Although I have been doing this blog thing for about two and a half years, I have been “into“ wine for quite a bit longer. As a result, I have visited plenty of wine regions in this country and in Europe. One statement that has really stood out over all those visits is:
“What sets our region apart from other regions, is that we really have a sense of collaboration here. We are all friends and we realize that a ‘rising tide raises all ships’—when one of us succeeds, we all benefit. That is why we are always helping each other out.”
Here’s a little quiz: Where was I when I heard this comment?
A. Dry Creek Valley; B. Napa Valley; C. Paso Robles; D. Willamette Valley
A., C., and D.
By and large, I have found that people who get into the wine business are a pretty friendly lot and that the industry attracts, perhaps above all else, people who would refer to themselves as “a people person”. More often than not, I find people in the wine industry to be extremely friendly and open.
I have been to Dry Creek and Paso exactly once each and the Willamette Valley twice, but during each of the four visits I heard a variation of the above quote at least once. There were stories about sharing tractors, fermentors, barrels, and labor—expressing the notion of coöperation repeatedly. Each time it was said, interestingly, the speaker presented it as if their region were unique in this way.
On the other hand, I have been to Napa countless times, but I have never heard anything resembling that sentiment. Perhaps there are pockets of collaboration, but it does not seem to be a dominating ethos (at least one that is spoken of publicly, as far as I can tell). Yes, it is possible that I am in the wrong here (if this were a research paper that I was reading or grading, I would be screaming “Where is the proof?”), but I would wager that I am not.
So what is the explanation?
First, I thought it might be a question of longevity—emerging regions seem to have a ‘circle the wagons’ mentality—that all winemakers need to band together in order to survive.
The more established wine regions, however, have already gone through their period of collaboration and once the region gains “experience” there is perhaps a reduced need to rely on one’s neighbor. It is impossible to say when a particular wine region becomes “recognized” as such, and the date that a region is granted appellation status is not necessarily an indication of “recognition”, but it is a precise date that can be used for comparison.
The problem? Napa received AVA status in 1981, Dry Creek Valley and Paso Robles in 1983, and the Willamette in 1984: not much difference there.
Second, I thought that perhaps it was due to the influx of corporate ownership of wineries—over time, larger entities buy up property and labels. Although I do not have any hard statistics to support this notion, I have heard on many occasions how Napa has more of a “corporate feel” as some winery owners have sold to larger, more corporate (and less personal) wine conglomerates.
The problem? Napa claims that of the region’s 400+ wineries, 95% are family owned, which is precisely the same figure in Dry Creek Valley.
Third, could it just simply be a case of money? As a region becomes more established and competition becomes more intense, could it simply be the desire to maximize profits that inhibits collaboration? Again, I have no hard data to support this contention, but it is difficult to deny that there has been a significant amount of cash that has flowed into Napa in the past few decades. Can money influence to alter a sense of community of friendship?
In the end, it could be a combination of all three: less established regions with lower levels of corporate ownership and a lesser emphasis on maximizing profits might be more likely to engage in more “friendly” practices.
Or there could be a far more simple explanation: a subtext to the comment above:
“We are not Napa. We are all friends here!”
So as these other regions grow, and perhaps become more prestigious, are they destined for the same fate that has befallen Napa? Will they become, in effect, victims of their own success? Or will they be able to maintain collaboration, a feeling of friendship, that they all proudly display today?