Musings on the Movement of Talent

It’s no wonder a globally recognized region such as Napa Valley attracts top winemaking talent – from a global perspective.  The same can be said for Willamette Valley in Oregon, or specific sub-appellations of Sonoma in California, but none more so than Napa Valley.

It’s also worth pointing out that it’s very, very expensive to live in California.  Some podunk town in the Middle of Nowhere, California can try to attract techies on exodus from the Bay Area’s Silicon Valley with attractive home prices starting around a half-a-million buckaroos.  Same town would have sold the same home for 120k not all that far back.  Hell, asking prices on the border of CA and NV with the closest gas station a 30 min drive away and the closest grocery store another 3-5 miles beyond the only gas station in town are asking for buyers to buy in at 350k or thereabouts (not to mention asking a much higher price the closer you get to that gas station).  And no one is going to drop those prices, anywhere, just because you work in a different industry that may not pay as much as a tech job for example.

With that in mind, it’s no wonder you hear about million dollar homes in Napa Valley, given the vicinity to the Bay Area (the closer you are to San Francisco, Oakland, Palo Alto, or any other globally industrious city, the more expensive the cost of living).  That said, lets not forget, Napa looks like this:


And here is another shot from the region:

Beautiful, right?  It’s wine country after all.  Ahem, COUNTRY.

That’s right.  No big city, no bustling cultural centers.  No tech.  No skyscrapers.  Just wine and vines, as far as the eye can see across largely open, undeveloped (or unable to be developed) areas of land, north, south, east, and west.  One would expect to pay a million or more for a home in somewhere like San Francisco or New York City – bustling cultural centers with all the jobs, culture, nightlife, finance, population density, and opportunities as far as one can dream, or even further.  That’s what you pay for.  Napa however, not so much.  It’s not to say there aren’t jobs or industry, but nowhere near those (or paying as much as) bigger city jobs and opportunities.

So let’s do some simple math:  high home prices + nothing (much) to do + country living + exorbitant living costs x young winemaking talent, probably fresh out of school or hot off the heels of an internship in Europe (which is expensive) = not gonna last long.

That’s right.  There are the old school folks making wine who have lived there forever (or, since prices were “normal”), and there are the young talented folks who come to do their thing, even praised with 100-point scores and trophy cabinets filled to the nines, that ultimately get dissuaded by the cost of living.

So what happens?  They migrate.

It’s not unheard of for top talent to pack up and move.  Can you blame them?  No matter how many Parker 100-point scores, or any other publication for that matter, it’s not like a top score guarantees your rent is reduced, or paid in full by another party.  No one is going to say, “Oh! You have how many high scores? Well this million dollar 1400 sq ft home just dropped to a much more affordable $350k!”

It’s not sustainable.  Plain and simple.

Add in global warming, i.e. fruit ripening at higher alcohol levels (which not all winemakers are happy working with – shout out to our 13.5% Cab folks!), and the impending annual wildfires (smoke taint, lost harvests, barreled wines tainted, harvesting early to avoid damage to the fruit on the vine, not to mention physical damage to production facilities or barrel rooms or wine caves), it’s a lot to worry about.

So, as folks do under pressure, they break.  And move.

Generally their first stop is somewhere in Oregon or Washington if they are looking to go north, a very wise decision based on global warming trends – the moderate temperate regions are shifting northward.  But some see opportunities in Santa Barbara County to the south – though this is a much smaller number.  Most will settle into their new Pinot or Cab homes up north and see out the remainder of their career.  Some will move to (or go back to if they had been there prior) Europe to the wine region of their dreams and desires, and also see their professional days out there.  Some of our North-migrating friends will begin to get curious, and desire to seek out new terroir expressions and possible regions, in hopes of finding the next big winemaking region, generally pushing them east towards the intriguing Idaho (Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico also being part of this conversation, however already with developed wine regions, so not as much claim to finding the “New Napa” there as much as within Idaho state lines – again, global warming).

