Napa Valley wine tourism: ‘How do we safeguard a place without loving it to death?’

Napa-based wine attorney Richard Mendelson, left, moderates a panel discussion on challenges for Napa Valley growth, during North Bay Business Journal's Impact Napa conference held at The Meritage Resort & Spa on Aug. 5, 2016. Panelists are, from left, Alfredo Pedroza, Napa County supervisor; David Graves, Saintsbury winery; Dan Mufso, Napa Vision 2050. (JEFF QUACKENBUSH / NORTH BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL)

CYNTHIA SWEENEY,

Tourism numbers in Napa Valley have been breaking records for the past decade, and show no signs of slowing down. The result is a robust economy, low unemployment, and a reputation as a playground for the wealthy.

It has also created a dearth of affordable housing, traffic congestion, and what some are saying is a crisis of the area’s soul.

Traveler spending in Napa has more than doubled since 1998. In 2015, the Valley saw the largest annual jump in visitor spending, an increase of almost 9 percent over the previous year, and the highest percentage gain of all of California’s 58 counties. More than 3 million tourists spent $1.27 billion, with $116 million in tax revenue, according to Visit Napa Valley.

As the numbers continute to rise, Visit Napa Valley continues to increase its investment in sales and marketing. While in 2010 there was $461,000 spent on promotion, in 2015 that number was $5.5 million.

At Impact Napa, an event presented by the Business Journal at The Meritage Resort and Spa Aug. 5, a panel discussed the affect of Napa’s rapid tourism growth on the region. The event also featured a conversation with living winemaking legend Warren Winiarski.

Downtown Napa is now a vibrant riverfront with hotels, condominiums, the Uptown Theater, Oxbow Marketplace, the Napa Valley Opera House, and soon the 183-room Archer Hotel.

Mayor Jill Techel, speaking at the event, explained that Napa’s renaissance was not an overnight success. Up until the 1980’s there was no clear planning vision. It was extreme flooding which woke the community up, and a coalition for flood control was created. The result was planning that created a design for the downtown area.

While in 1985 there were 12 restaurants in Napa, today there are more than 80, with more than 500 wineries, and 150 hotels.

In 2000 the transient occupancy tax was $4.3 million, in 2016 that number is on track to hit $18 million.

“You can’t underestimate how important it is to know where you’re going,” Techel said.

But not everyone in Napa is celebrating unrestrained economic growth.

The panel discussion at the event included Chairman of the Napa County Board of Supervisors, Alfredo Pedroza, David Graves, managing member, Saintsbury Winery, and Dan Mufson, president, Napa Vision 2050.

Napa Vision 2050 is a group of 14 community activists and coalition members that was formed last year, whose mission is to protect and preserve the general welfare of the community and advocate responsible planning. Members regularly attend board of supervisor’s meetings and have outlined their mission and action plan on a website (www.napavision2050.org). They also publish a monthly newsletter and are establishing a community health task force to address carcinogen emissions and the use of agricultural pesticides.

Both Mufson and Graves raised concerns that rapid growth in tourism has affected Napa’s environment with uncontrolled wine production, deforestation of hillsides and open spaces, has affected the water supply, added traffic and housing woes, and more.

“How do we safeguard a place without loving it to death?” Graves said.

Mufson noted that despite the economic growth, 43 percent of families in Napa live below the poverty level.

He also accused county planners of “rubber stamping” new wineries, and bemoaned Napa marketing campaigns aimed at evolving into a “vanity playground,” pandering to a certain crowd.

Napa Valley visitors are an affluent group. In a 2014 survey by Visit Napa Valley, half of respondents reporting an annual household income of $100,000 or more, with an average annual income of $165,070.

Popular movies and TV shows have also contributed to Napa’s desirability, as have celebrity visits such as Chef Gordon Ramsay, David Beckham and Ryan Seacrest.

“We’re losing the soul of Napa Valley. Do we want Napa Valley Chic or Napa Valley Real?” Mufson said.

Warren Winiarski has witnessed Napa Valley’s growth spurts and evolution for the past 50 years. He is the owner of Acadia Vineyards, and founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

He also created the winning 1973 cabernet sauvignon at the “Judgment of Paris” tasting 40 years ago this year, which for the first time equaled California wines to those in France. It also shined the spotlight on the winemaking region.

In the late 1960’s, Winiarski worked for Robert Mondavi, who had the vision that wine had to present itself to the eye as much as the mouth, for the visitor. Up until that time, winery buildings were simple structures of little note. Mondavi changed that.

“Robert had the vision of an aesthetic experience, bringing in more than one sense to the (wine) experience,” Winiarski said.

While today lavish wineries are spread throughout the Valley, the land in Napa is protected from too much commercial development. The creation of the Agricultural Preserve in 1968 prevents urban sprawl and the creation of subdivisions.

“We thought the best days for Napa Valley grapes were ahead of us. We saw unrealized potential and greatness,” said Winiarski, who sat on the steering committee.

As the proliferation of wineries grew, however, and the downtown area was developed, the population also grew, which has created problems like a lack of housing.

Between 2010–2015, the population of Napa grew by 4 percent, while housing grew by 1.3 percent and home prices skyrocketed 63 percent.

The panel agreed that any housing developments will have to get denser. Mufson also suggested converting surplus county land to worker housing.

City and county officials say they are looking into traffic and housing issues. Techel said the city has plans for traffic roundabouts and plans for more housing in the city.

“We deal with impacts as they happen,” she said. “Tourism is our economic development, a present given to us. This is a good economic model for a city that has all the bones to do it.”

Panel member Pedroza put it more bluntly.

“Challenges are a matter of perspective. The city is thriving with a healthy budget. Napa is going to change whether you like it or not. We can’t look in the rearview mirror and go back. There are issues that come with success, but you don’t shut off the success, you manage it,” he said.

Pedroza also noted that Napa has recovered from earthquakes and floods, and has the ninth lowest unemployment rate in the state.

Winiarski believes the current difficulties are not insurmountable, but have to be addressed in a different way.

“Napa Valley has dealt with difficult issues before,” he said.

He also said with the loss of family-owned vineyards it’s going to be harder to preserve the essence of the place.

Towards the end of the event, Winiarski was asked what he thought of the wine coming out of Napa Valley today compared to when he started out, Winiarski said what is important is a sense of completeness, a beginning, middle and an end, which is hard to perceive when the grapes are so robust and extracted with a high sugar and alcohol content, as they are today.

“It’s so rich and ripe, what we need is restraint. Without it, it’s like a sound that is too loud. It becomes deafening. Humans are subject to fatigue, and deafness. Without restraint, if it’s too powerful, you lose a sense of place,” he said.

Mufson pointed out the same could possibly be said for the current culture of tourism in Napa Valley.

The event concluded with words of wisdom from Winiarski, who can be considered one of the founding fathers of the Napa Valley wine industry.

“I hear passion and common background, and different articulations of the ultimate vision, but all love it (Napa Valley),” he said. “We need to keep talking together to find solutions to the problems before us, in the spirit of friendship for a common vision that looks to the soul and beauty of Napa Valley.”