This week on the “VinePair Podcast,” our hosts discuss Napa Valley’s lingering labor crisis. After listing what they have been drinking recently — including IPAs and homemade Daiquiris — they dive into a discussion about why there’s such an acute housing and labor crisis in America’s most prominent wine region.
During Adam Teeter’s recent visit to the region, he noticed some glaring issues, including a lack of affordable housing, a labor shortage, and an extreme wealth gap. The hosts debate how these issues result in the Napa Valley hotels’ and restaurants’ lack of innovation at understaffed establishments. If things don’t change fast, our hosts fear that Napa Valley’s reign as top U.S. drinks destination will soon be over.
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Adam Teeter: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” Before we get started, I understand that last week one of you — and you know who you are — threw some shade. And I just want you to know that my people, my loyal listeners reached out to me via DMs and some texts.
Z: Oh, we’re going to have to see this before I believe any of this.
A: Zach said that it was a nice and calm episode. I just want you to know, Zach, that when you’re not on the podcast anymore — and not that it is going to be any time soon…
Z: Oh, OK.
A: I’m not going to say that it’s better that you’re not here.
A: I thought you guys had a nice episode. It was good, but I wouldn’t say it was calmer.
Z: I want to be very clear. Calm is only a positive occasionally. I don’t want us to have a calm podcast. I have a 3-year-old and I’ll tell you, calm is a nice break. Now, if it was always calm, I would say, “What’s wrong.”
A: Oh, you had a nice break from me?
Z: That is what I’m saying, yes. And I’m sure you will appreciate a break from me when I’m dealing with child No. 2.
A: Oh, are you going to take a long break?
Z: We will see, I don’t know. I might just do the podcast with the babe in arms. I will say, it’s like a good cocktail. It needs at least three ingredients. We got by one week with our two-ingredient cocktail, but it’s always nice to have three.
A: Y’all did a good job, it was an interesting episode. So Joanna, what have you been drinking?
J: After that episode, I promptly went out, got some rum, and made myself a Daiquiri. This is how little rum I drink, which actually made me think that it was the perfect drink to get me out of my comfort zone.
A: I love that.
Z: I need more specifics. What rum did you use?
J: OK, so I got some Plantation Three-Star Rum, which was good. I thought it was a good beginner’s rum for a Daiquiri.
A: It’s the best for a Daiquiri.
J: Oh, great. Well, I feel very good about the decision, then. I also got some Kasama Rum. I didn’t use it in the Daiquiri, but it is some rum from the Philippines. It was also very delicious, which I tried this weekend.
A: That rum is amazing. So, I have a question.
Z: You did an interview with the founder?
J: Alexandra Dorda?
A: I did, yeah. She’s the best. I have a question, though. Did Plantation say they were changing their name and then it just never happened? I think we heard that last summer they were going to change the name. Zach, do you remember that?
Z: Yeah, there was a thing about that.
J: You should follow up with that.
A: I know, I was just very curious. I love that rum, but every time I think about the big announcement that they were going to have to change it from the name Plantation for obvious reasons. And I think it just has not changed. Yo, we’re paying attention. Change the name. Zach, what about you?
Z: Well, like Joanna, I decided to go outside of my comfort zone and drink a very classic West Coast IPA. In this case, the Interurban IPA from Fremont Brewing here in Seattle. Fremont makes a ton of different beers, a lot of different IPAs in a whole range of styles but I think of that as being one of the very classic, hop-forward but quite bitter styles. It was good, but at the same time — and I’m sure this happens to both of you — where these beers can simultaneously feel like a well-made example of a thing that I don’t care for all that much. That’s how it was. I’m glad I tried it. It’s always good to revisit and remember how these styles work, but like other things in the world, it was another category for me in beverage alcohol that I’m not a huge fan of. For example, I’m not going to drink much New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. I have nothing against New Zealand. It is a beautiful country but the classic style New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc isn’t a wine I love. Similarly, this isn’t a beer I love, so I can say simultaneously that it was well made and not for me. What about you, Adam? What do you have on your travels?
A: Obviously, we are going to talk a lot about Napa this episode, so I won’t talk about those wines, but I got to have some really delicious things. First, they’re not a sponsor, but I did have Tip-Top on the plane. I guess they are the official cocktail of Delta now, and it was super interesting talking to the flight attendants about how they can’t keep it in the beverage cart. People love it. This is what RTDs are for. This is what makes them awesome. I had a really delicious Margarita and also a really delicious Old Fashioned on my travels. I could not say that in the past when I flew on any airline.
Z: Unless you were bringing your own simple syrup, orange, and s**t on board.
