A Tale of Two Cities*

So Your West Coast Oenophile has returned to the Aeron chair and MacBook Pro in his home office, after nearly a week on the road, tasting wine on behalf of Sostevinobile. I haven’t checked my odometer, but it’s likely that I covered more mileage recently between Napa and Paso Robles than I clocked throughout the entirety of 2021. And though the older I get, the more I loathe driving, it definitely felt great to be commingling among serious wine people once again.

As has been my wont before the pandemic hit, February has long been my busiest month out if the field, jampacked with trade events throughout California. In past years, I’ve headed down to Santa Barbara, then whisked back through San Francisco simply to pick up fresh clothes and restock my 7-day pill tray, before heading up to Napa and Sonoma. However, the vicissitudes of the various COVID-19 surges turned schedules topsy-turvy this year, causing Première Napa to occur before the Southern Exposure Garagiste Festival. And it would not have been impossible to leave St. Helena on Friday and be in Solvang for this tasting. Even though I ventured down to Paso for the revival of the Rhône Rangers Experience the previous weekend, gasoline was still a relative bargain at $4.33/gallon and my recent subscription to AARP a mere, albeit reluctant, formality. But with only a single winery on hand that had not poured at their November session, it seemed a bit superfluous to undertake another 400+ mile road trip.

As I have noted on many occasions, the principal impetus for attending these industry tastings is the chance to discover multiple new wineries in a compressed amount of time. Secondly, such events afford me the opportunity to establish or renew personal relationship with the sundry winemakers and winery owners on hand. and, of course, it allows me to report on and recommend the numerous wines I discover.

In keeping with the latter objective, I took copious notes on all the wines I tasted, but will not be enumerating these at this time. My aim throughout this sojourn was to assess and understand the health of the wine industry, post-COVID, and to determine how I must reshape designs for Sostevinobile amid the new economic reality. My sense is that this will require a far greater fundraise than I had previously projected, which makes the prospect of it generating a regular income that much more elusive. Towards this end, I find myself heavily steeped in coordinating an array of M&A deals—after all, my first “career” in the wine industry was as a Mergers & Acquisitions consultant—mostly overseas, as I have been doing for the past six or seven years. For the foreseeable future, my contributions to the wine industry will likely be reinvigorating Risorgimento, the fledgling trade organization for West Coast Italian varietal producers, and organizing the Grand Tastings I had hoped to launch prior to the pandemic.

Regarding the former, I could not have been more elated at the success of the revitalized Rhône Rangers. Now based in Paso Robles, inarguably the epicenter for these varietals in California, this organization has once again become consolidated, after decentralizing into regional chapters diluted its efficacy to the point it nearly collapsed.

Back in the 1990s, when Rhône Rangers was founded, production of these wines in California seemed esoteric, if not somewhat quirky, with pioneers like Randall Grahm and John Alban championing grapes like Syrah and Grenache, while Ridge produced under-the-radar bottlings intermittently. Soon afterwards, a trend of Viognier as the Next Big Thing arose and just as rapidly fell on its face, as vintners here, lacking a model upon which to draw, haphazardly crafted this wine like an oaked Chardonnay.

Yet, in spite of such missteps, the 22 Rhône varietals not only gained a foothold in California, but gave rise to recognition of hitherto unheralded viticulture regions like Santa Barbara, the Sierra Foothills, and Paso Robles. At its apex, the Rhône Rangers Grand Tasting stood alongside ZAP and Family Winemakers (and later, Consorzio CalItalia) as one of the premier annual wine events at San Francisco’s Fort Mason, with well over 120 wineries pouring 

Flash-forward to 2022: the tasting at the Paso Robles Event Center could not have been more robust. Like the Garagiste Festival that preceded it last November, it was flawlessly orchestrated, spread out throughout the facility with a floor plan that allowed attendees easy access to all of the vendors, extremely comfortable in terms of both noise and temperature, catered, and easily navigated with a printed program that featured not only the wineries but the wines they were pouring. Ticket holders came from as far north as San Francisco and as far south as Los Angeles, a most impressive spread. Prices were moderate—hardly the $150-250 ticket for post-pandemic events in Napa, with enough time allocated to visit most, if not all the wineries on hand.

