Earlier this month Time magazine named Oregon’s Willamette Valley one of the “World’s Greatest Places” of 2023. The appellation is among 50 locations and one of only six in the U.S. The headline reads “Willamette Valley, Oregon. The next Napa.” Let’s hope not.
Surely, Napa Valley is the poster child of vinous success in the U.S. From the appellation’s humble, agrarian beginnings, an industry has come forth that has near universal name recognition, not just with wine lovers but with people more broadly. The wines can be of exceptionally high quality and are revered by critics and consumers alike. That success was hard won and should surely be celebrated.
But along the way Napa has become some other things too, and not all of those things are positive.
Cabernet Sauvignon has largely taken over the valley, where it makes up 52% of the acreage. The next closest variety is Chardonnay at 13%. Napa County Cabernet Sauvignon prices hit an all-time price last year, averaging $8,947 per ton. That is over three times more than nearby Sonoma County. (For perspective, Washington’s average for Cabernet in 2021 was $1,900 per ton.)
Top end vineyards in the valley can receive as much as $65,000 per ton. Writer Jamie Goode recently noted that Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley are “some of the world’s most expensive grapes.” “Are Napa Valley grape prices sustainable?” Wine Business asked in 2021.
Of course, land prices are also exorbitantly high, costing $300,000–500,000 per acre. Highly sought after parcels can reach into seven figures per acre.
As people invest more money into land and grapes, the wines simply cannot fail to deliver. Esther Mobley noted in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle last year, “This economic reality has driven a situation where more of Napa’s wines are becoming concentrated in the hands of fewer winemakers.” Here wineries hire consultants that they know can deliver on what is now an exceedingly high-priced investment.
As one would expect, there is a downstream effect of all this on bottle cost. Silicon Valley Bank’s annual report listed the average price of a bottle of Napa wine (not specifically Cabernet) at $73.34. That is in all cases an extremely expensive bottle.
In Mobley’s article, renowned consulting winemaker Philippe Melka notes that the cost to produce a bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet will soon be $200. The final cost to consumers would need to be even higher for the wine to turn a profit.
Mobley points out the elephant in the room. “Even the winemaking consultants who helped create this one fear that it could reach a tipping point someday, maybe someday soon.”
Meanwhile for wine tourists, Napa Valley is sometimes referred to as “an adult Disneyland.” I’m not sure if that’s meant as a compliment or not.
On any given weekend, the area is overrun with limousines and other traffic, as visitors flood in from nearby San Francisco. Pity the poor soul trying to take a left onto Highway 29.
Wineries look like palaces, sometimes literally. Tasting fees can run into triple digits. Of course, as the tastings and the wines get more and more expensive, they cater to an increasingly niche, well-heeled clientele.
Talking to Napa Valley winemakers over the years, some have lamented that they have little room for creativity. Some also bemoan the lack of collaboration, with one winemaker referring to “10,000-foot walls” around every winery. Yes, the wines are terrific, but the culture that the area was known for decades ago seems long lost.
So, the question I ask: Is this truly where Willamette Valley wants to go?
It’s clear Willamette Valley is well on its way to universal name recognition around the country and around the world. The wines have won well-deserved praise from critics and consumers alike.
In terms of plantings, Willamette Valley is even more of a monoculture than Napa Valley. Pinot Noir makes up 69% of acreage and 81% of production. The next closest variety is Pinot Gris at 16%.
Statewide, Pinot Noir averaged $2,552 per ton in 2021. Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is, of course, considerably more expensive. While Willamette Valley wines were not specifically broken out in SVB’s annual report, the average cost of a bottle of wine from Oregon was $44.96.
There has been a surge in investment in Willamette Valley in recent years, with wineries and vineyard land swapping hands. This trend will surely continue.
Willamette Valley is enjoying a well-deserved moment in the sun, but the interesting question is what comes further downstream from that success? How does it impact grape prices, land prices, bottle prices, and consumer experience? How does it impact the culture of the valley in the long-term?
As Willamette Valley’s ascent continues – as it surely will – the real question is, how does the area retain what has made it successful? This is not just extremely high quality wines but also the spirit of exploration and collaboration. How do wineries make sure that the tasting rooms and the wines themselves retain some level of accessibility, while still receiving a return on their sizable investment?
Don’t get me wrong, I love visiting Napa Valley (in the off season, during the week), and I love Napa Valley wines. There are also plenty of wineries in Napa offering experiences counter to what I have described above. But as much as anything, Napa Valley has become, in part, a victim of its outsized success. This is a natural consequence of its well-earned notoriety.
But to me, Napa Valley’s success is, as much as anything, a cautionary tale. One of the things consumers say most frequently to me about Walla Walla Valley, one of Washington’s crown jewel wine regions is, “It’s not going to become Napa is it?” I haven’t asked, but I expect they likely mean that in many different respects, from the price of the wines to the feel of the experience.
Overall, the question for Willamette Valley will be, how does it continue its ascent while staying true to itself and the region that the pioneers and those who have come after them have built? Over the decades, valley winegrowers have excelled at focusing on the big picture and fiercely protecting what makes their region special. As the valley sees more and more success, that work will get harder.
The Time magazine recognition is well-deserved. But I expect many Willamette Valley winegrowers are thinking about how to make sure it does not become the “next Napa.”