The Next Napa Valley | January 2006

I am an avid wine trade journal reader. I have recently been struck by the proliferation of emerging winegrowing areas that are being promoted as the next Napa Valley. Sounds good. Obviously a PR attention grabber, but it made me think about the evolution of Napa in contrast with what I am observing in the new Eastern wine regions.

My first visit to Napa Valley was in 1976. Its feel was more bucolic and provincial back then. Robert Mondavi was the pioneer taking a huge gamble in the mid-1960’s by borrowing and investing in a beautiful, extravagant winery, producing wines for an almost non-existent market and taking a “build it and they will come” strategy with potential tourists. The gamble paid off. Mondavi not only attracted the tourists and a loyal national following, but he also attracted other individuals looking for there own winegrowing Holy Grail.

In the late 1990s Napa became ruinously expensive for a start-up operation due to high land prices and stringent zoning. I believe that this contributed to the current boom we are seeing in the East. Lifestyle investors have tasted a few good Eastern wines and have realized that their dream could happen in more affordable North Carolina, Virginia or New York.

We in the East are now entering our teenage years with all the growing spurts and pains associated with rapid growth. Many new regions are transitioning from the pioneer stage to the entrepreneurial stage of development. The three parts of our operations; vineyards, winemaking and marketing still have a lot of soul searching to do, but there is now a bit more focus.

1. The Foundation is the vineyard.

Mondavi did have one advantage over today’s Eastern wine pioneers. He came from a winegrowing family and understood that the vineyard was the foundation that the rest of the business would be built on. The site he purchased in Napa on Highway 29 was convenient for the tourist visits, but more importantly it included a proven vineyard site with great terroir (Tokalan). His focus on the importance of site and viticulture influenced other Napa pioneer winegrowers such as Warren Winarski (Stags Leap) to start wineries on that same foundation.

This lack of viticultural history has been our biggest stumbling block in the East. By necessity, many of us are at the “shotgun” stage when it comes to both variety and site selection. Here in Virginia we are beginning to recognize the sites, soils, and to a lesser degree varieties that make the better wines. Unfortunately the bigger hurdle seems to be convincing new operations the importance of these decisions. We are still seeing vineyards established on marginal sites and plantings of currently fashionable grapes (Pinot Grigio and “Shiraz”).

Napa was not a whole lot different back in the 1970s. Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer and Gamy were planted right next to Cabernet Sauvignon. Mondavi’s success in selling directly to the public through his lavish “cellar door” caught the attention of his neighbors. Tasting rooms offering a wide variety of wine styles sprung up on Highway 29. For a while marketing seemed to dictate variety choice, but by the 1980s the focus was clearly on Cabernet Sauvignon. The timing of the Phylloxera crisis gave opportunity to re-establish vineyards reflecting this new focus.

Short of waiting for an equivalent “opportunity” here in the East, we all have to grapple with making the hard decisions of removing varieties that seemed promising 10 years ago, but are obviously not working. I have Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon planted in my vineyard. This makes no sense. The Riesling doesn’t belong here. It ripens under too warm conditions and usually rots. I have pulled some of it out, but I have to admit to being suckered in by the wine’s cash flow and ease of sale in the tasting room. I justify its existence as the funding source for my other viticultural follies.

2. Honest winemaking.

The reason that site and variety selection are so important is because if we get it right in the vineyard we are able to make honest wines in the cellar. Honest wines are wines in which the winemaker does very little. No additions of acid, tannins, concentrates, sugar, enzymes etc. Honest wines reflect terroir. Most Napa winemakers I talk with prefer to discuss the vineyard decisions more than winemaking issues. Besides skin contact time and oak selection, winemaking strategies seem rather mundane when compared to the gyrations that most Eastern winemakers go through.

In some ways we in the East have to swim against the current to make the best wines. I truly believe that we need to emulate the wine styles of our non-Mediterranean European colleagues. Our terroir is much more similar to theirs. However, we all know that Bordeaux, Loire and Mosel are not real trendy in the market place right now. We seem to feel the need to make wines that compete with “critter wines” (easy drinking wines with cute animals on the labels that sell for under $10). In order to do this we need to do a lot of funny business in the cellar. I have observed a rapid sophistication of my customers’ palates over the past 5 years. As this trend continues I believe that they will be much more open to honest wines with personality that reflect uniqueness of place. This is ultimately why they will be willing to consistently shell out $15, $20, or $25 for a “local wine.”

3. Marketing: The cart before the horse?

To me, Napa has never really had to put as much effort into marketing as most regions. Again, I think that all the legwork done by Mondavi made it easier for his neighbors. More importantly, Napa wines have always been the darlings of the critics, which certainly helps sell wine. I reluctantly concede that in the wine business, marketing dictates the success of a region or brand. Through great marketing, the Aussies have decimated the market for French wines in this country.

We in the East seem to be quite good at marketing both on an individual winery basis and on a state or regional level. My fear is that this strength could in the long run contribute to fundamental problems. It is relatively easy to sell wine in the East. We have a wonderful “captive audience” with lots of disposable income and a willingness to buy local. As most wineries are relatively young, cash flow often dictates decision-making. Buying grapes, juice or bulk wine from sources that you would prefer not to share with your customers is the first sign of the cart coming before the horse. I have seen wineries who buy grapes, juice or wine form the other side of the continent, and then give the label a misleading regional name. (This same type of phenomenon has been a hot issue in Napa also.) This may be a good cash flow fix, but we are a small industry and love gossip. The number one customer question in my tasting room now is “do you grow your own grapes?” I wonder what generated that?

The nature of winegrowing is based on time and knowledge. This is in conflict with today’s fast paced changes in consumer trends. If we are in this for the long run we need to be honest with our wines and our customers. Most of us will get along just fine producing easy, approachable wines. However if an emerging regions touts itself as “the next Napa valley,” that is not good enough. If area restaurants and wine shops still resist local wines then there is a problem that all the marketing in the world can’t fix.

A few weeks ago I had a wonderful red wine from Minnesota that had good weight, texture, balance, and personality. Again and again I taste little gems coming from wine regions East of the Rockies. It is possible to make great wine in the East, but it requires long, hard, focused work in the trenches and not quick fixes from outside your own vineyard.

Wine East, January 2006

Jim Law