In short, I could not have been more pleased, or encouraged, by the Rhône Rangers Experience; Kim Murphy-Rodrigues has done a tremendously laudable job at bringing this vital organization back to life. But beyond just the organization, this event underscored the vitality that has subtly arisen in Paso Robles over the past two years. As with my visit for the Garagiste tasting, I was stunned to discover how much the town and region had transformed throughout the pandemic. It hadn’t merely regained its footing far quicker than Napa or Sonoma, but had blossomed into a complete destination, with a vibrant nightlife and other cultural amenities, as COVID refugees from California’s urban centers swelled the local populace.

I would be remiss in not noting that the successful reboot of Rhône Rangers hopefully represents a harbinger of potential for Risorgimento. After all, our predecessor, Consorzio CalItalia, was inextricably linked to its Rhône sibling, sharing several board members during its heyday. I have high hopes that, if we can reestablish ourselves, a cooperative partnership will also be revived, along with shared events and, potentially, a Grand Mediterranean Tasting that could include Iberian varietal trade organization T.A.P.A.S.

Moving onward, I breezed through San Francisco for a brief respite before heading up to Napa for the return Première, the annual winter celebration and auction for the wine trade. The restrictions of COVID has caused last year’s event to be rescheduled for June and revamped into an online/offline combination, a deleterious shift that muted the exuberance of this week-long gathering.

The 2022 session retained much of this hybridization but seemed a marked improvement over its predecessor. Still, many of the hallmark events, like the Atelier Melka and 750 Wines tastings, elected to forego this year’s festivities, while odd pairings, like Women Winemakers and the Coombsville AVA, held a scaled-down joint session. I began my itinerary with a personal favorite, Above the Clouds, the Pritchard Hill tasting at Chappellet. Alas, only six of the storied wineries from what has been dubbed the “Rodeo Drive of Napa” elected to participate this year, altering its atmosphere from a frenzied rush to taste as many $300 wines as one could into a low-key, truncated stroll through the nevertheless superb wines being showcased.

The half-dozen or so other tastings I attended seemed similarly scaled back, both in terms of participating wineries and the number of attendees. Further complicating this notable attrition, COVID protocols and onsite testing made freely moving between events cumbersome, if not limiting. I did not attend the auction on Saturday, opting instead to return to San Francisco for the annual Calistoga AVA tasting; that only $2.1 million was raised this year only underscored diminution of the festivities.

To be clear, this isn’t a criticism of Napa, nor is it a glass half-empty analysis of Première. Businesses and communities throughout California are struggling to regain footing after the pandemic. By far, recovery will not be achieved in one fell swoop—incremental progress, as exemplified here, will likely be the norm for several years to come. AVAs like Napa and Sonoma benefited greatly in the past by their proximity to major urban centers, while regions like Paso Robles, Lodi, or the Foothills were considered outliers; COVID reversed this equation, making it more precarious for these major destinations to return to their norm.

On top of all this, five years of hellish wildfires have taken quite a toll on Northern California’s wine regions. The combination of all these factors means that wineries here, like Sostevinobile, must take a hard look at the new economic landscape and adjust accordingly. The rampant inflation that has affected prices everywhere is no stranger to Napa, either; my cursory assessment is that the benchmark now for an ultrapremium Cabernet Sauvignon hovers around $235 (versus $175 pre-COVID).

How are these steep prices affecting Napa? At the moment, there seems to be enough well-heeled wine enthusiasts to absorb the increase, but we are nearing the point where wine cannot withstand the price differential between itself and other alcoholic beverages. $300 may fly for a midweek wine may fly in Atherton or Beverly Hills, but can a wine bar hold its own with an average price of $25/glass? Will the new $12/glass of wine be any more quaffable than a swig of Two Buck Chuck?

Hard choices, to be sure. I was glad to see Napa starting its rebound, but I left Première still with most questions lingering…

*Actually, it’s two AVAs, but who’s quibbling?

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