These bottles are social entrées of a sort, often representing a quick, handy makeover. Former labels—oil man, developer, sports mogul, tech entrepreneur, financier—are jettisoned for a new title redolent of European nobility. Those defined by their accumulation of money turn their backs on that past, benefiting from a kind of lay transubstantiation in which wine washes any previous grubby associations away.
Lifestyle vintners’ websites sag with paeans to nature, viticulture, and terroir (as well as, of course, themselves). But few truly embody the back-to-the-land credo of the ‘60s and ‘70s that made world-famous places like Napa Valley, now first choice for American lifestyle vintnerhood. I have been writing about Napa since the mid-‘80s and have watched this increasingly glamorized culture change the nature of the valley for the worse. The wines have become—with notable exceptions—standardized, and the gap between real agriculture and the glamorized version has grown.
This has proved to be a very lucrative distinction. Napa wine accounts for only 4 percent of California’s total, but in conjunction with tourism and related industries generates about $13 billion a year, according to trade-group estimates. Though it’s impossible to say precisely how much revenue is earned by lifestyle vintners, it is considerable—and made possible in large part by capable immigrant labor.
Thanks to the rise of the lifestyle vintner, the market is now glutted with new wines in a numbingly similar style. Critics generally favor them, most costing well over $100 a bottle, and as a result many of the richest American palates have developed a taste for alcoholic, overripe cabernet. Napa still has its small, inspired producers, but also mega-companies—Constellation, Treasury Wine Estates, Kendall-Jackson, Gallo—that churn out bottles for nationwide distribution.
Lifestyle vintners have also left their mark on Napa’s landscape. Most refer to themselves with straight faces as “farmers,” even as “environmentalists,” while more trees are cut on surrounding mountainsides for yet more vineyards. They loudly praise the valley’s exemplary past and glorious future while exploiting its present. For instance, a prominent computer-boom beneficiary named Mike Davis has spent more millions on his sprawling new winery than will likely ever be recovered through wine sales. Since the Napa Valley floor is all planted, only the hillsides are available for new vineyards. And Davis is bent on scraping out a vineyard high on Howell Mountain that would adversely affect a precious wildlife preserve, one of the state’s most biologically rich remnants. (Davis did not respond to an interview request.)
There’s been a clamor over similar plots of land as a changing climate has prompted vintners to get the most out of Napa before possibly having to move on to the Pacific Northwest or the Rockies. Many lifestyle vintners are developers who resent objections to their plans by members of the community. Such names are common on labels. One—Craig Hall of HALL Wines—has been in a decade-long struggle with a local community that’s trying to prevent his cutting of some 14,000 trees on more than 2,000 acres in a remote part of the county.* A Dallas developer and former co-owner of the Dallas Cowboys, Hall, like Trump, has bounced back from bankruptcy and moves among high-risk investments.