2017 seems to have been a seminal year, especially when it comes to food and wine in the Napa Valley.
The fires continue to have a lasting impact, labor is tight, extreme weather is the new normal, competition has increased to dizzyingly high levels and the expectations of consumers have never been greater. The upside has been a redoubling of efforts to increase efficiency, maintain quality and develop innovations.
Here are some of the key factors that seemed to define 2017, starting with the world of Napa Valley wine and then moving to the culinary side to explore trends and burgeoning realities.
Wine and wineries
When the wine country fires hit the region on Oct. 8, most of the grapes had been harvested. Estimates range from 10 to 30 percent of the cabernet sauvignon fruit remained yet to be picked. According to the experts, wine that was in tank or aging in barrels should not be affected by the thick smoke that coated the entire valley for weeks, but those grapes that were still on the vine may have picked up some off, camp-fire-type flavors that can be transmitted to the wines.
Techniques for removing the powerful smoke taint from a finished wine — such as filtering — often do not have 100 percent success rates and also tend to remove other flavors and aromas, too. One of the main concerns is that because of the chemical makeup of the taint, the off smells can show up months or years into the process. The consequence is that any wine made from grapes picked during or after the fires will remain a challenge, if only because the winemaker will not know when, or if, the dreaded smoke taint will raise its ugly head at some point in the future. Look for many of these wines to be sold on the bulk-wine market.
Winery ownership in transition
In 1972, there was a rush of new faces and energy into the Napa Valley as wine was being touted as a growth industry, with consumption on the increase and a few pioneers like Robert Mondavi having shown that high-quality wine could be produced. Other mavericks had come during the 1960s, and there were a few stalwart wineries that had limped through Prohibition, the Great Depression and multiple wars, but in 1972 the stage was being set for things to come: When Warren Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet and Jim Barrett’s Chateau Montelena Chardonnay outscored their French counterparts in the famous 1976 “Judgment of Paris,” the popularity of Napa Valley wines skyrocketed.
Fast-forward 45 years and all of those pioneers are either gone or are entering their golden years. Many (like Winiarski) have sold their vineyards and others (Barrett) have passed them along to the second generation. Others are being run behind the scenes by new money-manager owners such as Nickel and Nickel (GI Partners, a San Francisco private equity firm) and Duckhorn (TSG Consumer Partners, a San Francisco-based strategic equity investor in consumer brands). Of course, there have been many, many new entrants into the world of Napa Valley winery ownership over the last half-century, but many of these are also in transition (Sullivan) or have been sold (Ovid, Schrader, Stagecoach).
The result of these changes has been fewer wineries with much of a personal history. Expect this to continue and even accelerate in the coming years.
Consumers looking for more than just Cabernet
Although cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay continue to be the go-to wines for most Americans, the younger generations are looking for more diversity. This is in conflict with recent planting trends in the Napa Valley, where growing only a few popular clones of cabernet (4, 6, 7 and 337) has become the norm.
Why would a grower plant only cabernet? Economics. The average for a ton of Napa cabernet grapes was $6,829 in 2016 whereas a ton of Napa merlot was $3,135. Couple this with bottle-price expectations: Consumers are willing to pay more than $100 a bottle for a Napa Cab, but a wine of the year-level Napa Merlot (i.e., Duckhorn’s 2014 Wine Spectator wine of the year award winner) is $98.
This conflict is being played out and will have lingering impacts on the world consumers’ exposure to Napa Valley wines as they seek other varietals (likely at lower prices) from other regions.
Marijuana has impacted the sale of alcoholic drinks, including wine
The data suggest that even legalized medical marijuana has been cutting into the sale of wine and other alcoholic beverages. On Jan. 1, 2018, smoking weed in California becomes legal and will cut even deeper into the sale of all alcohol, including wine.
Many vintners say they believe that consumers who would trade pot over wine might only affect lower-price, non-luxury wines (that is, less than $20 per bottle). The data from other states that have legalized recreational pot is mixed but shows that — at least during the first few months —the sale of all-price-point alcohols actually declines and then rebounds slightly but remains depressed when compared to other non-pot-legal states.
Wine companies in Napa County and beyond have been trying to figure out what to do about another legal intoxicant being thrust into the competitive landscape. The range of reactions has been mixed. Most are in the wait-and-see mode, but others have jumped in (Constellation Brands purchased a pot-growing company in Canada), or seem paralyzed (Napa County) or are just pretending that things are going to stay as they’ve always been, hoping that those who drink fine wine from the Napa Valley will never stoop so low as to take a toke from a joint like the bad kids did back in high school.
