History of the Napa Valley

From the time of Spanish explorers in the 1500‘s to the gold rush of the 1850’s and the birth of modern filmmaking in Hollywood, California has been a coast of opportunity for hundreds of years. With its global prestige, it might be hard to imagine that the Napa Valley, which is 30 miles inland at the northern end of the San Francisco Bay, only earned global appreciation in the 1960s.

Perfect Mediterranean Climate

Before then, only a few attempts were made to leverage the valley’s Mediterranean climate for winemaking, which benefits from very warm summers, mild winters, and limited precipitation. Vine disease, Prohibition, and the Great Depression made grape-growing economically infeasible until the middle of the 20th century.

Glass of California, Napa Valley red wine. Opu...
Glass of California, Napa Valley red wine (Wikipedia)

Still, Napa’s soil, topography, and microclimate variety is undeniable, and Napa growers who appeared at the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 solidified Napa’s place among the global wine regions. The event, dubbed “the Judgment of Paris,” resulted in California wines rating the best in each of the two blind-taste-test categories. In the red wine category, California’s Cabernet Sauvignon’s beat out France’s Bordeaux, even more surprising given that the counted scores all came from French judges.

What Grows in Napa and Where to Visit

The most widely planted varietal in Napa is Cabernet Sauvignon, comprising almost 20,000 acres of the Valley’s 45,000 total acres. The rest are varieties of Merlot, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, carefully selected to avoid the plague of vineyard viruses that ravaged Napa Valley in the late 1800s and 1990s.

Some of Napa’s popular wineries are the Beringer Vineyards in St. Helena, the Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville, and the V. Sattui Winery, also in St. Helena and encouraging of picnicking while you enjoy their wines.

On an intimate scale is the Black Cordon Vineyards, started by a couple in the late 70s whose lesser known but well-scored cabernet is described as velvety and rich. David and Karen Dunphy made the foothills of Mayacamas Mountains their home and bring balance among their wine’s fruit, acidity, and tannins. Their Cabernet Sauvignon is sold alongside a Chardonnay, born of grapes from the Russian River and Sonoma Coast appellation because of its cooler growing areas.

More gregarious is the Calistoga landmark property of Chateau Montelena, aptly named for its massive French-style chateau atop a hill. Chateau Montelena was put on the wine-making map when it won the white wine section of the Judgment of Paris competition and has come to produce 36,000 cases each year.

Andy Beckstoffer is known as one of the “most powerful” wine growers in the Napa Valley, if only because he owns over a 1000 acres of land under the Beckstoffer Vineyards name. His philosophy of focusing on the resulting wine rather than the grape itself has served him well for 30 years. Beckstoffer leverages his ability to make great Sauvignon Blanc’s to influence industry organizations to stay true to its roots and avoid over-catering to on-premises hospitality opportunities, which drive short-term profit at the risk of long-term sustainability.

English: Napa_Valley_Photo_D_Ramey_Logan If us...
Photographer D Ramey Logan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Future Obstacles to Napa Dominance

People as passionate as Beckstoffer make the Napa Valley fabric of growers a powerful group globally. Their cries for climate change awareness and management go noticed because of how increasing temperatures and changes in precipitation patterns are already re-shaping the wine industry globally. Recent studies by Conservation International suggest that suitable wine regions in France, Italy, and Mediterranean Europe might shrink by as much as 85 percent by the middle of this century.

Despite climate threats, many Napa farmers are confident in their ability to adapt and are already working toward adjusting their canopy and water management systems. For years to come the Napa Valley can be trusted as the seat of America’s wine industry.