A Brief History of Napa Valley
Napa Valley is everything you would expect it to be—luxury wines,
breath-taking landscapes, over-the-top wineries, opulent dining, and
high-end boutique inns—all finely manicured and gracefully polished
with white glove hospitality. However, it’s also mostly rural
farmland, very small in size—roughly an eighth the size of Bordeaux,
France and produces only a small fraction of California wine, just 4%.
As the saying goes though, good things come in small packages…
There’s no mistaking the romance of Napa Valley’s natural beauty.
Even before George Yount planted the first vineyard in 1838, he
reflected, “in such a place I should love to live and die.” The
35-mile long valley is nestled between two mountain ranges, the
dormant volcanic Vaca Range to the east and the calcium rich predated
ocean floor of the Mayacamas Range to the west. While the hills are
dotted with oaks, manzanitas, pines, and the occasional terraced
vineyard, the valley floor is grapevines as far as the eye can see.
The only interruption would be a few small towns like downtown Napa
and Yountville, but even then, the vines run right up to the business
properties, providing a sense of rustic continuity.
While only an hour northeast of San Francisco, the climate couldn’t be
any different than the foggy city. Most of the year, there’s no need
for the “I love SF” sweatshirt; one will thrive as the grapes do in
this Mediterranean climate, rarely too hot or cold. In fact, one of
the main reasons Napa is so unique and such a perfect place to grow
grapes are all of the microclimates within. Sixteen sub-regions are
designated as American Viticulture Areas (AVA’s)— recognized for
particular microclimates, soil, and topography and thus unique grapes
and farming practices. Closest to the San Pablo Bay is the coolest
region, Carneros, where Chardonnay and thin skinned Pinot Noir reign
supreme, but move north away from the bay and the temperature rises
very quickly. In the warmer regions thicker red skinned Bordeaux
Despite its notoriety for grape growing and winemaking around the
world, most of the wineries in Napa today have had a very short
history. A Prussian immigrant winemaker, Charles Krug, is known for
having established the first commercial winery in the northern St.
Helena region of Napa Valley in 1861. Thirty years later, the cattle
grazing land had transformed to over 140 wineries. The bubble burst
though in the 1890’s as phylloxera, a louse insect, destroyed the
rootstocks of most vines in the valley. Followed up by a couple of
World Wars, Prohibition, and the Great Depression and the Napa wine
industry limped along for the first half of the 20th Century.
A few key founding fathers weathered the storm—Inglenook, Beaulieu
Vineyards, Chateau Montelena, Markham, Beringer, and Charles Krug—now
owned by the Mondavi family, but by 1968 only about 25 wineries
existed. In effort to continue growth, that same year wineries
collaborated with other fruit and nut farmers to lead the charge in
passing Napa Valley’s Agricultural Preserve. This landmark
legislation permanently solidified agriculture’s prominence in the
area and avoided plans for a major highway, housing development, and
Eight short years later this paid dividends when the famous 1976
“Judgment of Paris” blind tasting competition celebrated Napa’s defeat
of well-known French wine producers in the noble grape categories of
Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. The story was covered in the
Modern Living section of Time magazine and was only four paragraphs
long but the impact was heard around the world, Napa Valley wine
country was born.
Today Napa Valley boasts a multi-billion dollar wine industry
responsible for thousands of jobs and more than 4.5 million visitors
annually. Over 500 wineries exist, mostly small boutique wineries
with 2/3 of them producing less than 5000 cases annually. Keep in
mind that for every tourist driven iconic winery like Robert Mondavi,
off the beaten path you haven’t heard of all sourcing the same quality
grapes from the same valley. Take advantage of the smaller boutique
rich in history, given the small operations, the intimacy and
personable hospitality are hard to beat.
Day drinking leads to hunger and thus by no coincidence, Napa is known
also for its culinary attributes, everything from Gott’s Roadside
Grill to Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. Yountville and St. Helena are
the two town centers famous for their dining and then logically,
shopping…followed by a nice place to stay. The key is to pamper
yourself for the day(s), it’s the wine country lifestyle after all.
Indulge a bit, sip a lot, and toast to those who mean the most,