Wall Street Journal Fires the First Shot!

Fresh on the heels of our conversation last week about February 2022 TOT, it is interesting that a publication that caters to the travelers who can afford Yountville writes an article to knock down the Napa Valley. Lettie Teague, Wine Columnist for the WSJ, asks, Who Can Afford Napa Now? Not This Wine Columnist. Further states that she has traveled to the Napa Valley for decades, and never before have prices been so high. With hotel prices and tasting-room fees at an all-time high, Napa Valley is inaccessible to many travelers.

An interesting aspect for me is the local businesses that support her perspective as they participate in the Valley. Read what they have to say; here is the article. If you have a subscription, here is the link to see the comments.

Who Can Afford Napa Now? Not This Wine Columnist

Lettie Teague has traveled to the Napa Valley for decades. Never before have prices been so high. Here, key figures in Napa wine and tourism share their perspectives on the changing region.

Lettie TeagueApril 22, 2022 1:14 pm ET

GRAPE GAINS With hotel prices and tasting-room fees at an all-time high, Napa Valley is becoming inaccessible to many travelers.Illustration: Davide Bonazzi

Have you been priced out of Napa? What are your favorite alternatives? Join the conversation below.

That new hotel is the Stanly Ranch, in the Carneros region of Napa Valley. Opening April 29, it’s the latest offering from the Auberge Resorts Collection, whose other Napa outposts include Auberge de Soleil just outside St. Helena and Solage in Calistoga. Both places are similarly pricey, and they’re hardly the Valley’s only luxury options.

The priciest place to rest your head might be the Four Seasons Resort and Residences that opened in Calistoga last November. I checked availability for a midweek stay in April and turned up a Vineyard room for $1,675—before tax. That covers a bed, a bathroom and a private terrace or balcony as well as the opportunity to “experience the grape to glass lifestyle as never before,” according to the resort website. Perhaps the resort’s owner, Sunstone Hotel Investors, Inc., needs to recoup the $177.5 million it paid for the Four Seasons in December 2021. This paper noted it was “one of the highest valued hotel transactions ever.”

While the average price of a Napa Valley hotel room increased by a modest percentage each year between 2013 and 2019 (and dipped 21% during 2020), that average price soared 51% in 2021 over 2020, according to a spokesperson for Visit Napa Valley, putting it about 20% above what it was prepandemic.

I can’t help feeling that the region’s main crop is cash, not grapes.

Auberge de Soleil, Solage and the Four Seasons Resort and Residences are all located near many top wineries, but guests who stay at the Stanly in Carneros will have a bit of drive to most wineries and will likely hit gridlock along Highway 29. “A small fender bender can turn the two-lane highway into a parking lot,” said Chris Gilmore, owner of Crush Napa Valley Wine Tours. “The few passageways in and out of Napa Valley make Sundays a bit of a nightmare.” Mr. Gilmore, who has been driving winery guests for over a decade in both Napa and Sonoma, acknowledged that the Valley has changed a great deal. “The tourism prices are far more aggressive than we’ve ever seen,” he said.

The cost of tasting wines has taken a decided turn upward as well. According to Sarah Elliman, co-founder of CellarPass, a winery reservation platform, “Tasting fees have been on the rise at a significant pace in Napa Valley since 2016, on average rising 25% or more.” She shared data showing that a basic tasting cost $20 in 2016 and $40.62 in 2021, while the price of an “elevated” tasting—which may include higher-tier wines, often include food and are usually led by an individual host for each party—cost $30 on average in 2016 and $82.26 in 2021.

At Cliff Lede Vineyards in Yountville, a fee of $60 per person currently buys four one-ounce tastings of the winery’s current releases. (All Napa tastings are one-ounce pours, as per California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control [ABC] law.) A couple of three-figure options include tastings of four reserve wines and a vineyard tour.

The venerable Spottswoode Estate Vineyard & Winery, in St. Helena, charges $75 to taste three wines—waived with the purchase of six bottles of Spottswoode Estate Cabernet. The price has remained constant for about five years, said president and CEO Beth Novak Milliken, whose family bought the winery and vineyards in 1972. “We want to keep it real,” she said. “We’re underpriced compared to our peers.”

