Napa Valley has been growing grapes for over 180 years and has seen a lot of ups and downs since its establishment. Let’s look at the highs and lows of the history of this pioneering region through wine and find out how Napa Valley has become a synonym for quality in the wine world.
Wappo stewards of the land
The earliest stewards of what is now called Napa Valley were the Wappo. These native gardeners and land conservationists tended the valley until the early 1800s. The Wappo maintained a delicate balance among wildlife, water, vegetation, and human impact during their presence in the region.
Catholic missionaries brought vines to California.
Franciscan Missionaries planted Vitis vinifera vines, primarily the Mission Variety in California. This was to make sacramental wine.
First vines planted
George Calvert Yount, of which Yountville is named after, planted the first wine grapes, again, primarily of the Mission variety, in Napa Valley.
There’s gold in them there hills!
The Gold Rush in California saw an increase in demand for wine, this saw more wineries being established throughout the state, particularly in Sonoma.
The golden vine age
The first commercial winery was established by Charles Krug in 1861. Following this many other wineries followed and, spurred on by the establishment of the Pacific Railroad in 1869. Production in the Bay Area increased by 29,000%! Some of these first wineries still survive today, such as Beaulieu, Beringer, Chateau Montelena, Far Niente, Inglenook, and Schramsberg. Many of these wineries experimented with a number of grape varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel but also Charbono, Malbec and many others.
Phylloxera had already devastated many vineyards throughout the world starting in the 1860s, and a solution of grafting American rootstocks onto French vines was suggested by Leo Laliman and Gaston Bazille in 1969. Despite this more than 90% of vineyards in Napa were destroyed by Phylloxera between 1889-1900.
The Volstead Act, which prohibited the manufacture and sale of all alcoholic beverages, came into effect in 1920. 90% of the wineries were forced to shut, with only a few surviving by creating wine for sacramental purposes, diversifying some of their land to fig and walnut production, or creating wine for the production of vinegar. Once Prohibition was repealed, only then could wineries start to spring up again.
Better together and defining Cabernet Sauvignon
After a generation of low points in Napa, a group of wineries decided it was better to work together to promote the wines of the region and the region itself and formed the Napa Valley Vintners, a trade association with 550 members today. The quality of the wines in the region also improved, in no small part because of André Tchelistcheff, a Russian emigré who helped define the style of high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon that Napa Valley became renowned for.
The Judgement of Paris puts Napa Valley on the world stage
Napa was not a household name in the 1970s, but was gaining recognition for the high-quality Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays it was producing. Steven Spurrier, a British Wine Merchant, decided it was time to pit France and America against each other in a blind tasting - Bordeaux and Burgundy against California. To many people’s surprise, especially the French wine experts who did the tasting, Napa Valley prevailed with Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars beating Château Mouton Rothschild for the Cabernets and Chateau Montelena beating Domaine Roulot for Chardonnay. This firmly established Napa Valley as an area capable of producing world-class wines.
Phylloxera and replanting... again
Due to the widespread use of a rootstock that was susceptible to phylloxera, many vineyards were hit with phylloxera in the mid-1980s. This meant that 60% of the vineyards in Napa Valley had to be replanted. However, there is a silver lining here - due to the in-depth research being done at nearby UC Davis, wineries were able to take this change to replant using better rootstock, and choosing better sites and better suited varieties for their soils. The result is that Napa is now producing higher quality wines than ever before.
Today Napa is facing a new threat; wildfires in California and the lack of water are becoming more and more of a problem. With the drought in California, producers are now looking for more sustainable ways to grow grapes by reducing water usage and their carbon footprint. Many producers are now volunteering to be part of the Napa Green initiative, which certifies wineries that are sustainable in their grape growing and winemaking practices.