Will Success Spoil The Napa Valley?

By Charles Olken

There are those who would title an essay on the status of the Napa Valley as “Success Has Spoiled The Napa Valley”. I am not among them, but I get the point.

For years now, I have preferred to take my out of town guests to Sonoma (Town or Valley or further up county) simply because one can see a more relaxed, semi-normal way of life. The Napa Valley is not normal. It is rich, privileged, self-indulgent and self-satisfied. Were it not for the fact that so many brilliant wines are grown there, it would be as easy to ignore as Palm Beach or Newport.

But, there I was last week, tasting my way through a couple of dozen brilliant Cabernets from Oakville in the oh-so handsome oak tank room at the Robert Mondavi Winery. And loving it. Maybe I am also self-indulgent and self-satisfied. Being in the presence of greatness will do that to a person.

So, yes, I get it. There were a ton of very rich, very young people pouring wines that they are their forebears had created, and I was accompanied by several score writers, retailers and sommeliers from all over the country who had flown in for the experience. At least, I am not the only self-indulgent person who drinks good wine.

But the point remains. For the most part, and thankfully not exclusively, these are wines that the average wine geek is not going to drink save for the exception when someone else is paying the tab. Wine everywhere is getting expensive. The wines that I drank regularly in my youth and that filled my cellar are no longer the wines I buy today. I am one of the lucky ones. I got to taste the First Growths of Bordeaux and the Napa Valley in my youth and could afford to put them away.

Today, very few ordinary working stiffs, even educated working stiffs like me before I got into the winewriting business, are buying and tasting those wines. Our wine intelligence level has to be slipping because the new generation of writers and sommeliers simply do not/cannot possess intimate knowledge of the best unless they taste them at large, open bottle events like the one I sat in on last week.

Will success spoil Napa Valley when the only way one can taste Screaming Eagle is stand in a line fifty feet long for a one ounce pour? Is that a learning experience? If not, will the next generation even know what the great wines taste like? It is not their fault, of course. None of us control the laws of supply and demand.

And I suspect that the great wines of Bordeaux, of Oakville, of Burgundy are always going to be out there. But they will no longer be the standards by which wines are judged except by reference—and certainly not by long experience. That problem, the turning of great wine into the Rolls Royces of our vinous times, does in some way hurt us all. But, if we never get to taste Bond or Latour, Mark Aubert or DRC, we will all be a little diminished in the process. That is why there are those who say that success has already spoiled the Napa Valley.


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