Who Can Afford Napa Now? Not This Wine Columnist

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Lettie Teague has traveled to the Napa Valley for decades. Never before have prices been so high. Here, key figures in Napa wine and tourism share their perspectives on the changing region.

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That new hotel is the Stanly Ranch, in the Carneros region of Napa Valley. Opening April 29, it’s the latest offering from the Auberge Resorts Collection, whose other Napa outposts include Auberge de Soleil just outside St. Helena and Solage in Calistoga. Both places are similarly pricey, and they’re hardly the Valley’s only luxury options.

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The priciest place to rest your head might be the Four Seasons Resort and Residences that opened in Calistoga last November. I checked availability for a midweek stay in April and turned up a Vineyard room for $1,675—before tax. That covers a bed, a bathroom and a private terrace or balcony as well as the opportunity to “experience the grape to glass lifestyle as never before,” according to the resort website. Perhaps the resort’s owner, Sunstone Hotel Investors,

Inc., needs to recoup the $177.5 million it paid for the Four Seasons in December 2021. This paper noted it was “one of the highest valued hotel transactions ever.”

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While the average price of a Napa Valley hotel room increased by a modest percentage each year between 2013 and 2019 (and dipped 21% during 2020), that average price soared 51% in 2021 over 2020, according to a spokesperson for Visit Napa Valley, putting it about 20% above what it was prepandemic.

Auberge de Soleil, Solage and the Four Seasons Resort and Residences are all located near many top wineries, but guests who stay at the Stanly in Carneros will have a bit of drive to most wineries and will likely hit the gridlock along Highway 29. “A small fender bender can turn the two-lane highway into a parking lot,” said Chris Gilmore, owner of Crush Napa Valley Wine Tours. “The few passageways in and out of Napa Valley make Sundays a bit of a nightmare.” Mr. Gilmore, who has been driving winery guests for over a decade in both Napa and Sonoma, acknowledged that the Valley has changed a great deal. “The tourism prices are far more aggressive than we’ve ever seen,” he said.

The cost of tasting wines has been taken a decided turn upward as well. According to Sarah Elliman, co-founder of CellarPass, a winery reservation platform, “Tasting fees have been on the rise at a significant pace in Napa Valley since 2016, on average rising 25% or more.” She shared data showing that a basic tasting cost $20 in 2016 and $40.62 in 2021, while the price of an “elevated” tasting—which may include higher-tier wines, often include food and are usually led by an individual host for each party— cost $30 on average in 2016 and $82.26 in 2021.

At Cliff Lede Vineyards in Yountville, a fee of $60 per person currently buys four one-ounce tastings of the winery’s current releases. (All Napa tastings are one-ounce pours, as per California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control [ABC] law.) A couple of three-figure options include tastings of four reserve wines and a vineyard tour.

The venerable Spottswoode Estate Vineyard & Winery, in St. Helena, charges $75 to taste three wines—waived with the purchase of six bottles of Spottswoode Estate Cabernet. The price has remained constant for about five years, said president and CEO Beth Novak Milliken, whose family bought the winery and vineyards in 1972. “We want to keep it real,” she said. “We’re underpriced compared to our peers.”

When I mentioned I’d found quite a few three-figure tasting fees in the Valley, Ms. Novak Milliken said she’d heard about a truly pricey tasting offered by Tor Kenward. Mr. Kenward, longtime winemaker for Beringer Vineyards and a Valley resident for 45 years, also makes Chardonnay, Cabernet and Cabernet blends under his own eponymous label.

Mr. Kenward noted his $150 “basic” tasting, a more-affordable option including tastings of 4-5 wines and a “small, curated” cheese plate. Ms. Novak Milliken must have been referencing his $900 Black Magic Cabernet tasting, Mr. Kenward surmised. The Tor Wines Black Magic Cabernet (now sold out) retailed for $450 a bottle. The tasting included a variety of wines, lunch and a vineyard tour. Each tasting is tailored to the individual guest, Mr. Kenward said. He, too, acknowledged that Napa pricing has gotten out of hand. “Maybe I’m part of the problem,” he said. “Is it going to blow up in our faces? I don’t think so, but it may hurt us down the road.”

At Heitz Cellar in St. Helena, up to four guests at a time can enjoy “wine, food, scenic explorations” with the Vineyard to Bottle Experience, priced at $1,000 a person. It includes visits to two of the winery’s vineyards, followed by a tasting in the Salon at Heitz Cellar of current releases and older library wines. Heitz does offer another, “timeless” but more basic tasting at the Salon for $125 a person, with tastings of single-vineyard Cabernet and Chardonay, cheese and charcuterie, guided by in-house “wine curators.”

Gary Fisch, proprietor of Gary’s Wine & Marketplace Napa Valley, a wine store in St. Helena, has encountered huge price hikes at local hotels. “I brought my team [from New Jersey] out. We needed five hotel rooms and the cheapest night, a Tuesday in February, was $750,” he said. “Later in the week it went up to $900.” Three or four years ago the rate was half that, he said.

Another recent change lamented by longtime residents such as Ms. Novak Milliken: the arrival of Pacaso, a real-estate company founded in 2020 that offers fractional shares of luxury second homes in destinations including Aspen, Colo., Malibu, Calif., and Park City, Utah, as well as Napa Valley. Buyers may purchase from a 1/8th to a half share of a home for hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars. (A 1/8th share equals 44 nights in a year.)

In St. Helena, locals have protested Pacaso, carrying signs decrying the commercial element the company has brought to residential neighborhoods. In reference to this less-than-warm welcome, a Pacaso spokesperson told me, “Pacaso does not compete with median-priced housing. We make it possible for people to make memories and have a second home in these places that are astonishingly expensive.”

Of course there are many other wine regions in California where the prices are lower and winery tastings are even, often, free. “I tell wine lovers to go to Mendocino, to go to Santa Barbara,” Mr. Kenward said. I decided to follow his advice myself. Stay tuned to this column.

Write to Lettie Teague at [email protected]

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Credit: www.wsj.com /

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