Watching Napa Valley Dribble
By Matt Kramer, columnist
It was one of those hallucinatory moments so common in certain movies. There I was, peaceably reading a front-page story in The New York Times about the injurious six-month-long National Basketball Association lockout, when the words on the page blurred. This is what I saw:
"The story involves the league's [Napa Valley's] evolution from a troubled sports [wine] enterprise into a superstar-driven, relentlessly marketed entertainment product, one in which players [wineries], promoted by the league [Napa Valley] and signed to lucrative endorsement deals, came to have great individual power. It involves the changing roster of owners, a shift that saw family-owned teams taken over by maverick businessmen and giant corporations."
Time to get new glasses, I thought. But then again, maybe not. Maybe, through the miracle of double vision, I was seeing truly. Is Napa Valley on its way to being a wine version of the money- and ego-besotted NBA? It's not as improbable as it sounds.
By all accounts, what happened in the NBA was that a formerly cordial, mutually beneficial relationship between the league and its players deteriorated as the money ballooned. Until recently, the players and the league were in a joint effort, trying to build a name-brand franchise. Everyone pulled together, recognizing that if they could raise the tide itself, then everybody's boats would rise with it.
Time was -- and not very long ago, either -- when Napa Valley saw its fortunes the same way.
People like Robert Mondavi exercised their energy and imagination to create "Napa Valley." Mondavi, more than all others, saw that whatever was good for the league was better for Bob, too. He knew that without "Napa Valley" there was no getting the superstar acclaim he craved--and the superstar prices. (Mondavi, in 1981, was the driving force in creating Napa's version of free agency: the Napa Valley Wine Auction.)
But now it's different. Just ask the NBA. The folks who built that money machine are mostly retired. A new generation has arrived, and they have no allegiances and no memory in their bones of anything but high-rolling times.
Do you really think that today's Napa Valley rookie superstars, "signed to lucrative endorsement deals," i.e., preposterous prices, and who "came to have great individual power," earned this? Colgin? Bryant Family Vineyard? Harlan Estate? Grace Family Vineyards? Araujo Estate Wines? Screaming Eagle?
A few powerful journalists anointed them. Scarcity did the rest, along with an explosive stock market. OK, so they were lucky. Good for them.
But there was one other crucial element that contributed mightily to their success: They all play in the Napa Valley league. You want proof? Just imagine the price of Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet if it played in Napa Valley rather than in the second-string Santa Cruz Mountains.
Worth noting is that a new generation of winery owners is now inheriting its parents' good fortune, in every sense. As we all know, a buck earned is a buck learned. With no real memory of anything but flush times, will they dismiss the Napa league as a hindrance to, even a drain on, personal quests for private glory?
So far, this is still a cautionary tale. The Napa league is still humming along. But if the NBA is anything to go by, then it doesn't take much imagination to see how it could change. Believe me, there are more than a few newly arrived owners who can't imagine a Cabernet selling for less than $75.
For example, there's a creeping -- but by no means universal -- "don't bother us unless you're buying" attitude among some hotshots. It's the Napa equivalent of luxury skyboxes.
One winery had a policy stating that in order to visit it, you had to commit in advance to buying a case of its 1995 Cabernet at a cost of $510. (The owners have since come to their senses.)
Can you imagine a winery in any other part of California doing that? I don't think so. It's a gold-chain, Napa thing. That can happen when you're a "superstar-driven, relentlessly marketed entertainment product."
I wonder if they'll start charging for autographs.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from columnist Matt Kramer in a column also appearing in the March 31, issue. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives.
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