There’s some drama brewing among wine columnists. Not this particular wine columnist—at least not this time.

One of the most respected wine journalists in the business, Lettie Teague of The Wall Street Journal, wrote a piece recently on the inflated prices and extreme costs associated with a trip to Napa. Titled “Who Can Afford Napa Now? Not This Wine Columnist,” it’s a great read.

She begins the article by writing about the newest Auberge Resorts Collection hotel that opened in April at the south end of the valley. It’s called Stanly Ranch, and entry-level rooms start at around $1,300 a night. Lettie goes on to state that the “no-frills” hotel where she used to stay, in a room overlooking a gas station, now charges double what it did pre-COVID. She states that room prices have increased by 51% year over year from ’21 to ’22, according to the local tourism bureau, Visit Napa Valley.

Her article also goes into some detail about the exorbitant price of wine tastings nowadays. Where you used to be able to taste four to five wines at a winery, in a vineyard setting, for around $25 to $30, you can now expect to pay anywhere from $40 to $150 per person for what is considered a “basic tasting.” Want the higher-end juice? According to Lettie’s article, you can expect to pay anywhere from $83 per person to $1,000 depending on where you go. Yikes.

Nothing in this article that Ms. Teague wrote is untrue. She did her research. She looked at statistics and facts. She interviewed the right people for the information she sought.

So where does the drama come from? Well, she included one part-sentence that got the locals (read: winemakers, winery owners, and journalists from the San Francisco Chronicle) all twitterpated, hot and bothered: She writes, “I can’t help feeling that the region’s main crop is cash, not grapes.”

Whoa! Oh, no, she didn’t! To say that this statement created a defensive and hostile reaction is putting it mildly.

Jess Lander and Esther Mobley of the San Francisco Chronicle, in a co-bylined piece, were swift in their response to Lettie Teague’s article. They begins their retaliatory piece by stating: “Visiting Napa Valley is expensive! So The Wall Street Journal reports, stating the obvious.” Oooh, things are getting tense.

Lander and Mobley were quick to put together a piece highlighting affordable finds in Napa, including an English muffin for $2.50, and lunch at various taco trucks around town.

For more economical tastings, they suggest skipping the wineries and vineyards, and heading to downtown Napa, where one can visit myriad tasting rooms and have wine flights starting at $30 to $35 per person.

They concede that finding a hotel room during the weekend in Napa for less than $500 a night will be a challenge. I’m a little surprised, given the other recommendations, that the idea of pitching a tent and camping in Skyline Wilderness Park wasn’t on the list; it really is a lovely park.

Having lived in Napa, and not being a millionaire, I know there are plenty of dining and drinking options that won’t break the bank. In fact, most people I know who live and work in Napa are not millionaires, yet they still manage to live and have a social life.

Does anybody really want to plan a trip to Napa Valley to eat food from a taco truck on the side of the road? Or taste wine in a strip mall on First Street? Or stay in a motel overlooking the neighborhood Chevron station?

That said, Ms. Lander and Ms. Mobley completely missed the point of The Wall Street Journal article. Yeah, you can go just about anywhere on a shoestring budget (anyone remember Rachael Ray’s $40 a Day?)—but the question is: Why would someone want to do that?

I used to love grabbing a Kickin’ Kelley sandwich for lunch from Sunshine Foods Market in St. Helena and eating at the utility-style tables behind the store. Or bellying up to the bar at Norman Rose, and having a cold Pabst Blue Ribbon in the can with some disco fries. Or grabbing a burrata pizza from Foodshed with a bottle of something Italian from the wine table and heading home for the night. But this was life in wine country … not a vacation to wine country.

Does anybody really want to plan a trip to Napa Valley to eat food from a taco truck on the side of the road? Or taste wine in a strip mall on First Street? Or stay in a motel overlooking the neighborhood Chevron station? Or do people want to plan a trip to the famous and iconic Napa Valley to walk the vineyards, to soak up all the romanticism of drinking a wine while standing in the place where it’s made, to sit in a restaurant and have a winemaker at the table next to you, to have your wines curated and presented by a master sommelier?

Of course they do. Lettie Teague was merely pointing out how that’s no longer attainable for most people. The idea of experiencing Napa in the way that people think about Napa is out of reach for most.

Obviously, there are people willing to pay $1,000 for a tasting at Heitz Cellar, and couples who can afford the $1,500 tasting at Theorem Vineyards, or they wouldn’t offer them. But it sure doesn’t sound sustainable to this wine gal.

Ms. Teague ended her column pointing out that there are many other wine regions in California where tourists can find genuine affordability. I find it ironic that this piece of advice was given to her by a Napa winemaking legend. I’m not sure why a winery owner would encourage wine lovers to go to Santa Barbara or Mendocino instead of Napa, but then again, maybe Lettie is right … this might be a place with more money than good sense.

Katie Finn

Katie Finn drinks wine for a living. As a certified sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers and as a Certified Specialist of Wine, she has dedicated her career to wine education and sharing her...

4 replies on “Vine Social: A Wall Street Journal Writer Who Pointed Out Napa’s Sky-High Prices Has a Point”

  1. No one really prioritizes a trip to this area unless they are into wines. I mean, there’s no Disney, no crappy fast food places, no Cracker Barrel for them to dine at. So who cares if it’s pricey expensive. Rally, . The rich need to get away too.

  2. I’m no wine connoisseur, but what about Temecula? Easy trip and cheap. The last time I was in the Texas Hill Country outside of Austin, I was impressed with how the wine industry around Fredericksburg had developed. The Hill Country is beautiful, and there’s plenty to do in Austin. I don’t think most people know enough about wine to truly appreciate the difference (even if they act as though they do). I know I don’t, and I drink a variety of wines, some of which ain’t cheap. Unless my friends who own a vineyard in Napa invite me to stay with them, I’ll probably skip the trip.

  3. I think the point the Ms Teague is trying to make is that Napa has gotten as bit too big for its’ britches.
    You can go a valley West into Sonoma and find better value with less attitude in Sonoma Valley. Or journey into the Russian River Valley or the Anderson Valley, all in the same general area, to find a taste of what Napa was before it became the darling of wine lovers worldwide.
    I moved to San Francisco in the mid 80s. Then, Napa was young and fun and not at all full of itself. All the tastings were free and the winemakers were usually in or near the tasting rooms, eager to share their enthusiasm and answer questions. By the early 2000s, the gentry had got their hooks into Napa, so eager to pontificate about the pencil lead and cat piss bouquets of the $300-400 bottle of wine they were tasting. They pretty much ruined it for the locals.
    Oh well, so it goes. There is so much wonderful superbly drinkable CA wine for $15-30/bottle. You can spend a bit more and enjoy a bottle you will tell your friends about.
    Just try new wines, and marvel at the difference between an Alexander Valley and a central Coast Pinot Noir.
    There is a lot of great wine being made all over this wonderful state. Even in areas you would never think of, like Lodi (luscious Zinfindels) and Amador and Nevada counties.
    CA is a wine lovers paradise. And we haven’t even talked about the amazing wine from OR and WA states.

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