Different Valleys, Different Worlds: Some Thoughts on Napa Valley and San Joaquin Valley Growers

By Joe Traynor

Most people think of farmers as a homogeneous lot – hard working individuals that make a living off the land and that are, by nature, distrustful of city folk. This is the image portrayed by the media and it generally holds true, although with one notable exception: the Napa Valley grape grower.

The gentrification of the Napa Valley over the past 20 years has created a class of grape growers that is as different from your average farmer as grapes are from grape shot. If an outsider were to base his or her impression of all grape growers solely on a visit to the Napa Valley, that impression would be wrong.

Over the past 20 years, the Napa Valley has seen an influx of “city folk” that have earned their money in a number of fields, including entertainment, law and technology. They have transferred their talents from their chosen fields to fields of grapes, partly because of the desire for a new challenge and partly because of the life style. The results have been the yuppification (which is not necessarily a pejorative term) of the Napa Valley as these new vineyardists have melded their life style with those of long-time Napa Valley vintners.

Old-time Napa valley growers have been confronted with an identity crisis: Am I a farmer or a gentleman farmer? Those that can afford it have resolved this crisis by taking on the role of gentleman farmer while assigning the role of plain “farmer” to a capable manager who handles the nuts and bolts of the farming operation. Those that know they will always be “just” a farmer shake their heads at the current situation and get on with their daily work, although with increased isolation from a changed community.

A World Away in the San Joaquin Valley

The San Joaquin Valley grape grower fits nicely into the conventional image of the farmer. He is free from the outside influences that have changed the Napa Valley and he therefore has no identity crisis. He has no need to keep up with his neighbors because his neighbors are just like him: hard working and focused on the day-to-day tasks of extracting a living from the vineyard.

The San Joaquin Valley wine grape grower has somewhat of an inferiority complex because the price he is paid for his crop is significantly less than what the Napa Valley grower receives. In America, the amount of money one makes is used by many to judge the worth of an individual with higher status and more respect often accorded to those with the most money. In the winegrape industry, the price received per ton of grapes is a status symbol.

San Joaquin Valley growers realizes that Napa Valley’s climate – mainly with its cool nights – produces a superior product, but they feel that the disparity in the price received for that product is far wider than the disparity in quality. This price disparity is particularly galling when San Joaquin Valley growers consider that wines with the Napa Valley appellation are allowed to contain up to 25 percent of wine from other areas, usually from the San Joaquin Valley area.

What the San Joaquin Valley vintner lacks in quality, he makes up for in quantity. Per-acre yields are significantly higher in the San Joaquin Valley coupled with lower overhead costs – including land prices in the San Joaquin Valley at approximately $3000 per acre compared to $25,000 per acre and beyond in the Napa Valley. Add to this the lower costs needed to maintain the San Joaquin Valley grower’s lifestyle and the San Joaquin Valley grower is probably better off than his Napa Valley counterpart.

Joe Traynor is a certified professional soil scientist, crop scientist and agronomist listed with the American Registry of Certified Professionals in Agronomy, Crops and Soils, Ltd. He holds multiple degrees from the University of California, Davis, is a member of the American Society for Horticultural Science, and is the author of Ideas in Soil and Plant Nutrition, published by Kovak Books.