A Brief History of the Napa Valley Wine Region
Growing grapes that make outstanding wines isn’t as easy as planting some vines, tending them well, and utilizing good winemaking practices. A lot of this process is outside of human control. Napa Valley, along with a select few other regions around the world, just happens to have the ideal growing conditions for wine vineyards. The mild temperatures (usually neither too hot or too cold) in Northern California, combined with the moderate but sufficient rainfall, and volcanic activity that keeps the soil nourished well, all contribute to the spectacular grape production that makes world-renown Napa wines possible.
But great growing conditions aren’t always the only factor. Settlers realized early on what a gem they had here, but other factors sometimes derailed even the best of plans. Just like the historic wildfires and ongoing California drought threaten the vineyards and wineries today, history sometimes dealt Napa what seems like more than its fair share of woes. Here is the roller coaster ride that gave birth to one of the world’s premier wine regions of the postmodern age.
The Beginning Years of Napa Valley as a Wine Region — 1800’s
George Yount didn’t plant the first grape vines in what later became Napa Valley. Those were already growing wild in abundance. But Yount (whom the town of Yountville was named for) did plant the first official working vineyard, on which he spent the rest of his life. He’d been a farmer in Missouri before falling on hard times and leaving his family to try his hand at everything from fur trapping to carpentry. But he found his home in Napa in 1839, laying the groundwork for everything you see here today.
The first commercial winery was founded by Charles Krug in 1861. Over the next two decades, another 20 wineries joined the mix, including some names that are easily recognizable today, like Beringer, Schramsberg, and Inglenook. But the first in a series of unfortunate events befell Napa Valley in 1980, when a root louse by the eerie name of phylloxera wiped out more than 80% of the grapevines. It would be nearly a century before the budding wine region would recover.
The Struggle Years of Napa Valley — The First Half of the 1900’s
The phylloxera louse wrecked havoc on Napa vineyards and winemakers until 1925. Many of the area’s growers turned to other crops, such as walnuts and prunes, to sustain themselves. Napa Valley wineries were dealt another harsh blow in 1920, when the Volstead Act (aka Prohibition) went into effect. Even the farmers who had held fast through the phylloxera epidemic had to abandon winemaking.
A handful, however, remained in operation only by producing communion wine used by churches in sacramental ceremonies (such as the Lord’s Supper). A few wineries were able to sidestep Prohibition by producing grape juice inside wooden barrels that contained large quantities of sulfur dioxide. When customers opened the barrels, the oxygen quickly fermented the grape juice, causing it to become wine. There were also a few wineries able to sustain their vineyards by producing wine used to macerate (soften through the process of soaking in liquid) tobacco. Some also produced grapes to be sold as such, or to be turned into raisins.
Before the Volstead Act went into effect, there were over 2,500 wineries across the U.S. By the end of Prohibition in 1933, there were fewer than 100 nationwide. By the end of the 1930’s, Prohibition was out of the way and phylloxera was no longer a problem, primarily because there were so few vineyards left for the louse to attack. Napa Valley vineyards and winemakers began to recover. WWII put a bit of a damper on production, but growth of the wine industry in Napa remained strong from the 40’s through today.
In 1944, a few of the area’s winery owners formed the Napa Valley Vintners Association: Louis Martini, John Daniel, Georges de Latour and Martin Stelling. Some of these gentlemen were the first to realize the potential for Cabernet Sauvignon growing in Napa. Stelling is recognized for introducing Sauvignon Blanc, as well, which he did in 1945.
The Resurgence of Napa Valley — 1900’s to Today
Though growth of the wine industry in Napa Valley remained strong from WWII until today, the event that catapulted the area from just a popular wine producer to world-class wine producing region was the Paris Tasting of 1976. The event pitted California’s Cab Sav and Chardonnay selections in a blind taste test against those hailing from more notable regions and more recognized wineries in Bordeaux and Burgundy. Tasters gave top marks to the Chardonnay produced by Chateau Montelena and the Cab Sav by Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. This tasting gave Napa winemakers the notability and industry recognition necessary to compete with the world’s best wine regions and wineries.
The Future of Napa Valley Wineries — Today & Beyond
Today there are more than 500 wineries in Napa Valley, utilizing over 45,000 acres of vineyards. Cab Sav is Napa’s largest crop, accounting for more than 18,000 acres. Chardonnay is the second most widely grown grape in Napa, accounting for more than 7,000 acres. Still, though Napa Valley is the most widely known and recognized wine growing region in California (and certainly the most prestigious, with over 3.5 million visitors each year), it only accounts for about 5% of the total wine production of California.
But Napa isn’t resting on its laurels. Looking ahead to the future, Napa’s growers have initiated a number of strict environmental policies, stringent hiring and employment practices (particularly addressing the fair pay and safe working conditions of Napa’s many migrant farm workers), and strong community organizations to oversee land use. Part of these programs set aside a certain number of acres to maintain as all-natural. Sure, there’s much more demand for Napa Valley farmland than there is supply. But Napa’s residents are taking steps now to assure that Napa Valley remains the premier North American wine region in the years and decades to come.