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Beyond the Fires, What the Napa Valley Wine Economy Can Teach Us

Beyond the Fires, What the Napa Valley Wine Economy Can Teach Us

By Michael Bernick.

In the past few weeks, much has been written about the devastation wrought by the Napa Valley fires, as well as the area’s determination to rebuild quickly. These are important stories, worth continuing to track. But there is another story of the Napa economy that has not received sufficient attention in the fire coverage.

It is a story of a local economy, very different than the other economies of the nearby Bay Area and most of the state. Rooted in the local wine industry, the Napa economy has become one of unusual craftsmanship, environmental stewardship, and a valued local agricultural labor force.  Before the media caravan moves on completely from the Napa Valley, let’s add a few words about these values, and what they can teach those of us outside of Napa.

Bruce Wilson is the Executive Director of the Workforce Alliance of the North Bay, the job training/business development agency for Napa, and a long time North Bay resident. As Wilson notes, by number of jobs, Napa County is only a small part of the San Francisco Bay Area economy. As of September 2017, Napa County had 58,500 payroll jobs, less than 2 percent of the approximately 3.4 million payroll jobs in the nine-county Bay Area (nearby Sonoma County, also part of the area’s wine economy, is slightly larger, with 213,000 jobs).

The Napa County jobs, as in other California counties, span a range of sectors and occupations, with major employment in such diverse sectors outside of winemaking as education and health services (10,400 jobs), trade, transportation (10,700) and professional/business services (7,400 jobs). As classified by the state labor statistics division, the jobs directly in winemaking are a minority of the County jobs. But it is the wine economy that drives job creation in most other sectors, and sets the values that permeate the entire economy.

Given how well known the Napa wine economy is, most people are surprised that it only produces 4 percent of the California wine harvest (and only .4 percent of the world’s wine production). Its reputation, of course, lies in the quality of its wines, which has to do in part with natural conditions, such as the dry Mediterranean-like climate, the varied topography and the diverse soils. In greater part, it is related to choices made by the local winemakers and local officials. 

  1. Craftsmanship: According to the Napa Valley Vintners, the trade association, there are around 700 grape growers in Napa County, and 475 physical wineries. More than 90 percent of the wineries are family owned, with a high degree of involvement by family members.

Most of the wineries are open to the public for tours of the winemaking process. The wineries encourage visitors to research and learn about the craft of winemaking–the sign on the main road to Napa reads “Welcome to this World Famous Wine Growing Region…and the Wine is Bottled Poetry”.

The nearby Bay Area economy long ago became a paper economy, and one that is filled with highly educated (and highly entitled) adults, paid to analyze or consult or hold meetings. In contrast, it is clear from a first winery tour that the Napa Valley not only produces a tangible and desired product, but does so with passion and a commitment to quality.

My wife Donna and I have been coming to the Valley for more than 30 years. Neither of us is a wine drinker. But we and our children take advantage of the opportunities to learn about the winemaking process. Year after year, we are inspired by the integrity of the winemaking process, the handiwork, and time that the wine-making teams commit to getting the product just right.

Clay Gregory has been in winemaking for decades, including as General Manager with Robert Mondavi Winery, and then President of Jackson Family Wines. In his own career, he has watched as a new leadership of winemakers has refined the craft of winemaking. To do justice to this craft would require a book-length discussion. Here, though, briefly are Mr. Gregory’s reflections on some of the craft elements:

“About twenty years ago, Napa Valley vineyard managers and winemakers turned a corner and moved toward a ‘less is better’ philosophy. It’s very common now that winemakers will decide when to pick the fruit by taste and maturity of the seeds rather than relying on the lab analysis. Once in a winery, red grapes will now often be fermented in oak uprights (which hold heat better than stainless steel), and cellar crews will ‘punch’ this fermenting fruit down by hand into the juice which is far more gentle than tumbling fruit in a stainless steel tank.

“It’s very common now to move the grapes and wine with gravity rather than pumps, again for more gentle treatment. Many red wines are no longer filtered before bottling to leave as much character, richness and complexity as possible.”

Mr. Gregory  singles out the barrel-making process as one that has come back to life as an addition to the craft: “This is a remarkably manual process that has been practiced for hundreds of years. The inside of a cooperage in Napa is a cacophony of pounding hoops, grabbing and tossing of staves and smell of burning oak (from specifically chosen regions of France, seasoned for a year or more in the cooperage yard) as the wine barrels are assembled, nearly all of which is done by hand. There is just no other way to build barrels of the quality demanded by the winemakers in the Napa Valley.”

  1. Environmental Stewardship: The Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve was established in 1968, and was the first such preserve in the nation, setting aside land specifically for agriculture. Today, nearly 90 percent of Napa County is under levels of protection from development.

Given the tight housing market in the Bay Area, there is constant pressure for more and more building, and the replacement of farmland with development. The Valley, so far, has been able to resist these pressures, and avoid the sprawl of nearby counties.

  1. Investing in a local agricultural workforce: Most of California agriculture for years has been reliant on a migrant agricultural workforce. In Napa, the wine growers have taken measures to invest in a local agricultural workforce that has greater stability. In the early 2000s, the wine industry supported an assessment of $10/per acre, which has generated more than $7 million for the local farmworker housing.

Farmworker wages in Napa have climbed in recent years, and are above the wages of the agricultural workforces in other counties. Farmworker wages in other parts of California are $11 to $14 per hour; in Napa, hourly wages start usually at $16 per hour, and skilled vineyard workers earn up to $24 per hour.

I do not want to romanticize the agricultural workforce or economy. The cost of living in the North Bay is higher than much of the state, and affordable housing has become even more scarce since the fires. Even, say, $18 to $20 per hour doesn’t go that far. Yet, the wine industry is aware of this, and at least determined to try to support a local workforce.

The Rebuilding Begins

The fires did bring unprecedented devastation to the Napa Valley. For nearly three weeks, people across the world watched as the strong North Bay winds whipped the Atlas, Tubbs and Nuns blazes in unpredictable and highly destructive patterns. Even now, the extent of the damage still remains to be determined, but preliminary numbers for the broader North Bay region include over 8,700 structures destroyed,  and more than 245,000 acres burned.

The rebuilding has already begun; it began even before the fires were contained.  Individual homeowners in Napa quickly banded together in neighborhood groups to share information and develop strategy, using the new forms of social media. The local government and housing and employment agencies sent out canvassers to detail the losses, and develop a rebuilding strategy. Governor Brown expedited the building permit process, and even the hiring of architects and construction firms by private homeowners was under way almost immediately.

Further, Napa County hopes to be able to employ at least a portion of persons who have lost jobs in the fires in temporary rebuilding positions. Mr. Wilson and his staff, along with the job training consortium La Cooperativa, are mapping out how displaced workers can add value in clean-up on public lands and replanting projects.

Most of the cameras and reporters have departed from Napa and its wineries to other locations. Before we do so, let’s pause and reflect on this unusual industry in this unusual place.

Originally posted at Fox & Hounds Daily.

Originally published at Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelbernick/2017/10/31/beyond-the-fires-what-the-napa-valley-wine-economy-can-teach-us/#26c7cd811d05

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