The first year of wine-country life is in the books!

It’s hard to believe that it’s already been a full year since we moved to Napa. While the entries on this blog only recount the first six months of our tenure, the last six months have not been without experience or observation. It would be fruitless to try to recall it all here now, but I do think it’s appropriate to use this one-year anniversary to summarize our thoughts about the first year here in Nirv–, er, Napa.

While I had lived and worked in a valley all my life–Silicon Valley–I had hopes that the Napa Valley would be different.  And in most ways it is. There are still people here with money and egos, just like back home, but somehow they seem less obnoxious as a whole. (I reserve the right to change my opinion on this if Larry Ellison starts buying up vineyard land.) More than balancing out the egotistical folks are the legions of friendly, down-to-earth and generous people we have met up and down the valley. From our neighbors, to local farmers, retailers, bartenders and servers, and other local residents, we have made some amazing new friends. We had never expected this, at least not this quickly. What sets most of these folks apart is that they, like us, have chosen to pick up and move here. They have, again for the most part, sacrificed money and opportunity in the big city to lead a life here in an agricultural valley. They are grateful for the life they live here, and it shows in their personalities. I’d like to think it shows in ours as well, but it is still probably too early to say for sure. I was, after all, still commuting to San Jose only three weeks ago.

While Silicon Valley used to be an agricultural area, it is now fertile in a different way. But Napa Valley is still an old school farming community, and that is very new to me. Here, fortunes (and I use that term both literally and figuratively) are closely tied to things like weather, soil, micro-climates, bugs and pests, and the overall growing season. Once the grapes are harvested, that’s where the real creative juices get going, as the vintners use techniques passed down from generations, as well as seat-of-the-pants experimentation, to make their finished product. It still fascinates me to think that two people can take grapes from the same vineyard and make two very different tasting wines from them. That’s the magic of the Napa Valley.

One of the most vivid differences we have noticed is that there are seasons here. In the south bay, we had rainy season and non-rainy season. There were a few trees that changed color, but that was about it. Here, the trees change color, the vines change all kinds of color, the vineyards go through clearly differentiated cycles, and the weather gets more extreme, particularly in the winter. I never noticed, until I lived here, that Bill Martin, the meteorologist on KTVU Channel 2, almost always mentions the temperature in Napa, usually because it is either the highest or lowest temperature in the bay area, depending on the season. And it’s true; you hit all the extremes here. It became common practice to use sheets and towels to cover our fruit trees and tender vegetation in the winter, and you’d see “laundry” in yards all over town for much of the winter. Ironically, this past winter was actually very mild, which caught folks by surprise, and the big rains did not come until March and April (and when they came, they made up for lost time!) I planted tulips and daffodils in December so they would be blooming in April. It was so warm in January that they bloomed in February and were obliterated by therain in March. At least the weather has been great so far this growing season and the vintners I have talked to all seem thrilled; talk of “the vintage of the century” is even being murmured around town. Time will tell.

Locals talk about how things really slow down in Napa after harvest is completed, and that from mid-November through January things are pretty quiet here. Well, that wasn’t the case this year. The weather was so good that the tourists kept coming all winter long, catching many business owners by surprise.   A number of merchants (retailers and restaurants) closed their places down for remodeling or hiatus, to save costs in the slow winter months, and lost a lot of income when the tourists kept flocking to the valley. Those who stayed open reaped the rewards and got a great head start to their 2012 year. Even when it rained in March and April business was strong, so overall the valley is flourishing. (I don’t even need to ask anyone that; all I need to do is look at the line of cars snaking up highway 29 during the days and weekends to know.) The Napa Valley Destination Council recently released their reports on the state of the local economies up here (all the cities) and everyone is doing well, particularly Napa. Their primary way of measuring success is hotel room rates, occupancy rates, and new business permits. All indices are up, which makes this property owner happy!

Another great thing about the people in this region is that they are pretty charitable folks. (And no, I don’t just mean that they bring multiple bottles of wine to dinner when you invite them over, although they certainly do.) What I mean is, starting in June and going almost every weekend through September, there are charity events at wineries benefitting all kinds of local organizations. We attended many of them last year, and will attend more this year, as the parties are great, the food and wine are amazing, and the money goes to a good cause. Also, you can get some great deals on the silent auction items if you  pay attention. Because many of the same folks who attend the functions also donate the auction items, they aren’t necessarily bidding on them.

The biggest event of the year is always the big Napa Valley Auction, a 4-day affair, where tickets cost $1000 or $2500 per person, depending upon how many events you wish to attend. We did not attend this year, but hope to in the future, just to enjoy the spectacle. The big live auction this year raised more than $8 million from approximately 40 live auction items, and I believe the cheapest lot went for more than $30,000. (Not counting Emeril Lagasse’s chef’s jacket, which went for a paltry $9000.) The highest price was $460,000 (yes, four zeroes) for a private concert with Lady Antebellum, and some other goodies. Just a little out of my league, but still for a good cause.

So all in all we have been thrilled with our first “cycle” and are enjoying the beginning of “round two. We no longer consider ourselves the “newbies.” We pinch ourselves each time we drive up and down the valley (during off-peak traffic times, of course) and applaud our decision to move here. We have committed ourselves to extending the same kindness and open arms that we received to all the new people we encounter. So when you come visit, be prepared to receive a proper Napa welcome!

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2 Responses to The first year of wine-country life is in the books!

  1. Kort,
    Tasty. Tastier than the bottle of Rothschild the prez of OCTel once gave me. Really cool to hear of your story. And wow, what a great storyteller you are. Congrats on all this. Looking forward to future chapters.

    • Hey Barry,
      I remember that bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild. You didn’t know then what you had was way better than two-buck Chuck!
      Jennifer (you know, the media director)

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