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Thoughts on the Trip to Napa Valley

Monday, March 16, 2009

Fresh back from a trip to California including a day in Napa Valley where we visited Darioush, Chappellet, Duckhorn, and Heitz. Some quick thoughts….

Napa Valley has perfected the experience of visiting wine country. The wineries are generally in beautiful buildings in picturesque settings surrounded by vineyards. Amenities from restaurants to B&Bs and delis abound. In terms of experience, Washington is still in its infancy. Many wineries are located in modest buildings, such as Woodinville office parks or the airport region in Walla Walla. While many find this charming, it is no doubt somewhat jarring for people used to visiting other areas. A number of wineries, such as Januik and Cougar Crest for example, have been upscaling. This trend will certainly continue. Additionally, most wineries in Washington are quite removed from their vineyards, assuming they have them to begin with. There is something to be said for looking at the vineyards a wine comes from while drinking the wine. There is certainly a trend in Washington of moving toward estate vineyards, although these vineyards remain in many cases quite distant from the wineries themselves. In terms of amenities, there are a lot of, how shall we say, opportunities throughout Washington.

Tasting fees for the four wineries we visited ranged from $0 (Heitz) to $25 (Duckhorn, Darioush), although many wineries go considerably higher. This fee included a flight of wine and in some cases a tour of an hour or more (Chappellet). In Washington tasting fees are increasingly common with most about $5 and topping out at about $10. Unlike Napa wineries, most Washington wineries refund the tasting fee if you purchase wine. I did not see this in the wineries we visited.

Many Napa wineries, while open to the public, require reservations. This involves a good deal of advance planning as you need to think about how long you want to spend at a winery and the time required to get to the next winery. You may need to make sacrifices because reservations are not available for the dates or times you seek. This has become increasingly common over the last several years. In Washington, while a number of wineries require appointments if they are not open to the public, few if any at this time require appointments if they are open to the public.

In terms of its modern history, Napa Valley – which has about 400 wineries compared to Washington state’s 600 - has evolved over the last thirty or so years. I would expect Washington’s evolution to be considerably quicker given that Napa and others have provided the template. In this way, I would expect to see a lot of these differences diminish over the next ten to fifteen years.

More on the wineries themselves in subsequent posts.

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4 comments

  1. swordfern Says:
  2. Great writeup, Sean! While I prefer the warehouse winery that is spending more money on grapes and equipment, and less money on landscaping, I'm willing to accept that I might not be the target audience for many of these wineries.

    Will be very interested to hear what you thought of the wines...

     
  3. Anonymous Says:
  4. One thing I'd like to add...although you may be paying a bit more per wine tasting in Napa, if you make reservations ahead of time, you certainly are treated very well and absolutely get more for money with regards to both wine and experience. Wines are phenomenal in both WA and Napa, just different.

     
  5. This is a good point and is something I would put as part of the overall experience. In Washington, at present, the wine is often forced to speak for itself. In Napa, wineries frequently look to use service as a differentiator. This is not a political statement on Washington's part. Rather it is a matter of frank economics. Many wineries don't (yet) have money to throw at elaborate tasting rooms and dozens of service professionals to serve you.

    This is not to say you are not treated well in Washington. In fact, part of the fun of Washington is interacting with the winemakers who are frequently pouring at the winery. I can't say I have met many winemakers pouring in Napa. However, in Washington, it is not uncommon as wineries start to increase in size and expand their tasting room hours beyond the weekend to get so so service, often because friends and loved ones are pulled in to duty. Sometimes this can have a large effect on service and your perceptions of the winery. Sometimes small but significant ones. Many a time I have asked someone in a tasting room about the wine - the origin of the grapes, etc. - and they haven't known anything about the wine. This is always disappointing. In Napa, word of this would spread around the valley like a brush fire. The reason of course is that Napa and Washington are at very different points in their evolution. As the wineries in Washington continue to grow there will be an increasing emphasis on all aspects of service. The tasting rooms will become more opulent. The person pouring the wine may know a lot about the wine but may no longer be the winemaker. The prices will surely not be the same and we will laugh at the day we lamented what they are now. So my fellow Washington wine lovers, enjoy the good things in Washington and don't sweat the bad too much. Both will surely change at some point in the future!

    One final note, I agree with you that both Washington and Napa make phenomenal wines but I think that Ghandi said it best. I have taken some liberties. "I like your California wines. I do not like your Californians. They are so unlike your California wines."

     
  6. Anonymous Says:
  7. OUCH!!!!

     

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