Napa Valley - a history

Napa Valley,California,wine,winemaking,vintners,appellation People & Places Articles
  • Monday 1 September 2003

JANICE FUHRMAN traces the history of Napa – from the planting of its first vines, through Prohibition, to worldwide acclaim – and introduces its pioneers.

Janice Fuhrman traces the history of Napa – from the planting of its first

vines, through Prohibition, to worldwide acclaim – and introduces its pioneers.

In the mid-1800s, the rural Napa Valley was half a day's ferry ride from the booming city of San Francisco. All that mattered to most of its residents back then was the burgeoning Gold Rush, and even on the odd weekend excursion up the Napa River to the hot springs, the locals would see more cattle, wheat and orchards than they would grapes.

But in the 1860s and 1870s, after the gold had rushed on, more adventurous men – among them Jacob Schram, Charles Krug and Jacob Beringer – arrived in Napa to try their hands at grape-growing and winemaking. To begin with, the exercise was a sideline. Schram worked primarily as a barber, and grew grapes as a hobby. Slowly but surely, though, he and others found the climate and the soil to be hospitable for wine grapes. By the 1880s, there were 140 wineries in the valley.

Then, close to the turn of the century, nature turned against the vines in the form of that pest called phylloxera, which devastated the valley. The area's vintners weathered the storm and built their industry back up again by planting new and better varieties of wine grape. But they could do nothing about a more damaging, man-made catastrophe, just after the First World War.

Surviving Prohibition

It was 1919 when Prohibition hit. 'Vineyards were abandoned and winemakers found other work. Only a handful of wineries survived, producing sacramental wines,' recalls Robert Mondavi, founder of the Robert Mondavi Winery, who turned 90 in June. 'When Prohibition ended in 1933, Napa Valley's wine industry began its climb back up.'

Timothy Diener, 93, and former head winemaker at the Christian Brothers Winery, recalls the valley in 1935, when he first arrived. 'The vineyards were spotty-looking. There was hardly a healthy vine in the whole state.'

But after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, Napa Valley vintners were once again looking to new and better horizons. 'They had hopes for the future,' says Diener. 'That's about all they had at that time. But they worked like dogs to bring that better future along.'

By the 1940s, some vineyards were thriving again, but agriculture in the Napa Valley was diversified through fruit and walnut orchards, cattle pasture land and many acres of tomatoes. In 1948, there were more acres planted with prunes and walnuts than with grapes.

'People didn't think much about wine at all – it was a forgotten drink as far as Americans were concerned,' recalls Mondavi. 'We had to start from scratch and plant our good grapes – Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay. That was a long process that was quite difficult.'

Another Napa Valley pioneer, Louis M Martini, was also experiencing hard times in the American wine business, according to his grandson, Michael Martini, now winemaker at the Louis M Martini Winery in St Helena, California: 'The president of Sterling Winery came to talk him into raising prices on his wine,' says Martini Jr.

'He said you had to raise wine prices to raise the image of the Napa Valley. But my grandfather believed in fair prices. They sparred for 45 minutes, and finally my grandfather said, “I need my customers more than they need me.”'

Napa was filled with independent sorts like Martini, John Daniel – owner of the Inglenook Winery – and Mondavi, then a scrappy, young entrepreneur at his family's Charles Krug Winery. The vintners knew there were challenges ahead, not least the ongoing threat of natural disasters and growing regulation. But Martini had the idea that this band of vintners, all linked by the same interests, could speak louder than any individuals. So he got them together and formed the Napa Valley Vintners organisation in October 1944, to tackle issues state-wide and otherwise. A handful of men, including Martini, Daniel, Louis Stralla and Mondavi, each paid $200 to join, and drew up a simple charter.

It wasn't long before they faced their first test. Government regulators, fearing that inflation during World War II would damage the economy, were interested

in price controls on various commodities, and wine was on their list. 'We met these fellows from Washington,' recalls Stralla, who was present at a meeting of Napa vintners and government representatives. 'One fellow got up and went on about putting price controls on wine. Old Louis Martini sat back for quite a while and then he said to this fellow, “You ever heard of Leonardo da Vinci?” “Well yeah, he painted the Mona Lisa,” the guy answered. “Well,” says Louis, “Nobody set a price on the Mona Lisa. How can you set a price on Louis Martini's wine? I'm an artist!” The vintners scored their first victory when the government decided not to impose price controls on wine.

