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Napa Valley California

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Napa Valley is everything you would expect it to be—luxurious 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.

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 airport.

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, 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 Amizetta, Saintsbury, and James Cole; 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, cheers! Contact us for more information on Napa Valley Wine Tours