Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Vintners Hall of Fame election on hold

The death last summer of a New Hampshire artist may be the jolt that the California wine trade needs to create a lasting and vibrant monument to the role that vineyards and wineries have played in the state’s history.

When Larry Nowlan died unexpectedly July 30 of natural causes at his Cornish home, this state’s most encouraging move toward building anything like a museum for the wine industry abruptly stalled. Nolan had sculpted the bronze plaques for each of the 44 inductees of the Vintners Hall of Fame at the Napa Valley branch of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).

His death came just as CIA officials were to send out ballots with the names of 13 candidates up for election. Without an artist to make the plaques, they suspended proceedings entirely until they could find another sculptor.

Whether the Vintners Hall of Fame is revived remains to be seen, for there are other issues, primarily financial, frustrating the effort.

Before going further, a disclosure: I’m an unpaid volunteer member of the nominating committee, which meets yearly to draw up the ballot. That ballot is sent out to 215 voters.

Conceived both to celebrate pivotal figures in the development of California wine and to help fund scholarships for students at the CIA, the hall of fame – well situated in St. Helena at the CIA – has had modest success at the former and been a bust at the latter.

While the CIA campus draws crowds for its cafes and expansive cookery showroom, few visitors wander upstairs to tour the hall. For the most part, the plaques have become a stately backdrop for various galas, such as the recent posh Premier Napa Valley, a trade tasting and auction.

The hall generates little buzz in the wine and travel media, and the postponement of this month’s usual induction ceremony hasn’t created a ripple of comment. Not that the Vintners Hall of Fame doesn’t stir debate and controversy among wine enthusiasts. While few quibble about the caliber of inductees, several complain that this or that figure is being overlooked, or at least not yet elected.

Nearly half the inductees are most closely identified with Napa Valley, prompting comments that the hall is too narrow in its reach, though there’s no denying that Napa Valley has had a disproportionate share of crucial players in California’s wine history. Still, several other regions – the Sierra foothills, Sonoma County, Paso Robles, Mendocino, Lodi – have little or no representation, though their history has been as long and their contributions significant.

Some areas of expertise look to be underrepresented. Just one grape grower, one labor leader and one grocer have been inducted. No architects or artists are included, and, most curiously, no sommelier or restaurateur has been elected.

But the most serious challenge facing the Vintners Hall of Fame is its financial viability. When it was founded, CIA officials were hoping it would garner more support from other segments of the wine trade. They also were betting that ticket sales for the hall’s lavish induction ceremony each year would generate funds to cover costs and underwrite student scholarships.

Neither has happened. Over the past seven years, the CIA’s costs for the hall have exceeded revenues by $380,000, says Holly Briwa, the school’s “senior advancement officer” in charge of overseeing the hall. Each plaque alone was costing the CIA between $6,500 and $8,000.

Nor has support materialized from elsewhere. Neither Napa Valley Vintners, the state’s richest and most influential trade group, nor the powerful Wine Institute, which represents the California wine trade, look to be interested in getting involved with the hall.

“It’s the California Vintners Hall of Fame, not the Napa Valley Vintners Hall of Fame,” says Cate Coniff, who before she became communications manager for Napa Valley Vintners two years ago played a similar role at the CIA.

In relying on ticket sales for the induction ceremony, which gradually has been scaled back in hopes of containing costs, CIA officials have complicated the financing. They’ve refused to seek financial aid from trade groups and wine companies so they can keep the hall independent and to avoid “any implied endorsement or exclusion of any one wine region or individual company,” Briwa says.

On the other hand, Charles Henning, retired managing director of the CIA, provides a different take on the issue. “We thought we’d get a lot more support from the wine industry, but that didn’t happen, and I’m not certain why,” he says.

A few years ago, in a move intended to help make the hall financially self-sustaining, the CIA created a “Board of Stewards” to oversee the operation. It’s made up largely of Napa Valley heavyweights, including vineyardist Andy Beckstoffer, himself an inductee of the hall, and vintner Gavin Newsom, who also is California’s lieutenant governor.

That board, however, has done nothing to enhance the hall’s fiscal prospects. Not even CIA officials are sure what it’s been up to.

“There was never a clear direction given the Board of Stewards,” says Briwa. “They didn’t know what their role was in a concrete way.”

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Napa, chairman of the board, didn’t respond to requests for his input on the matter.

Thus, the Vintners Hall of Fame, a tentative start toward what could yet evolve into an all-encompassing California Wine Hall of Fame, hangs in limbo, its future clouded.

Briwa, however, says the CIA is committed to retaining and revitalizing the hall.

“We believe in the Vintners Hall of Fame because it tells a bigger story – these are the folks that changed the face of the California wine industry,” she says. “But we want to make it sustainable. Our challenge is to develop an endowment for the Hall of Fame. We just need more time to find support in the wine industry.”

Of immediate concern is her search to find an artist to resume casting the plaques in the style started by Larry Nowlan. Then she’ll send out the ballots that have been on hold since last summer. She’s hoping that will be this summer.

“We’ll send them out when we decide to flip the switch to proceed again,” she adds.

In the meantime, the hall remains open to the public free of charge, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.