Napa Valley: A Study in Status

A short story about tasting wine in the Napa Valley…

Driving past one impressive looking place, we stopped in to enquire the tasting booking procedure. ‘We offer three Cabernet based wines in a vertical tasting from our latest vintage back to 2001’ say the concierge. ‘Its $75 per person’. ‘Oh’, I say – ‘how much wine is there in each glass?’ ‘30ml’, says the woman. Unflinching in the idea that in Australia this would be the Rolls Royce of tasting experiences. Here, in Napa it is decidedly normal.

I visited Napa recently, travelling around seeking to realise what makes this the greatest wine tourism destination in the world. Why do three and a half million people flock there every year, spending 1.6 billion US dollars?

There are 475 wineries in Napa despite being only about 50km long and about 8km wide. Most of these venues are magnificent studies in grandiose architecture – with big gardens, tree lined driveways, sculpture & art installations, water features, artfully paved carparks and an army of staff to manage your visit.

There are 150 restaurants, with more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere in the world. There are galleries, quaint villages, beautiful scenery & day spas –  a million things to entertain your every whim.

Tasting wine in the Napa Valley is fascinating. Every winery we visited charged between $30 and $80 for a flight of five wines of your choosing. The wines too, are expensive. You might be seated, where the staff pour you each wine in sequence, or you might stand at a bench. You’ll probably have to wait at some stage and you’ll definitely be asked to join their loyalty club – to avoid waiting next time.

In considering how wine regions find their markets and service them, there is a single significant point regarding Napa.

If you are not relatively wealthy, you can’t visit.

If every tasting is $50 ~ and accommodation is three times that of neighbouring Sonoma then it starts to add up. If a sandwich at a village bakery costs as much as an entrée and eating at an actual restaurant is a weeks wages, then Napa has achieved something remarkable: they have defined their market by exclusion, not inclusion. While most other wine regions are clamouring for visitors, Napa has created artificial barriers to entry. The result? Exclusivity.

This is just the beginning through. By creating an environment of exclusivity, Napa has normalised status affiliation for wine brands through their loyalty programs.

Consider our visit to one of Napa’s newest icons: We were welcomed warmly by a concierge as asked to wait while a group of wine club members finished their tasting – despite a surplus of staff. We were asked to take our place for the stand up tasting in the signed designated non members area. Our host cruised through his script without missing a beat: we learned that tours are only for members, older wines are only for members, private sit-down tastings and the nice garden areas outside are only for members. And sorry but you have to leave now because we have allocated tasting times for non-members; that will be $25 per person thanks. The wines were barely mentioned! This may sound cynical, however the significant thing is this: their member’s area were full.

Luxury marketing is about creating pull rather than push – and at this winery you could see it in action, like the glimpses of airline lounges from the scurry of the terminal. The lure of quiet, luxurious spaces where someone makes you feel special. Importantly, their member offer also included ‘being able to invite your friends’. So not only have they created powerful brand loyalty through exclusivity & luxury, they have created a way for their members to affirm their status to their friends. By creating designated spaces to consume the wine they have involved established and potential members in the ritual of the brand.

It’s all exceptionally clever, and the revenue generated from tastings must be significant. By building customer experience strategy around provision of status, the brand naturally becomes the conduit. At this venue at least, wine quality was secondary- and infrastructure was first. How people felt about the brand appears to be more important than what they thought about the wine. In the words of a Rolex CEO “Why would I need to know how the watch industry is doing? I’m in the luxury business.”