The Napa Valley Wine History
Napa Valley, California, is what most people think of wine from the United States. The region is widely celebrated in the contemporary global wine industry. The Paris Judgment of 1976 was a pivotal moment in Napa’s history. Because of this, Napa Valley became well known, and the world began to recognize the high quality of American wine.
Where is Napa Valley?
Napa Valley is a wine region in Northern California, located around one hour’s drive between San Francisco and Sacramento. Unique terroir has created Napa Valley, a key wine and vineyard region, with over 450 wineries earning over $5 billion in annual sales. The valley is 30 miles long, extending from the city of Napa in the south to the town of Calistoga in the north.
Wild grapes have traditionally flourished in the Napa Valley due to the region’s mild climate. This area seems like it was almost destined to become a world-renowned wine-producing location. The Spanish missionaries were the first settlers in Napa Valley, and they were the ones who introduced grapevines to the area. However, it was not until George Calvert Yount that the wine business got off the ground. As a young trapper, he pioneered the commercial planting of grapes in Napa Valley. As the new wine business flourished, Yount soon joined other trailblazers, including Hamilton Walker Crabb and John Patchett.
Climate and Topography
Napa Valley’s diverse soils and weather support the growth of several grape types. “The area’s topography has many dips and peaks, ranging from sea-level valley floors to mountain vineyards with elevations that rise over 2,000 feet.”  Napa’s growers and vintners have used the valley’s diversity to carve out distinct zones for their winemaking. 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 significant advantage: it experiences a considerable 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 a unique influence on the terroir.
Vineyards are Planted
John Patchett is credited with establishing Napa’s first commercial winery in 1859. He appointed Charles Krug as the first winemaker. John Patchett used European Vitis vinifera grapes instead of the better American grape varietals. As additional vintners and growers established themselves in the subsequent decades, vineyard cultivation and wine production grew exponentially.
Challenges and Revival
A phylloxera epidemic destroyed up to 80% of Napa Valley’s vineyards in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After 1920, when Prohibition was enacted, the situation for the wineries further deteriorated. Many vineyards were forced to shut down during Prohibition, and farmers shifted their focus to other cash crops like walnuts. Soon after Prohibition was overturned, wineries began working together to revive the sector. Seven vintners got together in 1944 to start the Napa Valley Vintners Association to advance the local wine industry. There were significant advancements in the sector in the latter part of the twentieth century.
Gaining Icon Status
Can you imagine that over 50% of the soil types can be found in just one region? Napa Valley is that place, you know. Napa Valley’s renowned terroir results from the region’s diverse soil types and dramatic temperature swings. Icons like Robert Mondavi, Louis Martini, Georges de Latour, and Andre Tchelistcheff founded several renowned wineries in the 19th and 20th centuries. These vineyards helped elevate Napa Valley’s reputation in the 20th century.
However, the Paris Judgment is what made the valley an international symbol. A tournament was first organized in 1976 by a British wine dealer working in France. He assembled a panel of eleven experts, seven French, to grade wines blind. “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.”  Everyone, even the judges, was shocked when the winning wines were unveiled. The best Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon came from Napa Valley. Napa Valley was thrust into the spotlight as a result of this incident. Since then, wine has become a cultural phenomenon all across the globe.
This Day in Wine History
August 17 1833 – The Mission Secularization Act was passed on this day. 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.
The San Francisco Solano in Napa Valley was one such place that eventually surrendered to General Mariano Vallejo. General Vallejo founded the town of Sonoma and laid the groundwork for its wine industry. After California proclaimed independence from Spain, however, he was captured, and his reign was short-lived.
August 13 1876 – On this day, John Patchett died. Patchett, an Englishman born in 1797, immigrated to the United States in 1817, after the gold rush of the 1850s, where he studied brewing in Pennsylvania. John Patchett was an early settler in the Napa Valley area who was instrumental in bringing vines and winemaking to the area. Patchett established the region’s first commercial vineyards in 1858 after planting his first vineyard in 1854 and beginning wine production the following year. Because of Patchett, Napa Valley is now widely recognized as the wine capital of the United States.
August 18 1983 – The Los Carneros AVA was established on this day. Los Carneros forms the southern part of Napa Valley, comprising parts of Napa Valley and Sonoma. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, two cooler-climate grape varieties, thrive in this area because its environment is much colder than that of the northern Napa Valley AVA areas.  Napa Valley has become almost synonymous with these grape varieties. Previous AVA areas were designated based on political borders; this one is the first to be recognized based on climate and geography. The Los Carneros American Viticultural Area (AVA) is famous for producing grapes that are utilized primarily in producing sparkling wines.
Want to read more? Try these books!
-  SevenFifty, “Napa Valley,” SevenFifty Daily, July 11, 2017, https://daily.sevenfifty.com/regions/napa-valley/.
-  Napa Valley Wine, “What Makes Napa Valley Ideal for Growing Wine Grapes?” Napa Valley Wine, 2022, https://napavalley.wine/region.
-  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/.
-  Karen MacNeil, “Sonoma Valley Wine Country History,” Sunset Magazine, March 26, 2009, https://www.sunset.com/travel/california/sonoma-valley-wine-country-history.
-  Stuart Douglass Byles, Los Angeles Wine: A History from the Mission Era to the Present (Charleston, Sc: American Palate, 2014).
-  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/.