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Us vs. Them In Wine Country

By Stephen Eliot

Maybe it is just the economic times and the public distrust of those perceived as having money, but it has struck me of late that wineries, particularly those in Napa Valley, have been coming in for a fair degree of vitriolic attack because their owners are viewed as wealthy, self-indulgent and out of touch with the real art of wine. We hear that the wine business has become a playground for the rich and that the only wines worth really drinking are from a very small handful of artisan producers that are the “true” practitioners of the winemaking craft.

A nice editorial piece last week authored by Ron McMillan at SVB On Wine1 addressed another facet of the same issue via the new NIMBY bunch of residents that has started to complain about tourism and development in wine country. While the article is about anti-winery sentiment on the part of the people who live in wine country and is a thoughtful musing on the subject, it was a short and very logical jump from reading Rob’s comments to thinking about the lamentations that I too often hear from too many people in the wine business that the good that California wine once was has been co-opted and destroyed by the well-heeled few.

What Ron reminded, and this is from an active and savvy financial hand who knows the wine business, is that:

“Ironically that lifestyle characterization for the wine business is largely a mirage because anyone in the business knows the average return on assets and pre-tax profitability really isn't that great compared to alternative investments. But perhaps if the business were seen by non-industry folks as it really is: family farms and hard-working family business people instead of affluent toys - perhaps then the non-wine community wouldn't process the discussion as "us against them" or "they can afford to go without."

That said, it appears to me when industry participants themselves start fanning the flames of debate in the press, we've lost sight of the collaborative values upon which the industry has thrived. From my vantage point that is a step backward in thinking.”

Yes, there are big corporate players, and there are those individuals with money to burn, and, while I would not defend everything that they do, that does not mean that either is incapable of making very fine wines. It would be wise to remember his statement that what fine California wine is and was still rests on “family farms and hard-working family business”.

Rob is concerned that the non-wine community will process the discussion as “us against them,” but I am here to tell you that I have heard the same sentiment from too many winemakers and those who would praise them, and it’s not just about tourism and increased traffic. To all of those talented, up-and-coming new winemakers and writers who are quick to tell me what is wrong with California wine and who is to blame, I would simply ask that, please, talk ad nauseum about how wonderful and insightful you are, but let’s get away from Gore Vidal’s observation that it is not enough to succeed, others must fail. You never get very far by simply putting the other fellow down.


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