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Too Much Napa Valley

By Charles Olken

I love the Napa Valley. I hate the Napa Valley. I am rarely ambivalent about it. I love it and I hate it at the same time. It is certainly one of the most wonderful wine sites anywhere, and anyone who complains about the quality or the character of Napa wines just does not understand or is making a political statement bereft of any reference to enjoyment--in my humble opinion, of course. But, at the same time, Napa has become so very precious, so self-absorbed, so crowded, so expensive that Mrs. Olken and I often choose to go to Sonoma or Mendocino or Paso Robles for our getaways.

At this very moment, the denizens of Napa County are engaged in a spirited debate about how much is too much—and culprits are the wineries and their fans who, between them, clog the roads and drive up the prices of everything in sight. Napa is not what it used to be. One of the now wealthy long-time land and winery owners complained to me about Napa’s excess, which was a bit “rich” since it was that excess that has made him and his children rich beyond his wildest dreams. He was complaining that he had no peers among winery owners—the rich and the superrich who came with boatloads of money and saw the land as a way to kick back and bask in the reflected glow of their high-priced Cabernets. And never mind that his high-priced Cab allowed him and his children to expand their empire to all kinds of lucrative wine ventures.

Now, I don’t begrudge him his success, but I don’t understand his complaint because it is the mirror-image of the folks who think that he and all those other wealthy folks are ruining the Napa Valley.

Besides, whether one thinks of the Napa bonanza as success or excess, there is no denying that the underlying cause of it all is grape quality first, physical beauty second and relative proximity to the Bay Area and its five million people and million visitors third.

There is a question, one which I cannot answer, and the folks in Napa may not be able to answer either, about whether and when the Valley’s holding capacity will be reached. A not dissimilar place, the Yosemite Valley, needed to limit access lest it drown in its own success. The City of London now charges an immense fee just to drive into the place. Leave your cars at home is the message.

There are days when Napa feels like it has exceeded its holding capacity as well, and so far, there is little of a constructive nature that has been done to ameliorate the problem. I once facetiously proposed that Napa County build a giant parking structure south of Napa City and follow the London model of charging non-residents to go inside of specified boundaries, while at the same time operating a fleet of shuttle busses that would take people virtually anywhere they needed to go. In London, they call the shuttles by names like The Underground, busses and taxis—oh, and Uber.

My concept may have been its own little bit of silliness, but it had its genesis in the notion that the Napa Valley can be an enormous pain to visit at times. Nice idea but I am part of the problem because, for all of my protestations, I cannot stay away. Great wine, great vistas, great food do that to me.


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by Patrick
Posted on:10/28/2015 9:39:49 PM

I hail you as a kindred spirit. I too have a love/hate rel. with Napa. This is because I am old enough to remember how it used to be. As Yogi Berra may have said, "It got too crowded so nobody goes there anymore."

Napa Valley
by Kathi
Posted on:10/29/2015 11:28:40 AM

I was born and raised in Calistoga, in fact, I still live there.  It's a sad state of affairs when the economy that was once locally driven is now tourist driven.

Napa Valley
by Rudy von Strasser
Posted on:10/29/2015 12:52:43 PM

As the grateful dead said, 'the faster we go, the rounder we get'. The irony of this discussion is that much of Napa Valley, and Calistoga in particular, was founded as a tourist town. The name Calistoga was chosen as a slip of words when the founding father was pitching it as the 'Sarotoga of California'. They wanted to build a Spa town and even built a railroad bringing people into Calistoga. I have been here since 1985, and guess what: there was traffic then. There is traffic in Tahoe, traffic in Sonoma, traffic in Valejo, traffic in Berkeley: traffic everywhere in California. Did you know that in the 1880's there were as many acres of vineyards planted in Napa as there were in the 1980's? I think it is exrememly naive to blame the wine indistry for all our woes.


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