Working together

Mondavi was the group's first secretary: 'We banded together and began to talk about promotional activities for the Napa Valley, and that's what really created Napa as being distinct and different from anywhere else,' he says.

'We operated without an agenda in the beginning,' recalls Diener of those early meetings in the 1940s and 1950s. 'We just talked about whatever seemed to be appropriate until we hit on something else more interesting and talked longer. We might talk about growing grapes because most of the wineries had vineyards and were concerned about their quality.'

They were also concerned about getting the word out about Napa. One summer, the vintners entertained 1,000 Harvard alumni. The next year, they bussed in 2,000 visitors from a General Electric convention in San Francisco.

The vintners group, which would later found the Napa Valley Wine Auction, also began to mix marketing with philanthropy. Hearing the San Francisco cable cars were ailing, they quickly concluded that it provided the perfect opportunity to broadcast the news that Napa Valley was making good wines that San Franciscans – and tourists – should try. They donated money to repair the cable cars – and made sure they posed for pictures alongside them.

'These are the small things that people don't realise,' says Mondavi. 'But if you work in harmony, together, it makes the difference the difference between day and night and people love to see it.'

Vintners in the Napa Valley were slowly creating a destination, a holiday experience people would seek out. They soon discovered that wine and their compact, picturesque valley went well with style and celebrity. Soon, the wine caves at Beringer Vineyards were the backdrop for many a national magazine advertisement, and some famous names were coming to Napa.

'Clark Gable and Carole Lombard and Charles Laughton and 40 or 50 more were here long enough to do a movie,' says Diener. 'We realised that having these celebrities here couldn't do anything but help Napa Valley,' adds Mondavi.

Old is the new new

In 1965, newcomers such as Jack and Jamie Davies were showing interest in bringing old wineries into the modern age, and old-timers and newcomers alike realised the need to protect Napa from creeping development. The couple began reviving Jacob Schram's old winery, and in 1968 they joined with others to protect the land with an agricultural preserve.

'All of the developments in the past 30 years have been possible as a result of the agricultural preserve,' says Jamie Davies. 'It is our protection against destructive future development. The first step was changing minimum land parcels from one acre to 20 acres. Later, we changed it from 20 to 40 as a minimum possible lot size.'

'In the early days, when the preserve was established, we viewed agriculture

as a way of stopping the kind of urbanisation or sub-urbanisation that impacted other counties around San Francisco,' recalls Tom Shelton, CEO of Joseph Phelps Vineyards. 'And we saw grape-growing as a way of preserving open space.'

'Even people who didn't support the industry saw that their way of life – the valley floor – would be radically changed, so they were willing to support the preserve,' adds Warren Winiarski, owner of Stags' Leap Wine Cellars.

Perhaps attracted by this protection for agricultural land, more would-be vintners began streaming into the valley in the 1970s. In 1973, grapes surpassed cattle as the largest agricultural product in Napa County. There were 30 members of the Napa Valley Vintners, and the area and its wines were garnering notice.

Napa triumphs

In 1976, the world would learn more about The Little Valley That Could. A young British wine merchant named Steven Spurrier – now consultant editor at Decanter – arranged a blind tasting in Paris with French judges. About half the bottles were from the Napa Valley.

When the rankings were in and the bottles unveiled, a bomb exploded in the world of wine. The winners were a 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, tasted against the best French Burgundies, and a 1973 Stags' Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, set against the cream of Bordeaux. 'We all got confidence, we all obtained a new sense of mission after that happened,' says Winiarski. 'We knew we had the right materials, we knew we were in the right place, we knew we had the skills, and the Paris tasting put a seal of approval on that from the French themselves.'

The Napa vintners suddenly found themselves catapulted into the big league, and pushed for the status of a Napa appellation to indicate to consumers a regional identity for the wine.

Capitalising on Terroir

The naming of the Napa Valley as a viticultural area was very important. We thought we had a treasure that had to be codified and defined,' adds Winiarski.

'The area, the soil and the climate all played a crucial part, and that was important to emphasise that Napa Valley is a unique spot in the world.' says Mondavi. 'I never believed when we started that we could go as far as we have. We created something that everyone thought was impossible, and yet it became possible because we believed in ourselves and went forth.'

Janice Fuhrman is a freelance wine writer based in the United States.

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