Z: Maybe you would have done that, I don’t know but most people are not going to do that.
J: Have people been doing that recently?
A: I mean, there used to be cocktail kits and stuff. I don’t know anyone who ever uses them, but they’re always a fun gift. It would wind up on a holiday or something.
Z: They went right next to your whiskey stones.
A: Yeah, exactly. Right next to your whiskey stones, that’s pretty true. Now, with the growing popularity of these really well-made RTDs, we’re just going to see it be a thing.
J: What a smart partnership.
A: Of course, Delta loves it because Tip-Top is an Atlanta company and they’re an Atlanta company so it just makes a lot of sense. I think we’ll see it more on other airlines. Then, I’m embarrassed to say this, but I had my first ever Pliny the Elder on draft.
J: Oh, that’s exciting.
A: You don’t see it that much here. I guess you only see it in a bottle and that was cool. I had that at Gott’s Roadside, which is also the spot. I mean, it’s freakin’ delicious. Then, I got to go to one of my favorite winemakers, Kathleen Inman in Sonoma. That was really great. She actually wasn’t there, she’s in England, but I got to meet her brother-in-law, Steven. We had a taste and I got to see the property, so it was really cool. I got to go to some other really cool places like the Monte Rosso Vineyard, which was super cool. Some might say it’s like a grand cru vineyard.
Z: Since we’re talking about previous episodes, you can listen to my interview with Brenae, who manages the vineyard there. Super, super interesting.
A: I love her, but I want to be honest that I really love her dog, Violet. If Violet was available, I would have stolen her. She is the friendliest black lab I’ve ever met in my life, and it was a highlight of my trip. Anyways, I had some other really tasty things. Far too many to mention, but got to go to J Vineyards. I did some fun tastings at some other places. Again, I’m not going to talk about Napa because I think that’s something for the rest of this conversation. I also got to go to Raft, and we’ve written about them before or her specifically, Jen. We did a taste at this facility that was not just Raft, but a few other really great wineries as well.
Z: Does she have another wine label out now, too?
A: She started another one called Little Trouble. That’s another one that she’s up to with her best friend, Emma Morgenstern. I believe that is the name?
Z: Or Sarah Morgenstern.
A: Sorry, sorry, sorry. I’m sorry that I got the name wrong. I really apologize, that wasn’t my intention. Still, it was some really cool stuff, which was a lot of fun and it was good to be out there. It was definitely more work than a vacation, but Noami got to come with me, which was great. She got a vacation, so that’s always good.
Z: There you go.
A: However, I did also notice some things while I was out there that sparked the idea for today’s conversation. The biggest thing I noticed was the massive labor issue that Napa specifically is having and has been having. It has started to create a lot of questions in my mind about what the future for Napa is. Look, there have been issues in Napa prior to Covid and the wildfires, but both of these issues are making it worse. There are a lot of issues around housing, the types of jobs that are available, etc. But housing especially is really a huge issue there. This is a region that — because of its popularity and its luxury status — has become a place where if you’re not a 1-percenter, you can’t be here. I don’t mean you can’t visit. I think you can still visit, right. I’m not a 1-percenter and I visited and had a very nice time, but you cannot live there. When celebrities and the Speaker of the House have their vacation homes here, it becomes a very expensive place for anyone else to live. I heard that again, again, and again. There were no Ubers available. Naomi and I launched Uber and Lyft both multiple times throughout the trip, and we couldn’t find anyone. When I would ask people why, they would say, “Oh, that’s because people who drive for Uber and Lyft can’t afford to live in the Napa Valley.” Whereas when we were in Sonoma, there were tons of Ubers, so that was interesting. The staffing issues with the restaurants are more apparent than ever before. Take the problems that New York or Seattle is having, and multiply them times a thousand. The restaurants we went to in Napa had one person on the floor doing everything. Noami and I were saying that it was crazy that you could actually see it. We were talking to George, who’s the head of the Chateau Montelena Estate. He was telling us that right now, just in Calistoga, you have three really fancy hotels. You have the Four Seasons, which is about to open, the Solage, and Indian River. Each of those facilities has 60 to 100 vacant openings. When you look at that, it makes a lot of sense because where would the people who would do the jobs they’re trying to fill, live? That also has caused me to think about what that does for innovation. We talk a lot in this country about how innovation comes from people being able to take chances, take risks, and from lots of different people who think differently. When only one socioeconomic class is able to be in Napa to work, where is the really crazy stuff going to happen? If you are going to take the risk, you have to be super safe because you have to know it’s definitely going to work. I don’t know if you’re going to get these restaurants that really push the envelope, and that are genre-bending and feel exciting to eat at in Napa. I’m not saying the food wasn’t good, but nothing felt exciting, whereas I went to places in Sonoma that felt exciting.
