Seeing the Napa Valley of now
This past February, the impossible happened: I actually slept in Napa Valley. In fact, I slept seven nights and passed an entire week within the confines of these world-famous vineyards bracketed by the Mayacamas and Vaca ranges. While this may sound like the ideal getaway for a couple, for a Californian who lived nearly 15 years in San Francisco, it is a concept as alien as life on Mars, or a functioning US government which is sorta the same thing.
I say this given that anyone who lives an 1-1.5 hours or less from Napa just does any desired jaunt it as a day trip. There used to be a lot of those in my life, especially as I started working in wine for a cellar up there but wasn’t based in the region, thus many such jaunts were had.
This is why eating all my meals and staying in the region was something of a strange experience for me and there were many takeaways from this adventure. Given that I was there during Premier Napa to cover it as well as attend a wine writing conference, I was busy, but so was The Valley. This in turn emphasized one of Napa’s massive problems: it’s fucking congested.
Moving around the region is akin to a game of vehicular Tetris now as you need to figure out which direction to move at what hour in order to be able to cross some roads. Small towns like St. Helena and Calistoga are a Godsend as you find stoplights in those towns which allow you to make a south bound left hand turn on Highway 29.
The traffic congestion is however nothing new. When I started having to commute up there 20 years ago for meetings, you basically didn’t leave until after 18:00 as you had to wait for all the tasting room traffic to clear out given the horrendous knot that is the traffic light to head over to Sonoma on Highway 12 (roundabouts aren’t evil people). What has changed in the current incarnation is that it’s like tasting room closing hour, all the time–and this was the off season in the middle of February, the week after Valentine’s Day. I’m sure in the summer, it’s nothing short of insane, but again, this is a reflection of the greater San Francisco Bay Area where it feels as if you’re circulating in a moribund band of cars whenever you drive anywhere.
Sadly, there is little being done about this problem and it continues to be a bigger and bigger issue which entities like Uber and Lyft do not help. After all, how can you limit people who want to come to wine country on public roads via cars as there is no public transportation to get around? The simple answer is that if you want to be always open to the public, you don’t. My former employer, Inglenook (née Niebaum-Coppola) has gone the VIP direction as it seems they have no sign at the winery and to set foot in there you have to have reserved your visit prior to arrival. Many wineries are taking this route and in doing do, raising their visit fees massively to where $50 a person is the “reasonable” price now at a decent winery.
There has additionally been a knock-on effect from this popularity as restaurants are packed full and if you think you can just drop in, it means you’ll find yourself swinging by a pizza joint once turned away. The same goes for hotels and finding anything decent actually in Napa Valley seems to run at least $200 a night on up. I was nearly giddy in that Editor in Chief found a bargain place in Napa town for $75 a night which was “serviceable” in that motel crash pad kind of way which I can live with for a few nights.
But I mention all of these issues with the congestion a it only emphasizes an aspect to Napa Valley which I’d never realized in doing day trip–it’s very small. When you’ve come across two bridges and slowly make your way there, you never really traverse the whole region, which was my case and so it seems vast. Rolling plains and foothills of vineyards splash around and take you lovingly in their embrace. But once you’ve circulated Highway 29 and Silverado Trail, which are the two main arteries, north to south from Napa town at the bottom to Calistoga at the top, you really feel how tiny of an area it is. People say it’s the same size at the Côte d’Or in Burgundy. In some ways, I’d say that might very well be the case, although only in a casual, spacial observance as the wines couldn’t be further apart.
It was overall a surreal experience seeing Napa 20 years after getting my vinous start there. For people who have been and might want to visit again, I’d advise caution as it has changed a great deal from what you remember although the culinary scene is truly fantastic now. For those who have never been, by all means go. On so many levels, Napa Valley is an outlier of everything that “is” the wine industry these days and you simply must experience it at least once. Be warned though that the days of bumbling along, tasting your way from north to south or east to west in a carefree existence are largely over. Plan your trip with military discipline, especially if there are certain cellars you want to visit.
If you had asked me 10 years ago what I thought Napa would be like today, I would have said, the same but just more of it. Asking that question now, I honestly have no answer. It’s still a very pretty place, but it’s also a very full place and I don’t know how they can increase visitors while keeping congestion at bay. Maybe they can’t and maybe people will “discover” that there are other great wine regions not far from San Francisco. Or maybe they’ll install a light rail from the Vallejo Ferry so people can take a trip across the Bay and then booze it up however they’d like. Somehow I feel this is as ethereal a thought as is the morning fog gliding across the valley only to evaporate into the ether once kissed by the sun. Such rare views are one of the advantages you get from a strange jet lag that refuses to let go of you.