One of my earlier Local Taste columns, “The number of wine producers in the Napa Valley,” found nearly 1,200 wine producers that one can visit.
The number is staggering, considering most references list around only 500 wineries, but this smaller number does not include the army of producers selling wine from off-grid “tasting rooms” that may or may not be permitted.
So how many actual tasting rooms are there throughout the Napa Valley that are not at a winery or hidden away in someone’s home or vineyard?
First, a little background. Stand-alone tasting rooms are a relatively new phenomenon. Up until the late 1980s visitors to the Napa Valley looking to taste wine would most often do it in the confines of a winery, the wine often being poured by one of the owners to great effect. You may have heard stories that went something like the one a friend of mine likes to tell nearly every new acquaintance — or old acquaintance, for that matter. I’ve heard it 20 or 30 times.
“My wife and I drove up to the Heitz Cellar winery in 1978, and when we did I wasn’t even sure it was an active winery,” Arthur says. “It looked more like a barn then what I imagined a winery should look like.”
He explains that they driven past Robert Mondavi’s winery in Oakville, where a young man had been standing on the highway holding a sign that read “Free Tastings Today.” He’d looked so earnest they considered stopping but kept driving because the building had a distinctly Spanish-style facade and enormous, industrial-looking silver tanks, which seemed nothing like the classic chateaux they were used to seeing in photos of wineries in France.
So they drove on, eventually passing the majestic Beaulieu Vineyards winery in Rutherford with its stone facade seeming grand and European and its enormous wooden wine barrels clearly visible through the open archways. They didn’t stop at Beaulieu Vineyards because it was closed, so they drove on to a small, relatively unknown winery, Heitz Cellars in St. Helena.
My friend’s wife, Betty, worried that they should knock before entering — it didn’t seem much more than a one-room house to her. But Arthur knew he had the address right and pushed open the door, where they were warmly greeted by a man with a bright smile and slightly graying temples who stood behind a counter ready to pour wine with his purple-stained hands. The man was Joe Heitz, the proprietor and winemaker.
There was no fee to taste wine, and the three of them stood at a rough wood counter while they sipped the 1974 Martha’s Vineyard cabernet, arguably the first vineyard-designated wine in California. They tasted the wine without much fanfare and certainly no T-shirts or hats with the winery’s logo available for sale. That experience made a deep impression on my friend, who has been a lifetime fan of that particular wine and winery since, but he also gained a reverence for the land and hardworking farmer-ethos of the place.
Today, tasting rooms are ubiquitous in the Napa Valley. Why? Partly because of a general increase in wine consumption. About 15 years ago a new phenomenon entered the world of winemaking: custom crush, which allows would-be vintners to create their own wine brand to sell without having to own a winery.
Of course, this has always been an option for making wine. Even the now ultra-high-end vintner Harlan Estates wine was once made using a sort of custom-crush facility, and the history of wine production in Northern California and around the world is full of such tales.
But it used to be less common. In the early 2000s, businesses found ways to make custom crush simple, catering to the general population’s growing desire to create their own wine, tweaking levels of oak and designing personalized labels. Often it was made with grapes sourced from some of the most exclusive and expensive vineyards in the Napa Valley, like Beckstoffer’s To-Kalon, with the wines made by expert winemakers and the newly minted vintners overseeing the entire process.
This new accessibility, coupled with the rising price of high-end wine, resulted in even more would-be vintners entering the wine market.
Additionally, grape farmers who historically had little interest in winemaking found that they could increase the value of their own grapes if they’d make a few barrels from their best selection, hoping that these wines might receive high scores in the press, increasing the value of their vineyards.
The combined result was an ever-increasing number of wine brands, many without a tasting facility to showcase the wine. This was a dilemma because selling a few bottles of wine to friends and family is one thing, but if they made more than a barrel or two of wine (each barrel produces about 20 to 25 cases of wine, depending on technique), each producer needed to find more buyers.
Layer on to this that selling direct to consumers is the most profitable channel for any winery and this confluence of factors led to the advent of remote tasting rooms. Beyond this, even existing wineries competing for customers found downtown tasting rooms a way to access a new breed of customers looking for a downtown experience. Blend all these elements and it makes sense that we now have more tasting rooms in the Napa Valley.
According to the same source who is in the middle of documenting the nearly 1,200 wine producers in the Napa Valley one can visit, David Thompson’s Napa Wine Project (www.napawineproject.com), there are now at least 55 legitimate non-winery tasting rooms in the Napa Valley. This includes 21 in Napa, 13 in Yountville, seven in St. Helena and 14 in Calistoga. According to my spot check of his numbers, they seem correct, but it also seems that these numbers are changing almost weekly.
What does this mean? Why does it matter how many tasting rooms we have? It matters because the experience visitors and locals have in the Napa Valley dictates how they feel about this place. And how they feel often translates to how they value, think about and ultimately treat this unique region. Dropping in and tasting wine with Joe Heitz had an impact that can still be felt today. The question is, what will the impact be of dropping into one of today’s many, often slick and highly commercial tasting rooms? To be sure many of these tasting experiences are wonderful and personal, but they are certainly very different from the kind of experience my friend Arthur still reverently repeats.
Originally published in the Napa Register, September 2016.