It’s 8 p.m. on a Wednesday and Cadet, the cool-kid wine and beer bar that’s become the closest thing Napa has to an industry hangout, is packed. A DJ spins Top 40 in the corner while winemakers trade glasses. Even though it’s a cool night, people spill out into the open air, drinking bottles of Burgundy and Champagne along with local wines from California, many made by the winemaker who is being featured this evening. At one point, things get so out of hand that a guest misplaces their dog, which runs behind the bar, probably also looking for a glass. The party seems like it will go on forever.
But, only two hours later, the bar is dead — a once-raucous party put to bed, along with the rest of the valley. As the wine industry continues to focus on what it must do in order to capture the next generation of wine drinkers, and move on from its loyal boomer set, I can’t help but wonder if this sleepiness is part of the problem.
The Napa Valley has been heralded for decades as America’s fine-wine region, given that seal by the Judgement of Paris, Robert Parker, and others. The region has taken that label and run with it, continuing to up the ante on opulent experiences as its core demographic, the baby boomers, further amasses their wealth. In the past few years, extreme luxury resorts including Stanley Ranch and the Four Seasons have opened in the valley, allowing visitors to not only stay for a few nights, but even buy a place to permanently live on-site, as long as you have the multi-millions to do so.
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What this offering attracts is a demographic looking for a comfortable place to retire — a place where you can play golf or taste wine during the day, perhaps bump in to Nancy Pelosi while grabbing coffee, and then catch the early bird reservation before heading back home for an early bedtime. This has become the new normal for the valley, and it’s naturally impacting the type of experience a younger demographic wants to have.
Prime Time in Napa
The Charter Oak, in St. Helena, is a restaurant that regularly winds up on the lists of every lifestyle publication as a must-visit. It can often be a hard reservation to snag unless one plans ahead, so I feel lucky when my group is able to secure one for a Thursday night at 8 p.m. Napa also has a bit of an Uber problem, so we call for the car much earlier than we normally would, and wind up arriving 30 minutes early.
We assume our early arrival means we’ll wait at the bar, but when we check in, we’re offered to be seated at our table early. This feels like a win at first, but we quickly realize upon being seated that the restaurant is already rushing to close. By 8:15 we have already been served our appetizers, salads, and entrees, and half of the staff has left the floor.
I bring up this experience to an industry veteran who manages a tasting room in downtown Napa — he asked to remain nameless to not upset his corporate employer — who tells me this experience has become the norm. With the cost of living rising in Napa — the median price of a home here is $949K — most service industry staff can’t afford to live here anymore, and that means a long commute home. Most would rather do that at 9 p.m. than after midnight, and given that the majority of the crowd likes to dine early and head to bed, it seems to be a win-win situation. In Napa, a 7:30 p.m. reservation isn’t a score, the one at 5:30 is.
This would also explain the lack of any real late-night bars or industry hangouts. When we return from dinner to our downtown Napa hotel, we are told the bar is already closed. Upon inquiring as to where we might be able to go, the bartender cleaning the bar only says curtly: “Happy hunting.”
“I commute to and from Oakland daily to work here,” the tastings room manager tells me. “I’d rather head back and grab a drink there when I’m off work than risk drinking here and then driving home.” If there isn’t a built-in audience of service professionals who will arrive later in the evening, why would a bar stay open for the young tourists? We settle on a drink in the lobby raided from the mini bar.
The Bourbon Boom
A destination and industry that is experiencing the opposite situation from wine is bourbon, and the town of Louisville, Ky. While it’s true that Louisville is not a perfect comparison to Napa — the city is populated by other industries along with bourbon — whiskey flows through the streets here, and it’s become a major tourist destination over the past decade, especially for millennials. In 2018, the U.S. Census reported the city to be a top destination for millennials to live. That same year, the tourism board announced its plan to invest heavily in efforts to attract millennials to visit. It seems to be working.
On a random Tuesday night in early February, Expo, a cocktail-focused industry bar located on whiskey row, is packed. The bar is filled with people who work in all facets of the spirits industry, from bartenders to distillery tour guides (it helps that the median home price here is only $230K), along with tourists visiting the bourbon trail. It’s a good juxtaposition to Cadet; they have a similar mix of audiences, but here it’s almost midnight, and the bar seems to just be hitting its groove.
Baker Gonzales is behind the bar at Expo the night I’m there and she tells me that Louisville is experiencing a tourism boom. In addition to the normal 30- and 40-something white males who always hit the bourbon trail and come for the Derby, the city is now inundated with people of all backgrounds and ethnicities arriving for bachelor and bachelorette parties, weekend getaways, and longer-term vacations. The city is embracing these visitors with nightlife offerings that go late and support one another. At every bar I visit, I am recommended three others to try. At a restaurant of a similar caliber to Charter Oak, we sit at 7 p.m. and don’t leave until 10:30 p.m. As we head out, our server tells us maybe he’ll bump into us at High Horse later.
Can a Region Be All Things for Everyone?
One can’t help but wonder if Napa is simply a victim of it’s own status and success. A fine-wine region will inherently attract those with massive wealth, and that wealth means fewer places for younger people to live. The valley has become a place for wealthy retirees and families of means. The problem is, these populations don’t go out all that much. If you don’t have a larger young population, you really can’t have a booming nightlife.
Maybe that’s not what Napa wants, but it is definitely what the generations who are being targeted by the wine brands who inhabit its valley are after.
Plain and simple, Gen Z and millennials want to go out when they are on vacation. Both of these generations like to travel with friends and they spend more on vacation and experiences than any generation prior. Having local experiences is one of the highest premiums these groups put on traveling. Restaurants and bars offer one of the easiest ways to meet that need, but not if they close early. And if this weren’t enough, new data shows that Gen Z in particular places a high value on being able to socialize when they drink, not sit quietly at a tasting experience.
While stories of raiding the mini bar and hanging out in the hotel lobby because everywhere’s closed are fun every once in a while, this isn’t the ideal scenario for these crucial core groups of travelers. They’d rather head to Expo.