All this said, it’s wise to inform yourself as a consumer as to who is making the wine. Call the winery, they will gush about their winemaker and past (or current) achievements.  Check the wineries website, they will be happy to heap praise on their winemaker’s pedigree and resume, generally devoting a page to them.  And most of all, don’t turn your nose up at a region you may not immediately recognize.  It’s very safe to say today that the sub-appellations of Oregon have produced astounding Pinots and Chard (and Riesling…just sayin’).  Same can be said for the regions and sub-appellations of Eastern Washington state and their Syrah or Bordeaux varietals.

All of this to say: Napa will continue to attract top talent, even long after the region has surpassed its ability to keep up with its past recognition by way of fires, global temps rising to the point it’s no longer viable to continue the grape programs that exist there (already more Mendocino and Lake County top-level expressions exist where none had been in the collective wine consciousness even a decade ago – generally looked at as blending or finishing regions – now boasting their own or sub-appelated superstars), and of course the quickest killer, the cost of living.

It’s high time we all take a second to open our eyes and see the forest for the trees.  The talent is migrating, and will more so in the future as this exacerbates as an issue.  If you love wine as much as we do, you need to follow the talent almost as much, if not more so, than the region listed on the bottle – or the egregious accompanying price tags.

Point of note: It’s customary out here in Northern California (maybe where you live as well) that once someone retires, they are rewarded for their service with a bottle of the most recent vintage of Silver Oak (wood box and all) to either celebrate with now or age for celebrating later – the most recent retirees receiving the 2016 vintage.  Silver Oak is in no need for top talent, hired or intern, but we’ve had the luxury of tasting many vintages dating back to the 80s.  No fault of theirs or any knock on the winemaking or growing (remember, great wine begins on the vine!), but there is a noticeable “terroir” difference that began showing dynamic differences from 2009 and on (dictated by growing season conditions, rainfall, exposure, harvest time, etc.) and with the fires or potential smoke damage from nearby fires in 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 and possibly more regularly going forward, one must wonder what will come of these vintages (or the skipping thereof) for not just Silver Oak, but for all top (or middle, or bottom) Napa wineries.  Not to mention the emotional distress for a winemaker losing their years’ work in a few days or weeks against any effort they can make to stop the loss – or, god forbid, a cellar collection burning, effectively wiping out an entire career or multiple generations of winemakers.

If you’re a winemaker (or even worse off, intern – paid less, basically) and you have all these challenges, stresses, and uncertainties, what to do?  Easy, move.

***As a disclaimer, Napa Valley still produces global-renowned wines, and still fetches top dollar, which has yet to be surpassed by any other region on the west coast, however, in our ever going hunt for the greatest wines at the best prices, we’ve pulled our usual curtains back and been shocked to find some top name winemakers having quietly popped up in other regions, and to great effect.  So Napa is still great and all, but lesser known areas like Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, Walla Walla Valley, Yakima Valley – just to name a few – have shocked us when we find out who is making wine in a winery there nowadays. Oh, and we had a bottle of healthily decanted 2016 Silver Oak recently – phenomenal juice end of day, again, nothing negative against them.***

In conclusion, don’t judge a book (or bottle of wine) by its cover, nor its asking price.  Remember, the vast majority of wines in an average grocery store actually don’t represent a winery, they represent a large marketing exercise by 5 large wine conglomerates.  And not every $150+ bottle of Napa Valley Cab is actually worth the asking price today (there’s a strong chance the winemaker that got them to that level is making $50-60 bottles elsewhere in another appellation now).  So, do as you will, but it’s always good to have these points of note in the back of your mind when deciding to (or not to) spend top dollar on a bottle of wine.  Always try to follow the talent when possible.  End of the day, they’re the ones who make the wine you love, not the price, label image, or winery listed on the label – those folks are all reporting to accounting and a marketing director.

Cheers!

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