But venture capital and money-management firms are not taking a wait-and-see approach and have already spent millions developing a suite of pot-infused products (tea, food, creams, etc.). Their hope is to market these to both the aging and not-so-aged populations who are looking for an alternative to alcohol in what is now being called the “relaxant” marketplace.
2017 was one of the hottest summers on record, with long stretches of days with temperatures reaching over 100 degrees. The extreme heat followed what had been an exceptionally wet winter that resulted in the years-long drought officially ending in April. The rains led to unprecedented growth of what eventually turned into fuel for what became the worst fire in the known history of the Napa Valley.
Beyond increasing fire risks, the effects of the unpredictably variant weather seem to have contributed to native plants and animals becoming more susceptible to diseases (e.g., sudden oak death and perhaps even “red blotch” grapevine virus).
The extreme weather conditions are expected to accelerate in the coming decades and have become a central topic for vineyard owners and winemakers. Vineyards are now regularly using shade cloth to protect grapes during heat spikes and transitioning the ubiquitous practice of vertical shoot positioning (VSP — where the vines are pruned straight upward, maximizing sun exposure on the grape clusters) toward more shade-inducing techniques. Winemakers are exploring ways to pick earlier in the season and process the grapes in a manner that eliminates any off “green” flavors, such as flashing the grapes with high heat for brief periods of time.
Smaller wine list
Because the U.S. has gone from 7,000 to 700 distributors in the last decade, only the top three suppliers have much say as to what can be sold where. This means that smaller producers are finding it tough to compete and many restaurants have given in to the distributors who often dictate what an eating establishment will “get” if they want to have wine x, y or z on their list.
In California, there is a slightly different dynamic where wineries can sell directly to retail and restaurants without having to go through a distributor, and there are a few fledgling businesses that seek to build large collectives of smaller wineries so they might compete with the behemoths. But until things change, expect smaller and smaller wine lists at most restaurants.
Uber and Lyft
Summoning a car on your smartphone has become a bright spot for wine sales at restaurants. These days, a designated driver still needs to abstain from consuming generous quantities of libations even though there is less concern now about drinking and driving. Now, with one tap on their phone, they can have a ride from a ride-sharing service, normally within minutes, even in the dead of a quiet winter evening in what can be the sleepy town of St. Helena.
Food and Restaurants
2017 was the first year that the Bay Area surpassed the total number of Michelin star restaurants in other regions in America. New York has historically been the country’s culinary epicenter, but no longer. Now Northern California takes that title, and for many it’s long overdue. In the Napa Valley, Kenzo gained its first star right out of the gate, but in Calistoga, Solbar lost its star. The other Napa Valley restaurants already with stars maintained them, resulting in a net-neutral year for the valley. These are The Restaurant at Meadowood (three), The French Laundry (three), Auberge de Soleil (one), La Toque (one), Bouchon (one), Terra (one).
There is the distinct possibility that the Napa Valley will gain a few more stars in the coming years as the stage was set in 2017 with newly opened restaurants such as The Charter Oak, Acacia House and maybe even a couple of revisioned restaurants in Yountville and Napa being likely top contenders.
Talk with anyone in the restaurant business and you are sure to touch on the difficulty of obtaining and keeping labor at nearly any level. The cost of housing has been worsened by the tragic loss of housing due to the fires, and that’s not the only problem: Traffic, higher-paying jobs such as construction and increased competition at every level are leading many working in the food-service industry to look for alternatives.
The result of staff turnover and unavailability is often lower quality, loss of consistency and a less-than-desirable customer experience. Having overstretched workers often translates poorly when engaging with visitors, especially in a restaurant setting. Consequently, employers are scrambling to find and keep the best, exploring ways to eliminate positions altogether and seeking technologies such as pre-cooked food using “Sous-vide,” where food is placed in vacuum-sealed plastic pouches and cooked in a controlled-temperature water bath to ensure it is cooked properly.
Fewer offal options
A few years ago, “snout-to-tail” dining meant that every part of the animal was used, including all the organs and blood — or what is referred to as ‘offal.’ A part of that trend was captured in the need for nearly every restaurant to create a house-made charcuterie program where dried meats were cured and hung from every rafter. But this is one trend that seems to have peaked and is now fading. As an example, Boccalone, the San Francisco charcuterie that was opened in 2007 by Chris Cosentino (Acacia House and others), was known for its Tasty Salted Pig Parts, but it closed its doors in the Ferry Building at the end of October.
