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A Brief History of Napa Valley

Napa Valley Cabernet Grapes

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

grapes dominate.

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.

Napa Valley Wine Cave

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.

a sunset over a vineyard

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,

Far Niente, and Opus One, there are at least another dozen wineries

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

wineries like Viader, Saintsbury, and Fantesca; although maybe not

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,