California Wine Country’s race to build wine palaces
In 1972 when Mondavi & Sons created the nation’s undisputable first destination winery in Napa Valley, the race was on across the country to create wine edifices in hopes of enticing visitors to buy their wines.
Today, there are over 8,000 legally bonded wineries in America with California leading with over 4,763 in 2021 according to Statista. Even Alaska has 24 wineries.
While the total number wineries have doubled since 2009, the production of wine has only gone up 3% in the same period. So, why has the number wineries increased much faster than the actual gross production of wine?
There is more interest in attracting destination customers that bolster their bottle prices and minimize the out of state third-party expenses.
When was the last time you saw a bottle of Napa Valley wine in an East Coast restaurant for less than $100? The limited availability of California wine outside the State drives the winery and their club prices up in tandem.
Recent publications have lamented the doubling of wine tasting fees. And yet it has not stopped the hordes of thirsty visitors willing to pay anywhere from $50 to $1,000 for a tasting.
While the quantity of wine produced has not significantly changed, it could be debated that the median taste quality of Napa wine has not appreciated substantially either. I’ll leave that debate to the legions of wine connoisseurs that celebrate the newest wine release sensation.
The current trend is if a winery wants top dollar for its wine, it has to create an exciting, extravagant, if not outrageous, Disneyland-like experience. What worked for a tasting room experience last year is old-fashioned and out of step today.
While Disney-like experiences will be big attractions for many visitors, I believe this is not good for the soul of Napa and the Wine Country. The race to build bigger and arguably gaudier palaces to an owner’s ego will backfire. While it may artificially increase the reputation of a winery’s offering, it’s artificial and not realistic.
Whenever a visitor asks me where to go for a tasting, I ask what they’re looking for and inevitably the answer is, “Something authentic and real.” It should be historic and grounded in the environment. And of course, ”something affordable.”
Winery design is a complex endeavor. But bigger isn’t better.
New wineries and those that want to update their aging facilities, should look to their historic values and take clues from the ground up. They should keep the structural scale and size human and manageable. Of course, the warehousing and aging of wine today takes big structures but the hospitality facilities don’t have to rival 18th century Robber Barons’ mansions.
I am not suggesting the new aesthetic must be old school Beaux Arts architecture. New and durable architect that is sustainable and literally grounded can be edgy and exciting. Examples of this include Dominus Winery, Yountville, with a history going back to George C. Yount’s 1836 vineyard, and yet edgy and timeless as they come.
Another good example of grounded winery is Artesia Winery in Carneros. While built on top of a hill, it’s buried with underground facilities and storage that minimizes its environment impact. And it still looks cool after 33 years!
The Wine Country design process is daunting and slow. A concept today may be pasé by the time it gets built. The one consistent structural theme should always be sustainability, energy conserving and approachability. Wine may be our tiara, but our rich history and beautiful environment will always be the diamonds in the crown.