Z: Adam, I want to ask you a question about this because I think this is an important thing to mention. Do you really think, deep down, that most of the people currently in Napa in the wine industry and in the food industry want innovation particularly? I don’t think they want to take chances. I think there is such a sense — and I’ve had this when I’m there, too — of more of the same and more of what works. Now, the appeal from the outside of going to visit and not for people in the industry, but for the person who plans their vacation around a trip to Napa, they don’t necessarily want the same experience they had before, but they want the luxury hotel, the elaborate meal that may not be innovative but might be fancy in an established way. It’s a reinforcing trend, right? You said it, and I think you’re right, that you crowd out space for innovation and for people to take chances. Also, the economics of Napa in so many ways are past that point. I don’t think there’s any way to go backward because I’ve been astonished, not in a bad way, but in a way that you sometimes look at something and go, wow. One for me was a place in Napa that was this very high-end place to stay. I think it had a maximum capacity of 15 guests at a time, and there must be 75 people working there. I mean, there were at the time because this was pre-pandemic. If these are the only places that people can stay and the restaurants are the same, the wineries are the same, the viticulture and the winemaking require lots of hands, you’re not only going to create a situation where you have this incredible housing shortage and labor issues, but also no one really wants to do anything differently. They don’t want to rock the boat because the costs are high. There is also this enforced sensing in Napa that in a lot of ways where you look at the value, go visit, and it has this agricultural pastoral splendor to it. It doesn’t really align when you think about the vast amount of money there, the vast amount at stake there, and the number of people who have to make their living or wanted to make their living in the valley. Where are the apartment buildings? They don’t exist anywhere.
A: That’s the issue.
J: I have a question. As the landscape there changes and continues to change, won’t things have to change? Would they have to innovate because the way of doing things won’t be possible anymore?
A: I want to think so, and Zach, to take your point really quickly. I guess what I’m trying to say — and maybe it wasn’t super clear — is on the luxury side. Are you willing to pay those prices if your room doesn’t get made up every morning? There’s no staff to make up the room. We stayed at a new hotel called the Calistoga Motor Lodge, which I loved. It was super cool. Again, it’s around these trends we talked about before taking old motels and making them hipster, but it was on the lower end, price-wise, for Napa. It was still not cheap, but there were two people working at the property, and the property had 50-something rooms. That’s insane. I was asking them and they were saying, “Oh, yeah, we have 15 vacancies for positions.” I’m not complaining here, but our room didn’t get made up at all. It’s fine. I don’t care, and I don’t think I’m that big of a slob. Noami and I were fine with it, but what if that starts happening at the Four Seasons or at the Solage, where the people who come in to buy those hundred dollar-plus wines want to stay. If they’re not getting the service they also expect from a premium region, will they start going elsewhere? The issue boils down to housing, and I didn’t see any apartment buildings at all.
Z: No, they don’t exist.
A: If you see them, they are on the edge of the valley really far out, which again is a b*tch to get into the valley. Joanna, maybe the innovation has to come first, because how do they solve this problem? And I don’t really know.
J: Well, I just think it’s a really good point because as you said visitors are still going. It is still extremely popular. There are lines still to get into some of these places, but underneath, things are not very good. Obviously, there are issues with fires, drought, and insurance as well but it’s curious that you were talking to people there about it. I was wondering if you were asking, or if people were just offering up that information to you, Adam?
A: It’s hard for me to think about how Napa solves this issue because as you said, people really do want to go. It’s a very popular region. When we poll our readership, it’s the No. 1 destination for wine that they want to visit. But then, there are not enough people to service the demand. I went to the California Brandy House, which is awesome. I really highly recommend people go there. It was super cool and it’s in downtown Napa. It’s the first thing of its kind in Napa. They’re trying to pour brandy in a wine region, but it was super cool and crowded, and people were having a great time. I was talking to one of the people who work there and he had moved from New York. He is a brandy obsessive. He was a bartender in New York and he told me that he drives in from Oakland every day because he found more affordable housing in Oakland. He was so passionate about wanting to work there that he’s willing to do that but that’s crazy to me. I get that we have people that come into New York City all the time from the suburbs, too, because we are also a city that has gotten…
J: Prohibitively expensive.
A: Yeah, but all these places got to do something. I just wonder, what’s the solution for Napa? One of the things that was proposed to me at lunch by this guy, Jeff Meisel, who used to be at Long Meadow Ranch, was using the Napa wine train. He proposed using it as public transportation in the mornings and in the evenings when it’s not running with tourists and having it a situation where at least if you were able to get to the value, then you didn’t have to be in your car driving up and down the valley.
