Off with their heads! Or is it “let them eat cake?”

Is there a “perception vs. reality” problem in Napa Valley? This publicist thinks so. And if it doesn’t get fixed soon, there may be unfortunate consequences. Let’s dip into a real world scenario. In case you haven’t heard, the Napa Valley is now in the middle of a whirlwind of controversy about whether there should be a moratorium on new wineries and vineyard development (among other related issues). Celebrating the winning bid of lot number 1 at Auciton Napa Valley 2014. Photo by <a href="" target="_blank">Jason Tinacci</a> for the Napa Valley Vintners. To that end, the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission appointed a task force to consider these issues. Called the Agricultural Protection Advisory Committee, it’s composed primarily of environmentalists with a couple of token wine industry people. The Napa Valley Register reports “The Agricultural Protection Advisory Committee is trying to figure out whether Napa County is choking on its own wine country success and, if so, what to do about it. Residents have brought up issues ranging from too much traffic to a perception that winery tourism is trumping agriculture.”

What does it mean to be a winery today? In a time when distributors are disappearing isn’t having a chance to present your ‘brand’ in your ‘home’ crucial? At yesterday’s Committee meeting, some members proposed that a Napa Valley winery be at least 40 acres in size. Say what?! In these fast-changing times, where a garagiste winemaker can present unique wines in a unique and perhaps “tiny” spot (certainly smaller than 40 acres)? How can the public not understand that a “winery” can come to life in any number of unusual configurations?

Back to perception vs. reality. I would suggest that “real” people are confusing hard-working vintners with the marketing of wineries. Namely, let’s look at Auction Napa Valley, coming up in early June. Live lots this year are full of bling, no question. They include a private concert by a rock star at a vintner’s home, trips to Europe and the Kentucky Derby, tickets to the Emmys, private jets, SEAL immersion and of course much more; the online e-lots are a marketing triumph as well for their creativity and diversity.

Here’s the disconnect. Auction Napa Valley is in a race to be the world’s biggest, best, most lavish, most written about wine auction. How do you achieve that? Flashier, ever more outlandish, more wow factor. But just as the Auction is ever more extravagant, it increases what you might call the squirm factor. Who is the beneficiary of all of this lavishness? “Real” people, disadvantaged kids, vineyard workers, senior citizens. No one that you will run into strolling the grounds of Meadowood sipping sparkling wine and eating caviar.

The real conundrum, from a publicity point of view, is that by masterfully marketing Brand Napa Valley through the Auction, you set up unintended consequences—alienating locals, who might not realize that the wining and dining which vintners do all the time is actually real work and hard work. As a ‘real’ person living in the Napa Valley, you’re watching this. Maybe a vineyard is going in next door or the winery down the road seems to have more cars on weekends. How can you not be resentful? The 1% are twirling around right in front of you. Where do you channel that frustration? What do you do about resenting that conspicuous consumption beginning to engulf you?

So are there really too many wineries in the Napa Valley? I doubt anyone really knows (how could anyone know?). Only the marketplace will tell us. But….that’s the perception that zealous environmentalists are trying to turn into reality. Where are the winery marketers portraying the reality, of wineries who give back to the community, who send superb products into the world, who fight for every sale and every customer? It’s too tough a balancing act—to equate the lifestyle of the rich and famous (aka Auction Napa Valley) with ‘real’ people.

So what have years of glitzy auctions created? A rumbling of class warfare, of the haves and have nots….and sadly, a failure of targeted publicity and marketing on home base, where it matters.

2 thoughts on “Off with their heads! Or is it “let them eat cake?”

  1. I largely agree with you, although the Agricultural Protection Advisory Committee is not nearly as unbalanced as you portray it. But this tunnel vision focus on the “good” or the “bad” of the wine industry is part of the problem. We need to be having a much broader conversation – about population growth, cost of living, income inequality, public transportation, sustainable agriculture. Presentations to the Board of Supervisors have emphasized that the wine industry is only one piece of the puzzle, but it’s easier for many in the community to use the wine industry as a scapegoat than acknowledge and grapple with the complexity of the problem. And with proposals that wineries be at least 40 acres in size I too fear that the small production (<5k cases) and garagiste winemakers, least responsible for the problem and with the smallest margins, are going to end up bearing far too much of the cost when the dust settles.

  2. Julianne – thank you for your provocative column about the state of the wine industry in Napa Valley. I think it is important to acknowledge that we are all in this community together. We all value the quality of life our community provides. There’s no question we are being challenged on many fronts by our community’s – and our industry’s – success and the resulting concerns we all share. Auction Napa Valley isn’t intended to be a race to be the best or the biggest charity wine event. Its mission, as it has been from the beginning, is to use the worldwide reputation of Napa Valley to enhance our local community. There’s no question that the caliber of the Live Auction lot offerings has grown over time, but so has our commitment to community health and children’s education as a result. Auction Napa Valley now touches the lives of more than 90,000 clients of Napa County nonprofit organizations. Every child in Napa County has access to health insurance as a result of Auction giving. One in six local residents gets their primary care from Clinic Ole, housed in a facility founded by the Napa Valley Vintners through Auction giving. I could go on, but I think we can all agree that at the end of the day, Auction Napa Valley brings tremendous benefits for all of us. We all want to build a stronger, better and healthier community. We hear and we share the community’s concerns over the present state of the Napa Valley wine industry. Much of our good fortune is derived from our shared commitment to sustainable agriculture that will preserve the extraordinary bounty and beauty of the environment in which we live and the richness of opportunities, experiences and lives that we all enjoy. We are committed to protecting and enhancing this incredible community and believe that Auction Napa Valley helps us to do just that.