ST. HELENA, Calif. — Just south of town, in the middle of some of the most prized vineyards of the celebrated Napa Valley, there sits a very unusual and, for many here, a very unwelcome new winery.
This winery has no equipment to squeeze the must, or juice, from any sweet chardonnay grapes; it has no stainless steel fermenting tanks coaxing the must into wine, and no oak aging casks giving the wine complexity and character.
It is, in plain fact, a warehouse and tasting room designed to sell wines made somewhere else to tourists visiting "the wine country."
"It's like opening a damned liquor store in the middle of the vineyards," groused a more conventional vintner, aghast at the effrontery.
It is also forcing America's premiere wine-making region to deal with the unusually difficult task of legally defining what a winery is--and is not.
Such a law could affect not only small operators accused of violating agricultural preserve laws, but also major wineries that open restaurants, host concerts and hawk T-shirts and cork-pullers to promote their wines.
The debate over what makes a winery is serious stuff here. Many people fear that legions of new tourist-dependent "boutique" wineries are skewing the economy so that Napa's heavenly earth someday soon may be too pricey to farm.
At the same time, however, most residents are careful to avoid criticizing tourists, because tourists help some wineries stay afloat and help Napa Valley wines in general sell better--at higher prices--despite a wine glut.
"Tourism really is a double-edged sword," said Mel Varrelman, a St. Helena accountant and chairman of the county Board of Supervisors. "It is important to the industry, but it's something we would really rather do without."
Tony Peju, owner of the controversial Peju Province Winery, believes he is misunderstood. He said he started his tasting-room-only operation because the task of obtaining permits for a real winery has taken longer than expected.
"We don't want to do anything that somebody else doesn't do," he said.
Besides, he claims, his business--where he sells wines "custom crushed" at another winery--could actually meet the county's current, loosely written legal definition of a winery. County officials disagree.
In any case, people do agree that the Napa Valley draws more tourists each year and that small wineries are relying more and more on them, either to establish reputations, improve cash flow or simply empty warehouses.
This, in turn, has caused some second- and third-generation wine makers and growers to resent their well-to-do new neighbors who open wineries and attract the often bothersome tourists. Old-timers also fear that their descendants will be priced out of the local real estate market.
Despite this, small wineries say they cannot afford to change.
"I think selling direct is the only way for a small winery to make it," said Daryl Sattui, owner of V. Sattui Winery and one of the most successful small vintners in the valley.
His new cut-stone winery with its adjacent delicatessen and picnic grounds is seen by other wine makers as both a marketing masterstroke and a bad example that too many other small wineries are scrambling to copy.
Napa County now has about 200 wineries, most of them small and most of them lacking the necessary county permit for public tastings. Those without permits can hold tastings only by appointment or invitation, and most do.
"When we sell a bottle of wine (at the winery) for $10, we get just about 10 bucks, not the $5 we get from wholesale distributors--and we don't have to wait 60 to 90 days to get it," Sattui said.
Sattui sells all of his wine at his winery, which is unprecedented. Most of the other small wineries instead use retail sales to help even out their cash flow between their annual fall releases, or sales, to their distributors.
"During slow periods, sales at the winery help you to meet daily sorts of things, like payroll and PG&E (utilities)," said David Spalding of Stonegate Winery. "It's important. It can even be a matter of survival at times."
It is also important to major wineries, though not a matter of survival.
Big wineries rely on visitors to expand the wine market in general--and their own share of that market in particular. Retail sales are often seen as simply a way to cover the cost of running the tours and pouring free wine.
"There is no better place to educate--and convert--than right here, with everything at our fingertips," said Gwendolyn Rogers, visitors center director at Domaine Chandon, the elegant French-owned champagne cellar.
"Our ultimate goal, of course, is to create repeat customers out of the visitors."
Paul Wagner of the Christian Brothers said 500,000 people a year used to tour the landmark Greystone winery before it closed for structural repairs. "Ford Motor Co. could spend millions to address 500,000 people on TV for a minute; we had them here for an hour for nothing," he said.