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INSIDE NAPA VALLEY

INSIDE NAPA VALLEY

There’s no place like it. San Francisco is one hour away. The coastal beaches and surfing are just over the hills in Sonoma, and the skiing in Tahoe is within a 3-hour drive. It’s perfectly located in one of the most picturesque spots in all of California, the Golden State.

The sun shines in the winter and there’s barely a drop of rain from May until the end of October. People live on ranches. They have stables, glistening swimming pools, and vineyards surrounding their estates. It’s wealthy. It’s beyond beautiful. And it’s called Napa Valley, the native name for “the land of plenty”.

Tourists flock here to visit the 400+ wineries, lounge at the spas, and dine at some of America’s shrines to gastronomy. It’s a mecca, and it’s the 2nd most visited tourist destination in the State. If you want to spend $1,000 a night at a top hotel, then book early. It gets busy.

But many people know all that. Napa is so famous. But what the eye doesn’t see is a highly sophisticated wine industry run by professionals who drive winemaking quality to the next level and develop a vast global distribution network.

In winemaking, the top consultants like Michel Rolland, Aaron Pott, Heidi Barrett, Philippe Melka and a host of other magicians roam the valley tinkering in the cellars. Nowhere else are consultant winemakers so well utilized and the results can be astonishing.

But the new hero is the grape grower. Fortunately, growers are blessed with a perfect climate, where sun beams all day, and then temperatures plunge at night. It’s the perfect environment for grapes, and people. Tons per acre can be low. On the hillsides it can be down as low as one ton to two tons. This is almost unheard of in most regions. But it makes most Napa wines extremely concentrated. You don’t usually hear them described as thin.
Behind the pretty cypress trees and inside the cellars, you’ll find boardrooms. They are host to regular meetings of shareholders, merger and acquisition strategists, and internal meetings attended by Directors of PR, Marketing, Sales, Online Wine Club, Visitor Experience, Export, and so on. These people, as a whole, are such experts that Napa Valley wines sell for higher average prices than any other wine region in the world, including Bordeaux.

There are several wineries that dominate the volume side of the business. Beringer, Trinchero and Mondavi are amongst the big hitters. But ask them what they’re most proud of and you’ll taste a host of outstanding wines. Anyone who thinks these companies aren’t serious about fine wine needs to rethink. Being a 15 million case enterprise isn’t a bad thing. It’s what drives R&D, Marketing campaigns, Health awareness, and their corporate funding is critical in fighting the anti-alcohol lobby in Washington.
The Napa Valley Vintners Association, which represents the wineries, is one of the most cohesive groups in wine. Producers go out on tour around the world together to promote this small valley that has become known to anyone who drinks wine. Unlike some European associations, Napa appears to the market as a group that marches to the beat of the same drum.

And largely, that drum beat stands for quality. The region markets quality. Sure, there are some less expensive Napa wines, but not many. The wineries focus on communicating about their quality, driven by the allure of points in the high nineties. In a recent tasting in Finland, where a collection of 100 of the world’s greatest wines ever produced were tasted, Heitz Martha’s Vineyard 1974 came out on top, beating Petrus, Lafite, and every other great name you could think of. The vintages tasted went back into the 1800’s. The quality of Napa’s top wines is outstanding.

The current focus is on developing direct sales through Online Clubs, mounting social media campaigns, and driving exports to Europe and Asia. China is the number one target for many wineries. And the Visitor Experience is of paramount importance. At Darioush, you can take a private tour for $350 per person, and taste 1st growth Bordeaux alongside their own wines, sitting in a luxurious underground cellar being served by your own chef. It’s beyond what anyone else is doing in other regions.
But the best part of Napa is that if you go to someone’s house, just a regular person who doesn’t work in wine, you’ll often be welcomed with glasses of really beautiful wine. It’s part of the culture. Your everyday drinker has bottles of Schramsberg in the fridge. Out of the blue one of their friends drops by with a sample of a new blend under consideration. And that friend just happens to be the GM of Screaming Eagle. That’s Napa.