Fine wine has always benefited from a goodly bit of snob appeal. The French certainly enjoyed being wine snobs and Americans, never to be outdone, have worked hard and long to catch up. Prestigious wine enjoys a particular cachet, equal parts snobbery, expense, rarity and point of origin. Long the target of collectors, prices for the finest vintages at wine auctions reach into the stratosphere.
Seeking to absorb wine’s cachet, California vintners have spared no expense to create and invest in image making, which has ranged from expensively designed labels to stunningly creative venues. Some winery owners have combined their offerings with art collections, further enhancing wines image of exclusivity, elegance and sophistication in hopes some of that will rub off on their vintage.
Fine wine is produced in limited quantities — it is this rarity that makes the best wines so valuable, and until recently, winery locations were limited as well. I first lived in the Napa Valley in 1971 off Deerpark Road. On my way to downtown St. Helena I would pass the Krug and Christian Brothers wineries; they were two of the seven in the Valley at that time. I watched the valley’s walnut and plum orchards replaced with vineyards, and by the time I left in 1976 the acreage devoted to grape growing had more than doubled. Wineries popped up from Calistoga to Yountville; California wine was on the map.
The trend to bigger and more ostentatious wineries gained traction; whole castles imported from Europe, tram rides and the spectacle of wine-making all catered to tourists seeking to grab some cachet for themselves, take it home and impress their friends. For those winemakers unable to gain retail distribution, tasting and sales at the winery became a valued method of connecting directly with consumers, and wine clubs emerged as a major marketing tool. For the intrepid wine enthusiast, finding the rare and precious required travel, tips and often word-of-mouth.
Talented winemakers were, of course, essential, that is until laboratory wine chemistry blending became the secret formula behind brand success. Parlaying taste components within computer algorithms let anyone with enough money blend award-winning wines. Now the secret had been cracked wide open and success could be anyone’s game. Yet another move was to come, and it’s barreled into Sonoma like trains used to pull into the roundabout at the northwest corner of the Plaza: wine bar tasting rooms.
The introduction of the wine bar on Sonoma Plaza eliminates the need for a public winery. No castle, no tram; just some barrels in a warehouse, a sexy vanity label plus an expensive lease does the job. The public no longer needs to search or travel, simply amble down the sidewalk and hit five or six tasting-room-wine-bars in a half-block. Cachet, it turns out, is easy to sell. Wineries have long since become wedding event centers, and lucky for those who have. Paying off loans on castles and trams takes big money and big crowds.
But sooner rather than later, a booming proliferation of Sonoma Plaza wine bars may turn cachet to cliché. When wine is no longer scarce or requires any special effort to find it will become ordinary and then boring. A jaded public will seek out deals and low prices and boom will go bust like it always does.