Why the Hyper-Gentrification of Napa Can Be a Good Thing For California Wine

Posted by Connor Smith on

There are a handful of cliches in wine that we just can’t stop using because they’re so darn true. Here’s a good one: the way you make a small fortune in winemaking is by starting with a large one. In Napa Valley, that concept has been pushed to the tens in recent years. A higher and higher proportion of wineries are effectively pet projects for folks who’ve made their money elsewhere. Make no mistake, there’s plenty of great wine coming out of these projects. The palate don’t lie. But the ever-accelerating cost of Napa winemaking, paired with the reserve of people willing to pay the price for a sprawling estate of their own, means the concept of a small-scale farmer-vigneron gets more laughably alien to the Napa Valley scene with each passing year.

That can be a good thing for California wine as a whole. Here’s why.

I grew up in the shadow of Monte Bello, California’s greatest vineyard that isn’t in Napa or Sonoma. If you were to list the “Grand Cru Vineyards” of California, it’d be a layup of a pick. Running along the very top of the ridge is a road I’ve spent dozens of hours cruising: Skyline Boulevard (California Highway 35). I’ll always maintain it’s one of the world’s great driving roads.

skyline boulevard

If you hop out of your car and look east, it’s easy to see why grapes would be so happy up here. All through the growing season you have sunny dry days, foggy cool nights, and stunning views. It’s clear as day why such an obviously special vineyard site has been making wine since 1892.

Jump back in the car and drive five minutes north, and you might catch a view of Rhys’ Horseshoe & Alpine vineyards. These outstanding sites have produced some of California’s most celebrated Pinots and Chardonnays in recent years, even taking the highest score for 2013 California Pinot Noir from Wine Advocate. But these aren’t heritage vineyards with unassailable pedigree. There weren’t even any grapes here until 2004, when Kevin Harvey of Rhys guessed on a lark that this could be a site for cool wine.

santa cruz mountains vineyards

Horseshoe & Alpine were always here in Monte Bello’s backyard. But they were just hillsides covered in chaparral until a perceptive winemaker decided to go tromping into the weeds one day. So, how many other underappreciated, underdeveloped, or straight-up undiscovered sites are there in California just waiting to have their secrets unlocked?

The adolescent nature of Californian viticulture compared to the maturity of millenia-old European vineyards cannot be overstated. Santa Barbara has been a prestige wine region for the blink of an eye. What were once thought of as bulk wine regions are making more dignified, developed wine with every passing day: Mendocino, Paso Robles, Amador County, Santa Lucia, Lake County. Even John Fogerty would agree that Lodi isn’t such a bad place to get stuck anymore, wine-wise. If talented winemakers are being forced out of Napa and Sonoma, these regions - and those even more embryonic - will be waiting with open arms. How many baby Monte Bellos can they unearth?

Napa’s going to be fine. The formula works. Production methods will always be the best that money can buy. None of these emergent California wine regions are going to waltz into multiple international airports, four-star hotels, and the French Laundry any time soon. If splurging on a bottle of Howell Mountain is the way the night is going, great! That’s no different from a Montrachet or a Pauillac. Every young French winemaker who can’t break into Burgundy with its orthodoxies, but goes off to do cool things in the Loire or the Rhone, is clearly a good thing for French wine as a whole. We should give California the same treatment - except it’s even more exciting, because the land is so much more primordial.

So we shouldn’t wring our hands too hard over the hypergentrification of Napa. If a winemaker you love skips town, don’t bemoan it as the end of an era - follow them to their new pastures! The best way to ensure that we will always have great California wine available at a reasonable price is to support the generation of vintners who are, out of necessity, forging the hinterlands into the legendary vineyards of the future. The new Grand Crus of California are out there waiting. Let these vinilogical explorers lead us there.

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