The Napa Valley Wine History

Napa Valley is probably the most famous wine-growing region in the United States. The region is widely celebrated in the contemporary global wine industry. The biggest event in Napa’s history was the Paris Judgment in 1976. This one event brought Napa Valley into the limelight, and proved that American wine could be premium quality.

Where is Napa Valley?

Napa Valley is a wine region in Northern California, about an hour’s drive from San Francisco and Sacramento. Napa Valley’s unique terroir has made it an essential wine and vineyard area with more than 450 wineries generating more than $5 billion in yearly deals. The valley is 30 miles in length, extending from the city of Napa in the south to the town of Calistoga in the north.

The Beginnings

Napa Valley’s favorable weather has always allowed wild grapes to grow in abundance. One could think that the region was almost meant to be a famous wine region. The first to plant grapes in Napa were the Spanish missionaries. But the wine making industry didn’t really get started until George Calvert Yount. He was a young trapper, and the first to plant grapevines in Napa Valley for commercial purposes. Yount was later joined by other pioneers, including Hamilton Walker Crabb and John Patchett, who helped grow the brand new wine industry.

Napa Valley History

Climate and Topography

Napa Valley boasts diverse soils and weather, enabling different varieties of grapes to flourish. “The area’s topography has many dips and peaks, ranging from sea-level valley floors to mountain vineyards with elevations that rise up over 2,000 feet.”[1] The diverse nature of the valley has allowed growers and vintners to create definitive wine regions within Napa. In 1981 the region became the first recognized American Viticultural Area (AVA) in California, and the second in the USA.

Napa Valley may be small, but it has a great advantage: it experiences a very large shift in temperature between the day and night. This temperature shift allows the grapes to ripen more slowly, keeping the acidity levels higher in both the grapes and the wine. Napa is also blessed with a Mediterranean climate, a rare climate only found on 2% of the planet. This Mediterranean climate is defined by wet winters and dry summers, perfect for vineyards. The valley is sandwiched between mountains that also provide unique influence on the terroir.[2]

Vineyards are Planted

John Patchett is credited with creating the first commercial winery in Napa in 1859. He hired Charles Krug as the very first winemaker. John Patchett used European vitis vinifera grapes, as opposed to American grape varieties, which produce superior wines. The following years saw exponential growth in vineyard cultivation and wine production as new vintners and growers established themselves.

Challenges and Revival

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Napa Valley was hit by a plague of phylloxera decimating up to 80% of all vineyards in the area. The situation for the wineries worsened when Prohibition went into affect in 1920. During Prohibition, many vineyards closed and growers turned to other crops, such as walnuts, to make a living. After Prohibition was repealed, things began to turn around and wineries started slowly reviving the industry through a collaborative effort. In 1944, a group of seven winemakers formed the Napa Valley Vintners Association to help grow the wine region together. The second half of the 20th century saw positive developments in the industry.

Gaining Icon Status

Can you imagine that over 50% of the soil types can be found in just one region? Well, Napa Valley is that region! The wide-range of soils and the extreme temperature shifts contribute to the unique terroir of the famous Napa Valley wine region. Many Iconic wineries were established in the 19th and 20th century led by icons like Robert Mondavi, Louis Martini, Georges de Latour, and Andre Tchelistcheff. These wineries contributed to rising image of Napa Valley in the 20th century.

Nevertheless, it was the Paris Judgment that catapulted the valley to icon status. In 1976 a competition was set up by a British wine merchant in France. He found eleven judges, (seven were French) to blind taste wines and then rate them. “The historic Paris Judgement of that year saw Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay from California pitted against the best of Bordeaux and Burgundy in a blind tasting.”[3] When the winning wines were revealed everyone, including the judges were shocked. A Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay had won. The event brought Napa Valley into the limelight. The wine has since risen to be a world icon in the wine industry.

The Napa Valley Wine History, The Napa Valley Wine History

 

This Day in Wine History

17 August 1833 – On this day, the Mission Secularization Act was passed. The Act was passed by the Mexican Congress after its independence in 1821, nationalizing catholic missions. As a result, these missions fell to the Mexican government, significantly influencing wine production in California. Most of the Mission’s land was taken and sold to people or given away as grants.

One of these was the San Fransisco Solano in Napa Valley which fell in the hands of General Mariano Vallejo. General Vallejo established Sonoma town and set it up for wine production. However, his rule did not last as he was taken prisoner after California declared independence from Spanish colonizers.

13 August 1876 – On this day, John Patchett died. Born in England in 1797, Patchett was lured by the gold rush of the 1850s and moved to America in 1817 and learned how to make brew in Pennsylvania. John Patchett is one of the pioneers that planted grapes and introduced wine production to the Napa Valley region. Patchett planted his first vineyard in 1854, started producing wine in 1857, and made the first commercial wineries in Napa Valley in 1858. Patchett pioneered Napa Valley’s wine history which has since turned into the USA’s wine capital.

18 August 1983 – On this day, the Los Carneros AVA was established. Los Carneros forms the southern part of the Napa Valley, comprising parts of Napa Valley and Sonoma. The region boasts a cooler climate than northern Napa Valley AVA regions, making it home to cooler grape varietals such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.[6] These varietals have become synonymous with Napa Valley. The region is the first AVA to be recognized based on its climate and topography – previous AVA regions were classified based on political boundaries. Grapes grown in the Los Carneros AVA are mostly used for making sparkling wines.

Want to read more about Napa Valley? Try these books!

Napa: The Story of an American Eden
The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty

Reference

  1. [1] SevenFifty, “Napa Valley,” SevenFifty Daily, July 11, 2017, https://daily.sevenfifty.com/regions/napa-valley/.
  2. [2] Napa Valley Wine, “What Makes Napa Valley Ideal for Growing Wine Grapes?” Napa Valley Wine, 2022, https://napavalley.wine/region.
  3. [3] Cult Wine Investment, “A Brief History of Wine in California’s Napa Valley,” Cult Wines, September 30, 2020, https://www.wineinvestment.com/learn/magazine/2020/09/a-brief-history-of-wine-in-californias-napa-valley/.
  4. [4] Karen MacNeil, “Sonoma Valley Wine Country History,” Sunset Magazine, March 26, 2009, https://www.sunset.com/travel/california/sonoma-valley-wine-country-history.
  5. [5] Stuart Douglass Byles, Los Angeles Wine: A History from the Mission Era to the Present (Charleston, Sc: American Palate, 2014).
  6. [6] Timothy Grant, “A Complete Profile of Napa’s Carneros AVA (Best Estates & Photos),” Insider’s Guide to Napa, August 28, 2021, https://hotellucanapa.com/los-carneros-ava-profile/.

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!