Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Napa Misses the Mark

On my first trip to Napa (just about four years ago, to the date), I embraced the valley. It embraced me, planted a warm, sloppy kiss right on my wine-stained lips, and slipped me a little tongue-

Granted, I still had some hair on my head back then, and I was benefitting from a post-wedding build, necessary to wedge myself into the big day's tuxedo. Perhaps Napa couldn't resist-

But my (swiftly) fading looks are inconsequential. The point is that the Napa Valley- it's wines, it's sweeping vistas, and it's intoxicating charm- got my panties in a wad. I had no idea wine of such quality existed. Like being ensnared in an awkward teenage infatuation, I'd fallen in love with, become obsessed with, the fermented grape. And like any first kiss, particularly if it was shockingly good, my experience in Napa has imprinted my soul and changed my life forever.

So, any time I hear of friends or neighbors heading out for the first time, I get a little geeked up. I become a pro bono travel agent. I send emails documenting places to visit that make my longest ramblings here seem shorter than Charlie Sheen tweets (and the emails are twice as maniacal). I get into this frenzy because I can't wait for others to experience what I did. "They'll finally get it," I think. "They'll understand why I'm psychotic. They may come home psychotic, too. We can be psychotic together."

Yet, when folks return and tell me they have "no desire to go back to Napa", I'm admittedly a bit taken aback. A lot taken aback, and that's a ton, because I'm not even sure what that saying means. Naturally, I'm inclined to pry.

My neighbors just got back from a trip, and they felt that everything was very expensive. Yes, Napa can be expensive. They mentioned $25 tasting fees. Hmm... more than I remember paying. No big deal, those fees can easily be neutralized by the purchase of a bottle. Tasting fees are always credited towards purchase, right?

Nope. But the fiscal raping was not even the worst thing I heard. "They didn't tell us anything about the wines. We didn't learn anything. They just shoved a sheet of tasting notes in front of us and told us what was on special." Oh, you dirty bastards.

Now, let me go on the record and say that my "facts" are based on anecdotal evidence. I can't say first-hand that any of this occurred. But I don't think these are vindictive folks, and I honestly believe they were met with disappointment. I'm not going to name the wineries in question, but I was able- in order to validate some of the story- visit some completely random websites: non-specified Napa winery #1, non-specified Napa winery #2, and non-specified Napa winery #3, and I confirmed that tasting fees range from $15-25 a pop. Why not just buy a bottle at that price? Rather, my friends paid $30-$50 to taste five or so small pours, then spent another $30 on a bottle. All-in-all, they traveled across the country, rented a car, drove to the proprietor's place of business, got zero education and experience, and paid $60 for a $30 bottle of wine. So much for the value of cutting out the middle-man... and the warm fuzzies towards wine country.

Listen, I understand that these places have a lot of overhead. I know that many tasting rooms thrive on tasting fees. But we're talking some pretty heavy-hitters here. I'm sure Beringer and Mondavi don't keep the lights on with tasting fees. Not when they're producing millions of bottles per year. So why not evangelize? These two spots put Napa on the map. In fact, Robert Mondavi virtually invented the American fine wine industry. The large vintners should be creating wine consumers for life, not scaring them off in the name of a quick buck.

And if what I heard about no education is true, then shame on these wineries. They've perpetuated the mystifying nature of wine. I subscribe to the notion that people warm to what is understood and familiar. If they don't know what they're drinking, then they're probably not going to buy it, whether the taste costs $0.50 or $50.

I understand this scenario is not that case with all Napa wineries. I'm lucky to know some really terrific people in Napa, from winery personnel to PR folks to growers themselves. I can confirm that some are educating the eager masses, sharing their best, and using the tasting rooms to convert skeptics, sell bottles, and make customers for life. But how can their reputations not suffer when the biggest and brightest in the market- the standard-bearers for America's most celebrated wine region- are actively participating in screwing up a huge opportunity and alienating potential wine drinkers?

Hit the mark next time, Napa. It could pay dividends in the long run. Connect with your tasting room customers. Educate them. And please don't rip them off because they simply don't know better. Make out with their thirst for knowledge like you're making out with Mariah Carey on a red carpet at some undisclosed Nickelodeon event. Because that would be awesome. And a little weird. But certainly not disappointing.

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