God’s Wine Country

Living in California’s wine country is living in God’s country. That’s what we tell ourselves. Obviously, God’s plan was to pull out all the peaches and apples and hops and prunes and pears, and plant grapes in their place. In wine country, the price of grapes, especially the price of grapes in Napa versus Sonoma, is headline news. There is a friendly competition between these two wine-growing regions. Sonoma likes to make fun of Napa; Napa does not recognize the existence of Sonoma.

Q: How do you make a small fortune in the wine business?

A: Start with a large fortune.

Retired athletes, entertainers, real-estate developers and lawyers do their best to show the truth in that joke. After making a pile of money, owning a vineyard is a fine monument to one’s self. All that’s needed is a few-hundred-thousand dollars per acre for some Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Better yet, buy some land and plant grapes on it. Soon you’ll feel the satisfaction of boasting, “This was bare ground when I started farming it.” All that’s necessary to be a farmer is to hire a vineyard-management company to do the cultivating and the planting and the hiring of the people to do the actual work. In only a few years, the vines will mature and begin producing fruit and there may be some actual income.

For the real ego boost, though, buy or start a winery. Your friends back in the executive suite will be very impressed when they see your name on a wine label. A working winery looks a lot like an oil refinery, so it needs to be hidden by picturesque buildings. Even better, put the production facility somewhere else, far out of sight. You just need a couple stainless steel tanks and a few oak barrels for the visitors to view through a window from the tasting room. Hire some folksy people to pour wine. They’ll need to know a few words such as “terroir,” “fruit-forward,” “vanilla and blackberry,” “cool marine layer,” and such. It really doesn’t matter much, because the patrons are likely to be more intent on impressing you with how much they know. They’re not there to learn anything; they have egos to feed, too. They probably even know that the French Laundry is a place to eat. A place that you can’t get into, by the way.

Wine touring is a growing business. People from the San Francisco Bay Area wanting to escape urban traffic gridlock head north to be in the bucolic gridlock in the Napa Valley. “Barrel Tasting” weekends are popular with Gen Ys looking to get drunk. If you are successful and build up a name with the au courant, at harvest time, people will pay you – yes, pay you – to come pick your grapes and provide unskilled labor. You’ll have to provide them with luxury accommodations and meals, though. This playing-acting as vineyard worker goes only so far.

Beer is an emerging industry in wine country, but the ingredients have to be brought in from elsewhere because grapes are where the hops used to be. Distilleries have also been starting up lately. This is ironic because grapes and beer and spirits all need water. California is now in the fourth year of severe drought. Grape growers protected buds from early-spring frost by spraying them with water. This forms ice on the outside, protecting the inside from freezing. Now that there is no water they are adapting by putting large fans in the vineyards to keep the warm air moving. You guessed it; someone has filed a lawsuit because of the noise from the fans.

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