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Guy Woodward admires how Napa Valley took the Californian earthquake in its stride

Published:  06 September, 2014

It was 3.20am on a Sunday morning when the earthquake struck. If there can ever be a good time for the almighty's mysterious ways to take their course, this was surely it. Wineries were empty, the harvest not yet brought in, vats largely unused. One can only imagine the carnage had the 6.0 tremor struck 10 days later, during working hours, as the mass of hired hands were stacking up pallet upon pallet of grapes inside Napa cellars.

From this perspective, Napa Valley escaped pretty lightly from a quake whose epicentre was closer to Napa town, several miles further south. I too was fortunate. I arrived that day, to find the hotel where I was due to stay 'red-tagged' as uninhabitable. Had I flown in a day earlier, I would have been among those on the receiving end of the most primitive of wake-up calls, turfed out onto the street in the early hours with bruises instead of belongings.

Indeed my whole week in Napa was remarkably unaffected by events. In a vivid display of the 'can-do' American attitude, hotels, restaurants and wineries re-opened within a day or two of the quake. And when I talk of wineries re-opening, I'm not talking about them being ready to bring in the grapes in what is one of the earliest harvests on record. I'm talking about re-opening to visitors - the 3 million who descend on the valley every year and contribute $1.4bn to its coffers, allowing Napa Valley Vintners to announce, within four days of the quake, that it would be donating $10m to a disaster relief fund to help local residents and businesses.

It's easy, against such a backdrop, to conclude that this a rich region that can withstand such setbacks without too much distress. But ask yourself why Napa is rich, and why it welcomes so many tourists. The answer became pretty clear as I travelled through the valley - wineries here realise the importance of having visitors buy into the wine lifestyle - and they're damn good at selling it.

Five days after the earthquake, I turned up at Silver Oak, which had lost three barrels of cabernet, worth a total of around $100,000, as well as several hundred bottles of library wine. It was the first day of the harvest, and I imagined they would have their hands pretty full. But there I was, within a few minutes, joining around two dozen others for a tour of the vineyard and cellars before tasting a handful of wines, along with grapes that had been harvested that morning. As the guide talked us through the valley's history and the winemaking process that I've heard a million times, I looked around the group and watched their faces. They were rapt; entranced by the from-the-ground-up story of the winery, its back-of-a-fag-packet early days, the flood that nearly destroyed it, the fire that had come even closer to doing so, and the spirit that had overcome such adversity to make Silver Oak one of Napa's top names in a booming industry that didn't exist 50 years ago.

It brought home to me again that wine is an aspirational, emotional pursuit. Less a pursuit indeed, more part of a lifestyle. Napa understands this, and is brilliant at leveraging it. There were 24 people on my tour, each paying $30. I saw at least half a dozen of them buy a bottle of wine afterwards (at $80, the wine's full retail price, on which the winery makes over a 100% margin). Several other walk-in visitors were doing the same. Then there's the t-shirts, the baseball caps, the golf balls, the monogrammed bottles... But more than all that - each and every one of those 24 people left, as the next batch arrived, with a warm glow about Silver Oak. They had essentially paid $30 to receive a sales pitch.

It was the same the other side of Highway 29 at Beringer's visitor centre. I doubt I'll be joining its White Zin & Friends Wine Club any time soon - nor was I tempted by the chocolate cabernet sauce or garlic cabernet mustard. But here's the thing - and the one thing that everyone working in the wine trade should have imprinted on their mind, 24/7. The target market for most wine, whether it's white zin or $80 Napa cab, is not you or I, or any other person who understands the winemaking process and the geography of Napa Valley appellations. It's people who want to buy into the wine lifestyle - at both ends of the scale. And boy do Napa visitor centres do lifestyle...

I couldn't help but compare the set-up there to that of Bordeaux, where top-end estates seem to actively discourage visitors, spending more on manicuring the châteaux lawns than on any form of tourism offering (I have actually seen staff at Pichon Lalande cutting the grass with scissors). Is it a coincidence that the US this year overtook France to become the world's largest wine market, with consumption growing in the US and falling (by 7%, year-on-year) in France? Or could it be that consumers, especially younger consumers, prefer an arm round the shoulder to being kept at arm's length? The good folk of Napa certainly seem to think so. And they're not about to let something as trivial as an earthquake stop them.