I may have already stirred up a hornet’s nest with the title! With only 4% of Californian wine production, Napa provided 27% of economic impact. One of the smallest ‘world class’ wine regions of the world, Napa is 8 kms broad and 48 kms long and around 58 kms from the coast. The highest vineyard areas like the Howell Mountain are around 750m above sea level; however 85% of the plantation is on the valley floor. 45000 acres in all which is 1/6th of that of Bordeaux! The tipping point for the Napa or the American wine industry came in with one historic event on 24th May 1976 wherein Californian reds and whites were pitched against top Bordeaux and Burgundy wines and the American trounced in both reds and whites; Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in the Red and Chateau Montelena with its Chardonnay. I was fortunate to partake in their 40th anniversary celebration week, of course with tasting of their winner blend.
What makes Napa Special?
Cabernet Sauvignon it is, Cabernet forms 12% of California’s production but 40% of Napa’s and yielding 55% revenues. The others are Chardonnay, Merlot, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Petite-Sirah, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir. Needless to say the soils and the diversity play a role in the final nuance of the wines, it is also the weather. Napa has a Mediterranean climate, less than 2% of the world land mass has it where most of the rain occurs in winter giving it a dry warm growing season with diurnal temperature shifts leading to big and bold grapes. After all of these nature’s endowments the onus thoroughly lies on the keeper’s of the industry to come together make wine which is consistent and high in quality and Napa vintners are just managing to do that. Lastly, the role of wine tourism and hospitality in the regions as a subset of marketing can’t be ignored one bit. As Robert Mondavi once said, ‘We want to raise the art of living well.’ Try booking a room in Napa and you shall know.
Napa Valley was the first AVA to be recognized in California in 1981 and since then 16 nested AVAs have been identified. The Northern most Calistoga, Diamond and Spring mountain districts and the Howell mountains, Rutherford, Oakville and St Helena on the valley floor and Chiles valley district up in the Vaca ranges. And further South are the Yountville, Stag’s Leap District and the Oak Knoll regions. The Mt Vedeer, Atlas Peak lie in the Mayacamas and the Vaca ranges respectively. Coombvilles, Tiny Wild Horse Valley and Los Carneros lie in the southern reaches, the Carneros regions also extends in to Sonoma and is known for its Pinot Noirs due to the Maritime influence. The AVAs define regions but unlike the European PDO’s they give a free hand to the winery to express creativity and experiment. For instance The Paraduxx, a Zinfandel blend in 1994 from Duckhorn vineyards a Merlot powerhouse created quite a stir. Proprietary red wine they call it.
150 years of Napa Valley
Napa just like Sonoma was established much later than its southern Californian neighbours. George Yount, founder of the Yountville a town now in Napa city was the first to plant commercial vineyards in late 1830s, It was only after the independence of California from Mexico in 1850 and the Gold Rush during the same period that saw San Francisco’s population surge from a meager 200 in 1846 to 36000 by 1852 thus bringing in wine know-how. The first renaissance came when the vintners got Vitis vinifera vines in the 1860s, until then they were mission vines used by missionaries to make wine for the church. Charles Krug opened the first commercial winery in 1861; the same was bought by the Mondavi family in 1943. The rail connection then helped Napa ship wines out to Francisco and help get tourists to Napa. You must have heard of Napa Valley wine train as a must do when in Napa!! The industry prospered and evolved. Gustave Niebaum a wealthy Finnish trader in 1879 opened Inglenook a French Chateau style winery and was the first to sell wine in bottles. Inglenook wines attracted global attention and put Napa on the global map for the first time. The same era Crabb planted 400 grape varieties in the famous To Kalon (means ‘the beautiful’ in Greek) vineyards, today parts of the same are owned by Robert Mondavi winery, Opus One and a wine grower Andy Beckstoffer.
Phylloxera, Earthquake, the Volstead act, the great depression, world war …..
First phylloxera decimated Napa completely by the 1890s and any hope of recovery was only thrashed by the San Francisco earthquake which destroyed 30 Mn gallons of wine and then the Volstead act eased the last nail in the coffin , brought in the American prohibition which lasted till 1933. The convalescence was during depression and then the world war kept Napa bed-ridden. During this time some wine cos continued the show some with Wine Bricks during prohibition and some by pioneering initiatives post repeal. Mondavi, George Latour of Beaulieu vineyards and John Daniel of Inglenook led the pack as they formed the Napa Valley association in 1944.
Mondavi, Judgment of Paris ……
In 1965 Robert Mondavi moved away from the family biz to start his own the Robert Mondavi winery in Oakville and ever since he made attention grabbing wines and moreover his marketing techniques, his cellar door hospitality etc made Mondavi the face of California. It only took the aforementioned tasting in Paris also made into a movie, the Bottle Shock to drive home the point for Napa. There has been no looking back for Napa ever since as they stand at over 500 wineries most of which are family owned and producing fewer than 10000 cases per annum.
Napa is an hour’s drive up north from San Francisco and if you are an oenophile then you better not miss it and the other way of looking at it as American political commentator and comedian Bill Maher puts it ‘New Rule: The Napa Valley is Disneyland for alcoholics. Be honest, you're not visiting wineries in four days because you're an oenophile, you're doing it because you're a drunk. It's the only place in America where you can pass out in a stranger's house and it's okay, because it's a B&B and you paid for it.’