, day laborers, assholes, Frankenwines, phonies, some of the most considerate people you are likely to meet, natural winemaking, chemistry-set winemaking and multi-million-dollar resorts. Napa’s all of these things and none of them.