Z: This is an important point to note for people who haven’t been. It’s not as if they’re big freeways running through Napa Valley. You’ve got Highway 29, which is essentially a one-lane road through a lot of it. You have the Silverado trail, same story. When you’ve got all the tourists and everyone trying to come to visit, it can be a 10-mile-long traffic jam. Many of the wineries are right off of Highway 29. It is not a place that’s set up to accept a massive influx of people, labor, or tourists every day during the morning and an outflow at night. It’s just a mess. It is unlike New York City or Seattle. Not that it’s easy to get from a suburban residence to New York to Manhattan, but there are a lot of different ways to do it, as opposed to one road.
A: Yeah, it’s crazy and that’s part of the issue. I think the bigger one that I hadn’t even thought about that Joanna brought up is, where are the apartment buildings? I get that it would take away from the beauty for some people, but that’s also part of the problem. The problem with affordable housing in the entire country is everyone says, “I really believe in it, but not in my backyard. I know it’s a problem. I know we need it, but not on my block.” You can see that in St. Helena, which I think is the wealthiest town. I may be incorrect about this, but I think that’s correct. You could tell that no one in St. Helena wants a huge apartment building to go up on the block where they spent a few million dollars on their ranch house but they also want to dine at Gotts and they want to go to the French Laundry while they are vacationing in Napa. If there’s no staff to work at these places, then the value of your home also decreases, right? Then, you can’t Airbnb it or you can’t resell it. I don’t know what the laws of Airbnb are, to be fair, in Napa but those are all things you won’t be able to do down the road. I feel like there has to be some issue there whereas again, in Sonoma because of its sheer size, you have affordable housing in Sonoma. I know there’s also very high-end housing, but you can see how someone could afford to live there. I think that’s the other thing that people don’t realize about Napa, Zach and Joanna, is how narrow it is. It’s this valley between these two mountain ranges, where you realize that you can actually see from one side to the other pretty easily. All you have to do is go up a little bit on one of the mountain ranges, and you can see the other side. In Sonoma, again, you cannot see the water. You can’t see the Sonoma coast.
Z: Yeah, for sure.
A: Do you know what I mean? And that’s because it’s huge, so that’s another reason why the valley has issues.
Z: Napa Valley, as mentioned before, has very intentionally crafted laws to greatly limit whatever development is possible. There are ways in which this has been held up in the wine community as a really noble thing. They have limited the growth of vineyards. They have tried to protect the valley floor as a place where grapes are grown and limiting development to some extent. I think there’s some benefit to that in certain ways, but there is also the fact that nowadays, it is really about continuing to protect the already very significant wealth of the people who are already there. It’s about seemingly preserving land values. It’s about people who don’t really see the issue in someone having to come in from Oakland every day for work. It’s not their problem, right? They’re not the ones who have to do it. In fact, they think that person is lucky to work in Napa. I just think that whereas in Sonoma and the many other regions, there are cities in it.
A: Exactly, real cities.
Z: These are places where people that are not just about wine live and then commute to their job. Not to say that’s Sonoma’s perfect, obviously, but I think Napa is such an outlier of a region. Yet, it also is America’s preeminent wine region. It’s the one that dominates in many ways. Yes, there should be a concerted effort — and you would think it would be in the best interests of everyone whose enterprise revolves around Napa Valley’s status as a luxury wine region who would be invested in just some investment in keeping it such. That is not just about making sure that it stays green, but also there are places for people to live and that people can make a living wage there. I’m not saying that this is not happening anywhere. I just want to be clear but at some point, what wage is reasonable for someone who has to spend several hours a day commuting? I don’t know. There might be one, but it’s probably not what they’re getting paid. That’s a recipe for long-term problems, along with the other ones that the region faces.
A: This is what I wonder and Joanna, I know you’ve spent a majority of your career covering the food world. I’m wondering, too, if there are some things that have been done there that we could do here. One of the things that I thought of a lot is, couldn’t they simply start by saying, look, if you’re going to build a new hotel, you have to also build housing. This new Four Seasons that is going up in Calistoga maybe should have been required to, somewhere on their property, build affordable housing. With some of these big restaurant groups, maybe they need to have a busing program where they are running shuttles. You hear that they do that from San Francisco.
J: Like Google.
A: Yeah, and has that ever happened anywhere else that you can think of, Joanna?