The hottest weird-food trend now appears to be house-fermented vegetables and vinegar-based beverages. Get your tooth-enamel treatments ready as this trend could continue for at least the next few years.
The most recent food ethos in the Napa Valley has been largely defined by a few tried-and-true approaches: the super-ultra tasting menu style (The French Laundry, The Restaurant at Meadowood), European-styled bistros (Don Giovanni, Angele, Bistro Jeanty, Bouchon, Veraison, Evangeline), NorCal bar-and-grill types (Mustards, Brannons, Cook, Press, Farmstead, Ciccio, Acacia House), nouvelle-inspired (Bardessono, La Toque, Oenotri, Harvest House) and a fusion approach that leans heavily on Asian flavors (Terra, Kenzo, Miminashi, Two Birds One Stone).
The existing range of options will expand to include other flavors from around the world, such as Africa and the Middle East. One particularly fitting trend is being embraced at The Charter Oak, which has opened the doors to a new approach toward food that focuses on a hyper-local menu and uses sophisticated, but rustic, techniques that seek to incorporate health and environmental concerns along with pushing culinary ideas to extreme levels of refreshing simplicity. If you don’t “get” this restaurant, then you might want to keep trying.
Gone are the days when a menu is something fixed in stone. The number of dietary constraints and proclivities of the American diner have become so eclectic and demanding that even pizza restaurants must include gluten-free and vegan options.
Next time you go out to dinner, watch one of the waitstaff as they take an order, often scribbling a paragraph of detailed directions for what can and cannot be included on each person’s plate. Is this a good or bad thing? It doesn’t matter — it is what it is and there will be more of it in the future.
Eventually, when robots make and serve all the food, we’ll just type in what we want — or maybe even just take a blood test to analyze what we require — and then, voila, a synthetic dinner will be served. Until then, look for flexible menus with more plant-based options.
When I was a cook in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, the culture of each kitchen I worked in felt similar — the atmosphere was akin to a high school locker room with hyper-sexual tension and innuendo. There were some exceptions, but they were few. And I often felt both sad and in awe of my wonderfully creative and strong women co-workers who endured degrading comments and even physical advances, often displaying fierce resolve and unwavering determination until the advances slowed, but they never stopped completely.
Fast-forward to 2017. Misogynistic behavior and sexual predation are still far too common, but they are no longer acceptable. Look for increased revelations about many chefs’ past behaviors coming to light and some that have seemingly slipped by unscathed from past claims to be thrust back into the limelight.
In the past, we didn’t talk about “it.” Then we talked about it but said it was OK if the man was an artist, a great chef or rich. But now, we talk about it openly and are beginning to bring perpetrators of abuse to account for their actions, regardless of if they might have directed an entertaining movie, concocted a perfect soufflé or made millions of dollars in the stock market. Expect this to continue.
For many, the Napa Valley represents sophistication, the finest wines and food and a wealthy, back-to-the-land ethos. On the other hand, Sonoma has often been portrayed more like the cousins who wore overalls and had a toothpick stuck between their teeth. But what you might not know is that these cousins have quietly been amassing a fortune and have become super-modern and successful.
Take, for example, Single Thread restaurant in Sonoma. They opened in 2016 and already have two Michelin stars. But stars aside, they are doing some exceptional culinary work in a regionally familiar vein: CalAsian fusion. Perhaps even more telling is Healdsburg SHED. This place is hard to define: market, cafe, fermentation bar, coffee house and bakery, and they have flipped the very idea of eating into a whole new kind of experience where dining feels more like an act of living rather than doing.
Expect these trends to continue into 2018, and also be on the lookout for more synthetic food, automated self-serve and delivery options for both wine and food, the sale and merger of many more wineries, discussions about adding a “meat tax,” increased concerns about food security, veganism, diets for brain health, micro farms, marijuana clone selections based on terroir, 3-D food printing, and grocery-store collectives.
The silver lining in a super-challenging year
The Napa Valley is one of the most beautiful places on earth. The wines and food of this region will continue to resonate with an increasingly crowded world. Yes, 2017 was full of challenges that will have consequences for years to come. However, countless gems still exist. Some need to be polished up again and some need to be unearthed. But as the saying goes, when the going gets tough the tough get going. If that’s the case, given my experience with the people of the Napa Valley, I have high expectations for both food and wine in the coming years.
Originally published in the Napa Register, December 2017