The Napa Valley, aptly considered the most famous wine region in the country, has had an illustrious history that, albeit a short one when compared to the great vineyards of the Old World, is one that makes for a great tale. “The Valley”, as the locals call it, has seen its share of challenges from its humble agricultural beginnings to the processions of rowdy bachelorette parties (sorry, dudes don’t do wine bachelor parties unless it’s your third wedding…and even then it’s a bit weird).
As opposed to popular belief, Napa was not America’s first American Viticultural Area (AVA’s are expanses of land, often enormous, that are supposed to have certain defining grape growing/wine making features). It was the second one after Augusta, MO (1980)!
At over 225,000 acres, it sits between the Mayacama Mountains to the west and the Vaca mountains to the east. It’s been studied to have over 100 different types of soils and a climate that, although mostly Mediterranean, varies in temperature from the cooler south (closer to San Pablo Bay) to the warmer north. In a hot day, this difference in temperature between the two ends can be as high as 20 degrees. These temperature variations are pertinent because they dictate which grape varietals grow better in certain areas of the Valley. This almost 30 miles long x 5 miles wide AVA in turn has been divided into multiple sub-AVA’s. Many of you will recognize some of them: Carneros, Yountville, Mt. Veeder, Rutherford, St. Helena, Calistoga, etc. These sub AVA’s can in turn be grossly described as “mountain” vs “valley floor” regions (perhaps a topic for another blog).
Napa’s first commercial winery was Charles Krug in 1861. Leading up to the phylloxera epidemic of the 1890’s (a nasty bug that eats the vines’ roots) there were about 140 wineries. After this plague was vanquished another catastrophe took hold: Prohibition. As expected, during the 1920-1933 years of teetotalism, many wineries succumbed to the “noble experiment”. The ones that made it kept in business with either the production of sacramental wine or “wine bricks”. These were blocks of died grapes that, upon being reconstituted with water and some yeast, would help fulfill the Volstead Act loophole that allowed up to 200 gallons per year of home wine production.
After the vicissitudes of the great Depression and two World Wars, Napa would find its resurgence in the persona of Robert Mondavi who, after founding his eponymously named vineyard in 1966, brought quality and international recognition to the Napa Valley. But the region's reputation would be turbo charged after The Judgement in Paris: the 1976 blind tasting competition where an all French jury picked a 1973 Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon and a 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay as the winners over the local wines. Booya! To this day both varietals continue to lead the charge in percentage of red and white grapes produced.
Today’s Napa remains a popular enotourism destination with 3.8 million visitors a year and it continues to provide excellent big and bold wines that, alas, continue to climb in price. Lodging and housing are right on par. Nonetheless, it is unequivocally a great place to visit (3 nights is my limit!) to enjoy fantastic food and wine…and yes…the art of doing very little else.
Lorenzo, the wine guy
Friends, food, and wine...I'm happy there.