When I mentioned I’d found quite a few three-figure tasting fees in the Valley, Ms. Novak Milliken said she’d heard about a truly pricey tasting offered by Tor Kenward. Mr. Kenward, longtime winemaker for Beringer Vineyards and a Valley resident for 45 years, also makes Chardonnay, Cabernet and Cabernet blends under his own eponymous label. 

Mr. Kenward noted his $150 “basic” tasting, a more-affordable option including tastings of 4-5 wines and a “small, curated” cheese plate. Ms. Novak Milliken must have been referencing his $900 Black Magic Cabernet tasting, Mr. Kenward surmised. The Tor Wines Black Magic Cabernet (now sold out) retailed for $450 a bottle. The tasting included a variety of wines, lunch and a vineyard tour. Each tasting is tailored to the individual guest, Mr. Kenward said. He, too, acknowledged that Napa pricing has gotten out of hand. “Maybe I’m part of the problem,” he said. “Is it going to blow up in our faces? I don’t think so, but it may hurt us down the road.”

At Heitz Cellar in St. Helena, up to four guests at a time can enjoy “wine, food, scenic explorations” with the Vineyard to Bottle Experience, priced at $1,000 a person. It includes visits to two of the winery’s vineyards, followed by a tasting in the Salon at Heitz Cellar of current releases and older library wines. Heitz does offer another, “timeless” but more basic tasting at the Salon for $125 a person, with tastings of single-vineyard Cabernet and Chardonay, cheese and charcuterie, guided by in-house “wine curators.”

Gary Fisch, proprietor of Gary’s Wine & Marketplace Napa Valley, a wine store in St. Helena, has encountered huge price hikes at local hotels. “I brought my team [from New Jersey] out. We needed five hotel rooms and the cheapest night, a Tuesday in February, was $750,” he said. “Later in the week it went up to $900.” Three or four years ago the rate was half that, he said. 

Another recent change lamented by longtime residents such as Ms. Novak Milliken: the arrival of Pacaso, a real-estate company founded in 2020 that offers fractional shares of luxury second homes in destinations including Aspen, Colo., Malibu, Calif., and Park City, Utah, as well as Napa Valley. Buyers may purchase from a 1/8th to a half share of a home for hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars. (A 1/8th share equals 44 nights in a year.) 

In St. Helena, locals have protested Pacaso, carrying signs decrying the commercial element the company has brought to residential neighborhoods. In reference to this less-than-warm welcome, a Pacaso spokesperson told me, “Pacaso does not compete with median-priced housing. We make it possible for people to make memories and have a second home in these places that are astonishingly expensive.”

Of course there are many other wine regions in California where the prices are lower and winery tastings are even, often, free. “I tell wine lovers to go to Mendocino, to go to Santa Barbara,” Mr. Kenward said. I decided to follow his advice myself. Stay tuned to this column.

Write to Lettie Teague at wine@wsj.com

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Carole Arcellana
Carole Arcellana
1 year ago

The Napa Valley is not for locals. Just ask one.

Working class Napans are struggling to stay in this valley while long time residents are moving

Hotels/restaurants that charge $1000+ a night/a meal can’t wonder why only corporate groups and the monied are finding it “affordable”. Wineries/tasting rooms that once offered free tastings, are now ~$50+ per person and a decent bottle of red to take home with you, upwards of $75.

A closed elementary school is blatant evidence of “not for locals”. Retired professionals living in Manufactured Home Parks, while calling it the “best kept secret” or a “Grape Place To Live”, doesn’t change what it really is: the only affordable option. *And even these prices are now in the $350,000 – $700,000 range.

We don’t all own wineries or lucrative businesses.
Younger working class adults who grew up here can’t afford it to move “back home”. Most who work here, often in service to the monied, can’t afford to live, shop, or eat here. It’s a playground for the very wealthy and that appears to be exactly what the valley’s leadership wants. Catering to the wealthy at the expense of the working class is what the Napa Valley has become.

This WSJ writer is telling it as it really is, so no, I don’t call this the first shot. I call it the truth.