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Napa Valley Biz: Boom or Bust

Author: Christina Julian
November, 2015 Issue

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 While it’s nice to entertain the prospect of economic diversity, want and reality are two different beasts.

 

I’ll skip another riff on our petering music scene, but it’s impossible not to comment on City Winery’s decision to terminate its 10-year lease with the Opera House—further questioning our valley’s ability to sustain an industry beyond our food-and-grape-soaked roots. This isn’t necessarily a bad pigeonhole to be plugged into, and it certainly does nothing to dissuade people to dispute such a theory.

The most recent hornet to infiltrate our nest, City Winery owner and CEO Michael Dorf, orchestrated successful incarnations of his chain in New York, Chicago and Nashville, and had high hopes when it came to saving our grand ole Opera House, only to ditch the dream a year later. This after dumping $4 million into the space.

While it’s nice to entertain the prospect of economic diversity, want and reality are two different beasts. Some blame the failure on the multi-million dollar renovation and awkward seating redux, while others claim the subpar (in their opinion) restaurant as culprit.

Regardless of the reason, the reality is, Napa is a small town. It’s that very charm that drew 3.3 million visitors in 2014 who dropped $1.63 billion into our valley. Those dancing dollar signs are no doubt what drew Dorf to Napa Valley in the first place, but the stats may have foretold a less lucrative tale.

According to data collected by Destination Analysts (on behalf of Visit Napa Valley), 10.3 percent of those visitors partook in bar/nightlife activities, which is the category where we can assume City Winery fell. This, in contrast to the 82.3 percent of visitors who made pit stops to our tasting rooms and 69.4 percent who dined in our restaurants. Dorf likely clung to the hope that locals would play a hefty role in supporting the venue year round, though apparently not enough to his liking. This did nothing to discourage him from opening another incarnation of the chain in Atlanta, which is expected to open in 2016.

This factoid made me revisit my interview with Dorf last February, where he had these kind words to share: “Our number one reason to be here is to foster our relationship with the wine community. We’re making a sizable investment and ensuring the success and mission of that room, which is to put on great culture.” While the future of the Opera House remains uncertain, one notion is not. Dorf won’t be the first or last to love us and then leave us long before the romance has a chance to ignite.

Great expectations

For every City Winery scenario that aims high and falls short, some find success with the marriage of entertainment to our wine and food industries. Despite a rocky start, BottleRock made good on its doe-eyed dreams, when attendance climbed to 100,000 in 2015, as did the Napa Valley Film Festival (NVFF), which celebrates its five-year anniversary this month. The latter nearly doubled attendance since 2010, with 43,000 in attendance in 2014, and a 10 to 15 percent increase expected at this year’s fest which runs November 11 to 15.

More than 60 percent of the attendees come from the North Bay, potentially proving that we do have a local audience for culturally rich entertainment. NVFF co-founder Brenda Lhromer comments on the success: “You can’t just bring an event and drop it down in the valley. We wanted locals to know that we were doing this with them. We’ve done Town Halls because we want to hear from the community.” In 2014, festival attendees were reported to have added $5 million to the local economy, during a time that’s been referred to as “slump season.”

Despite economic hiccups this year when V Marketplace in Yountville priced the NVFF out of the space that once played host to the Culinary Stage, a wine pavilion and screening room, the festival producers rerouted more business to downtown Napa by creating an activity hub dubbed the Riverfront Promenade (near the Napa River Inn and Celadon). With the Copia space also out of commission due to the pending sale, the producers secured more screens and seats than year’s past with the addition of the Napa Valley College performing arts center venue and increased programming at the Uptown and Lincoln theaters.

It’s hard to know if success beyond the wine biz is contingent on local buy-in and patronage and short-stint event formats like BottleRock and NVFF, or if it’s a matter of giving people cultural enrichment when and how they want it.



 

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