A few years ago, I took my wife through Napa Valley as she had never been to the California wine region so I figured “What better place to start than the famous Napa Valley”? I remember getting back and having friends ask me what we thought of the trip; I replied, “I’ve never had so much over-priced, crappy wine, served by snooty people in all my life”.
I guess it had been so long since my first trip to Napa (which was in 1996) that I was really in for a bit of culture-shock. The arrogance by most of the folks we ran into there was appalling, the wine was way over-priced and the overall experience was really bad.
Stay with me – I still have a lot of love in me for a great deal of folks and wineries there – it’s not all doom and gloom!
What had changed in the span of a decade? In my opinion, a few things and I’ll outline them here:
For far too long, Robert Parker and Wine Spectator have essentially controlled the prices of wine – mainly to no direct fault of their own but largely due to an industry whose marketing folks longed for a rating system. Robert Parker delivered it, Wine Speculator used it, the marketing folks ran with it and guess what? We’re now paying for it.
Wines that rate high drive a demand that soars and the wineries only have so much wine to go around so it rapidly turns into a supply and demand issue. Wineries can pretty much charge whatever they want to from that point and the clamoring patrons will gladly pay it to sip on a 95+ scoring wine.
The pattern that this combination of scores and winery supply created a huge fervor of consumers who were and are so willing to pay top dollar for a “Napa Cab” etc that we now find it the norm to see new wineries releasing wines at $75 or more. In fact, there are many who think that if a bottle of wine doesn’t cost X-amount of dollars, then it must be crap.
Real estate catches up:
Thanks in part to the huge cash-flow running through Napa, there was more demand than ever for land; however, there is only so much land to go around in Napa which in turn jacked up the cost of real estate to stratospheric levels.
This means that any winery buying or growing grapes in the region now have a higher inherent cost of doing business and the only way for them to recoup that cost is by hiking the prices up of their wine. Unfortunately for all too many wineries, however, there are better wines out there to be had at the same or even lower prices.
Home-biased palates and the trusting of scores:
Finally, most – if not all the blame – comes squarely down on us, the wine lovers. Bottom line is that if we had a more widely adjusted palate and a broader scope of what’s going on in the world of wine, we wouldn’t be so ignorant as to keep paying for wine that’s not worth anywhere near what’s being asked for it.
Just because a wine gets a certain score from Parker, Spectator or Vaynerchuk (appreciate ya Gary!), doesn’t mean that we should clamor to that wine so much that we’re willing to pay 2-4x what it’s worth.
Remember, wineries can only get away with overcharging for wine just as long as we gladly keep paying for it. The fact that over 1-million people live about an hour away in San Francisco has funneled a lot of wealth into Napa which unfortunately includes a lot of people who have too much money and very little wine knowledge but love to brag about how much money they spent on a bottle of wine. It’s these people that we need to reach out to and help educate – we’re all in that effort together.
We the people, have the power to “take Napa back” from the snobs that have spoiled that great wine region and there are a few suggestions I have:
- Start drinking wines from other USA regions and the world
- ALWAYS embrace your palate over ratings – never trust reviews at face value!
- Remember, you are the only person in the world with your palate
- If you insist on supporting Napa, fine, but each time you buy a bottle also buy one from a different region, state or country
Is Napa the only area caught up in their own stardom? No, but they’re clearly the 900lb gorilla in the room and the region that most people think of first when you bring up California or even USA wine production.
Additionally, I believe they are the worst offender in the area of over-priced wines and it’s my hope that they can come back down to reality and get it right.
It’s not the prices that offend me, per se, it’s the lack of quality for those prices as there are so many other areas – even within California – that generally deliver a far better value for the money. If Napa producers want to keep charging the prices they do, don’t you think it’s about time we wine drinkers ask them to match those prices in quality?
If you enjoy wines from Napa, have no ambition of expanding your palate and don’t mind paying whatever they charge for then knock yourself out!
Finally, there are indeed good wine producers from this area so please don’t think I’m throwing the baby out with the bathwater – to all you quality-minded Napa producers out there, keep doing what you do best – we don’t mind paying for your wine because at the end of the day you make wine that’s Worth Every Penny.