J: I don’t know but I can probably think in terms of the food world. I think of places such as the French Laundry and these other more isolated places. I’ve never really explored the housing or labor issues around those. I haven’t really thought of it. I’m sure the same applies for those types of places, though.
Z: Yeah, the only thing I can think of is comparable as you see some of these somewhat remote, three-star Michelin restaurants where you go work there and there’s also housing provided. There’s nowhere to live in these remote locations, but that’s not really what we’re talking about.
A: I remember, and Naomi reminded me of this when we were in Napa. About five years ago or so, we went to Jackson Hole. We wanted to go to Yellowstone, the Tetons, and all that really amazing stuff. We went into Jackson Hole for one night and we’re talking to people there and they were saying there was a massive housing crisis there at the time. The super-high-end restaurant in Jackson Hole, whose name I cannot remember anymore, closed permanently because they could not afford to have workers because there were none. It wasn’t that they didn’t have people interested in being sommeliers. They couldn’t find dishwashers, and that’s where it’s going to break down. It’s not going to break down with the people who often come from a background of usually having a college degree who then decide they want to be beverage directors, captains, etc. It’s going to come from the people who are immigrants that come from different backgrounds who end up being the dishwashers, the bussers, and the people who clean the restaurants at night. If you don’t have those people, those places will not be able to stay in business, and then the region won’t have the places that it likes. That’s why I was giving examples. It’s not about having the concierge at the Four Seasons, it is about having the person who cleans the room. Napa has got to figure it out. I think these conversations are important to try to figure out how the wine industry also figures it out. It is an amazing region that hooks some people for the first time, online. You go there because you’ve read about it and you want to do a trip with your friends or it’s a romantic weekend or a honeymoon. You go to Napa, and then you catch the wine bug because you get to go to these tasting rooms and you have these really cool experiences. I was at a dinner listening to a dad and daughter and they were celebrating. I mean, I wish my parents had been this cool, but they were taking their daughter on her 21st birthday to Napa. We are at Gott’s Roadside and the daughter along with her dad were talking about how they’ve just learned about veraison. That’s super cool because they got to be in Napa and walk into a vineyard and see it. That’s what gets people excited about wine but if the people who support this entire industry can’t afford to live there, then we’re going to lose one of the best places we have to get more people into this incredible liquid. As much as I like the Finger Lakes, or Zach, you like Walla Walla or Joanna, I’m just going to say you like the North Fork, many people just don’t go there, right? They just don’t.
A: I think it’s two things and you make two really good points, Adam. One is that none of those places…
A: Oh my gosh, Zach said that I made two good points. Thank you.
Z: Oh, I say it from time to time.
A: You’re making up for last week.
Z: I just didn’t say it last week.
A: I want everyone to know I’m trying to be calm.
Z: Thanks, Adam. We appreciate it. I was going to say that one of them is this connotation of luxury and quality with Napa that none of those other regions quite match. I think one of the risks here that you hinted at, but I want to state clearly is the risk to Napa might not be in wine sales, but it will be in wine tourism. People still buy the wine, right? They’re still going to buy their premium Napa wines. They’re just not going to make going to Napa as much of a priority. For so many of these wineries — and obviously many of the businesses that support them — it’s tourism that makes the money. It’s not the bottle sales, so that’s one huge risk. Then, the other one is the fact that people don’t have that experience in the vineyards or at the winery. That, I think, is so critical because, in the end, a great experience tasting wine at a wine bar, restaurant, or friend’s house is one thing. However, there is magic in being where the grapes grow and where the wine is made. Napa, more than any place in this country, has really captured and monetized that magic. Yet it isn’t magic, totally. It’s hard work. It’s essential that all of the people who profit from that magic recognize that they have to provide for the people who do the hard work.
A: Totally. Zach and Joanna, this was another really interesting conversation. I’d be really interested too if people who listen to the podcast have thoughts on how we can deal with this. Ideas such as, if you build a hotel, you have to build 10 affordable houses. Also, people who listen to our podcast who are from Napa or live in Napa, we’d love to hear your thoughts, too. It’s an interesting and really challenging problem that we’re going to have to solve. Especially as we’re now also having other issues affecting that region like wildfires, it’s going to get even harder to solve. I think it’s going to have to be something that is really worked on sooner rather than later — like a lot of things in this world such as climate change — it may get past the point of no return. If that happens, then we’re going to have some sad conversations in the wine industry, because I think we’ll wind up losing some really amazing wine drinkers or people who could have become wine drinkers who fall in love with beer or things like that. Those might be places they’re able to travel, and Napa may not be anymore. Well, Joanna and Zach, I will talk to you next week.
J: Thanks, guys.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please give us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and in Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe. He does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who is instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.