Calistoga is just the newest North Bay community that’s considering what to do about the growing number of wine tasting rooms. Nearly every local town has already placed limits, adopted new regulations or is currently grappling with how to deal with the question: How many tasting rooms is too many?
On one side, there are the free-market advocates who say let supply and demand decide; on the other are those who see managed growth as the only way to maintain diverse downtowns that can be used by both tourists and locals alike.
Normally, I lean toward the free-market side of things, but even I’m starting to wonder about the future of our downtowns.
When I was growing up in St. Helena in the early 1970s, it wasn’t much more than a cow town. Main Street was lined with mom-and-pop shops, markets, a hardware store and a small movie theater where, in 1975, I watched the movie “Jaws” with my friends.
Back then, kids could go to the movies without parental supervision and, for the most part, we survived. However, when we came out of the theater on that day, we were traumatized. To soothe our frazzled nerves, we went to NuWay Drugs on Main Street, which had a small soda fountain and ice-cream shop at its back. We planned to drink our cares away.
In the back of the store was a small room with glossy red walls and a gleaming white counter lined with tall red-and-white, candy-striped stools. We each scrambled up on a stool, fished a few coins out of our pockets and placed our orders. Root beer floats for my friends and a Coke float with a splash of vanilla syrup for me. I have no idea how we had enough money to pay for these things (truth is, we probably didn’t).
We sat and talked about the movie, each of us vowing to ask our parents about the likelihood of sharks swimming up the Napa River. Around us, neighbors and friends passed by. We knew we were being watched by a perpetual parental surveillance system, and we felt safe. This was not open water. This was our town.
But back to tasting rooms for a moment.
Why are there so many tasting rooms now? Good question. One reason might be that, about 15 years ago, a new phenomenon entered the world of winemaking: custom-crush businesses, where would-be vintners could create their own brand of wine to sell without having their own winery. Of course, this way to make wine has always been an option. Even the now world-famous, ultra-high-end vintner Harlan Estates wine was once made using a sort of custom crush facility, and the history of wine production in Northern California is full of such tales. But it used to be rare.
In the early 2000s, businesses found ways to make custom crush simple, catering to the general population’s growing desire to create their own wine. Wine lovers could choose grapes sourced from some of the world’s top vineyards, such as To Kalon vineyard in Oakville or Gap's Crown vineyard near the Sonoma Coast. Wine styles, level of oak preference and labels could each be customized.
This new availability, coupled with the rising price of high-end wine, resulted in even more people entering the wine market. Grape farmers soon noticed that, although wine prices were on the increase, grape pricing remained relatively flat, so even many of them started making their own brands. The result was a lot of wine brands without a tasting facility to showcase the wine. Because selling direct to consumers is the most profitable channel for any winery, this confluence of factors led to the need for wine brands to create remote tasting rooms. Wineries also found downtown tasting rooms a way to drive customers to their sometimes remote wineries.
So back to NuWay drugs after the movie “Jaws.”
My friends and I were sitting there, telling stories and loudly slurping our drinks, when in walked Mr. Tenaglia, one of the valley’s Old School farmers. He drove around in a beat-up truck and worked the land with his hands. Rumor was he’d never taken a vacation. When he sat down at the counter, he looked us over.
“How’s your dad doing?” he asked me.
I nodded, “Good,” and then quickly added, “sir.”
Mrs. Hathaway behind the counter handed him a small bottle of Coke. His large hand gripped the ridged and twisted glass and covered the label. He took a drink, looked at me and nodded. I nodded back and glanced at the old man’s hands, which were cracked and callused.
“You kids need to come pick pears for me. Pay’s good and it’d keep you off the streets.”
He winked at Mrs. Hathaway. She winked back. We shifted in our chairs. He finished his drink and stood to leave. Before he did, he placed a few bills on the counter. Mrs. Hathaway started to say something, but he raised his hand and she stopped short.
“You kids be good,” he said as he left.
How many tasting rooms are too many for each town? I don’t know. But I do know that the community you live in has an impact on who you become. If you don’t believe me, just ask all those poor souls who lived around Amity Island in the movie “Jaws.”
Presently, Tim Carl lives, writes and teaches in Calistoga. He grew up in St. Helena and traces his California grape-growing roots back five generations. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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