When I was traveling through Napa Valley not so long ago, the one thing I kept wondering was how it all got there. How did Napa Valley become one of the most sought-after wine-growing regions in the world? When studying wine, it is important to understand where the wine came from. Grape vines have been growing in California since before the 1800s, and the region of Napa Valley is rich in history, filled with disappointment and success. It all began in 1839, when George Yount, the first settler to arrive in Napa Valley, planted the first vineyards in what is now called Yountville. Yountville is known by the locals as the “dining capital.”
In 1849, the California Gold Rush brought international attention to Napa Valley. There was a surplus of cash to establish new vineyards and increase wine production. During this time, the mysterious “Count” Agostan Haraszthy arrived in Sonoma and founded Buena Vista, which is one of the oldest commercial wineries in California. Many have nicknamed Haraszthy the “Father of California Wine.” His story is one for the history books, and not many can confirm all of his accomplishments. According to the Guild of Master Sommeliers, the count “operated the first commercial steamboat on the Mississippi, founded Wisconsin’s oldest incorporated town and served as San Diego’s first town marshal—[which] may greatly exceed the reality, but his story has become Californian wine legend. Fittingly, the legend ends with his spectacular demise in the jaws of alligators, deep within the jungles of Nicaragua.” However, we do know that he introduced more than 300 grape varieties to the United States because of his travels throughout Europe. Charles Krug worked for the count and decided to move to St. Helena in 1861, where he founded a winery that has received international recognition. Beringer is the oldest continually operating winery in Napa Valley and was established in 1876. Everything was beginning to look up for Napa Valley—and then Prohibition happened.
The wine industry was paralyzed by the 18th Amendment. There were only a few who survived the ban of alcohol, and they did so by becoming creative. According to the Guild of Sommeliers, “Frenchman Georges de Latour’s Beaulieu Vineyards actually thrived during the dry times, declaring itself the 'House of Altar Wine.'" However, this creative idea to keep everyone drinking brought down the quality level of wine drinking. Cheap wines were nicknamed “burgundy” and “chablis” but were nowhere near the quality of a true burgundy or chablis. The Court of Master Sommeliers explained that “America's wine industry became truly industrial after Prohibition, as it focused on inexpensive, lower-quality wines for a generally uneducated domestic markets.” It wasn’t until 1938, when George Latour hired André Tchelistcheff, Russian winemaker, to oversee Beaulieu. Tchelistcheff brought new standards of quality, hygiene and techniques to Napa Valley. He was the most influential winemaker post-Prohibition. Many have given him the title “Dean of American Winemakers.”
In 1966, Robert Mondavi released his first harvest and retold Napa Valley’s history. Mondavi was known for many things, but one in particular I find to be quite fascinating. In 1968, Mondavi renamed sauvignon blanc to “fumé blanc” and aged it in oak. He derived the name from France’s Pouilly-Fumé AOC, where sauvignon blanc grows. It was a marketing ploy to get people to drink sauvignon blanc—and it actually worked. Many people became very much interested, and a “new wine” was born.
Fame and fortune were beginning to happen in Napa, but no one could have guessed as to the real fame that was about to take place in 1976, the Judgment of Paris. You may have heard about this infamous blind tasting because of the movie “Bottle Shock,” or you may have read the book. The Judgment of Paris was a blind tasting that was organized in France by Steven Spurrier, who brought two Napa Valley wines: Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon and Chateau Montelana Chardonnay. These two Napa Valley wines were tasted against grand cru and premier cru level bordeaux and burgundy. Guess who won. You're right: Napa Valley.
In result, Napa Valley finally received the recognition that it longed for. Business was booming. Sales, acreage and prices were increasing through the roof—until phylloxera struck California in 1980. Phylloxera is a root louse that destroys grape vines and vineyards. Just in Napa, more than 50 percent of the county’s vineyards were destroyed. The vineyards had to be torn out and replanted, and Napa Valley had to start all over again. However, producers took this as an opportunity to perfect their craft, and then, a new style of winemaking was born. Winemakers realized that stylistically higher alcohol, riper fruit and fuller-bodied wines scored higher among judges. So a group of winemakers emerged, commonly known as “cult producers.” Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate, Colgin and Bond Winery are just a few examples. These wines are highly sought after and have the extreme price tags to accompany. Price tags such as these were previously for wines coming from Europe.
Wine has come a long way, and now, the United States is enjoying the best-quality wine that has ever been in the market. Statistics say that the United States of America is the fourth-largest producer of wine and now surpasses France in consumption. I encourage you this weekend to try wines from Napa Valley, preferably something out of your comfort zone. I always say that you don’t know what you don’t like until you try it.
Michelle Richards is a certified sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers. Along with hosting wine tastings for local organizations, she serves up wine goodness at St. John’s Restaurant. Your can contact her by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.