Book Review: Navigating Wine Business in the Napa Valley

perfectCraig and Kathryn Hall, A Perfect Score: the art, soul and business of a 21st-century winery. Center Street (Hachette): 2016.

They say that it is a mistake to judge a book by its cover and sometimes that applies to the book title, too. I was prepared not to like A Perfect Score because while the 100-point wine phenomenon is interesting, it ranks pretty far down my list of priorities. But I am glad I didn’t rush to judgement in this case because the book really grabbed my attention even if the title did not.

This is the story of how Kathryn Walt Hall, who has roots in California wine, and Craig Hall, who does not, ended up with Napa Valley vineyards, two wineries there, and ultimately with a 100-point score from Robert Parker. Although the max point score is the climax of the tale, the route there is what I found most interesting.

This book appeals to me as an intelligent account of contemporary wine business in Napa Valley. There are four elements that I want to call to your attention.

The first is the story of the struggles that occurred to purchase and develop the vineyards and wineries, with special focus on the many regulatory hurdles that need to  be overcome. Napa Valley is an extreme example of the tensions that arise when you have rapid expansion of the wine industry and booming wine tourism in the relatively compact region.

Everyone loves Napa but the needs of the wine industry have been crossing wires with lifestyle and environmental concerns for as long as I can remember and the tensions seem to get worse each year. In the meantime, property values have increased to the point that many who work in Napa cannot afford to live there, putting intense pressure on the region’s infrastructure.  Anyone who has driven Napa’s congested roads or tried to get in or out of the city at rush time will know what I mean.

The Halls’ first-person account of their attempts to navigate all these interests and concerns is required reading for anyone in the wine industry, especially those outside of the Napa bubble, as these tensions and pressure points are not going away.

The second story line that I found interesting was how a high-end Napa Valley wine producer deals with the Great Recession. Slack demand was addressed in many ways, including special pricing deals that aimed to move product without undermining the brand. Bank finance was replaced by partnership funding. And, like other wineries, the Halls moved to increase direct-to-consumer sales.

Napa Valley wine is a luxury good by most reckonings and I enjoyed the Halls’ chapters that documented the luxury and celebrity culture and rituals that have evolved, even if I find some of it a bit over the top. (Maybe someone will make a television series on Lifestyles of Rich and Famous Winemakers?)

The Napa Valley auction, which defines luxury and celebrity in the wine world and is discussed here, is good business, good fun, and a mechanism to raise millions of dollars for charity. Nice to see the various elements inter-woven.

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Finally, I took special pleasure in the story of Craig’s accidental discovery of the old Napa Valley Cooperative Winery facility and the Halls’ eventual purchase and renovation of this historic property, which combined a bit from all the topics above. I loved learning more of the history of this facility and knowing that it has been restored to productive purpose.

You may be familiar with the photo above, which shows the original  Napa Valley sign, which has appeared in so many tourist photos and postcards. If you look closely you will see a young Robert Mondavi on the far left representing C. Mondavi & Sons. Look at the list of the wineries that paid for the sign and you will see that Co-Op was another sponsor. What a lot has changed in Napa since those days!

A Perfect Score is an interesting account of Napa Valley wine industry triumphs and frustrations. A worthy addition to the wine business bookshelf.

3 responses

  1. I just finished this book while in Italy. Your review is quite helpful to me in sorting my thoughts. Your points are concise and you certainly hit the high points of the book. I felt a bit bogged down in how they dealt with their “struggles” as a bit un-relateable to the average consumer. But there were many interesting aspects to the book and the NV insight was one of them. Thanks Mike. Cheers to you and Sue.

    • I agree with your perspective, Michelle, and there were parts of the book that annoyed me, but I look for the positive in life and when I looked at this book I found the positives that I talked about in this review. Cheers from both of us!

  2. I agree with Michelle – great summary, I’ve just ordered a copy of the book. After nearly 3 years living in Napa, one of the things that has struck me is how many stories there are today that mirror the Hall’s experience. There are new winemakers coming on the scene every day and one or more of them may create a lasting mark here. Not sure if you’ve seen our article on a relatively new winemaker her – Yannick Rousseau? https://topochinesvino.com/2016/08/30/a-frenchman-in-napa-valley/

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