There are many beautiful wine regions around the globe, but Napa Valley offers a uniqueness that no other wine region can boast. Napa has a rich history going back to the 1800’s with unique soils, climate and geology, but there is something even more special about the Valley and that is its people, stories, history, cuisine and community. Having spent extensive time in Napa over the years, I have come to love and admire Napa Valley immensely. During my visits, I enjoyed memorable times with winemakers and experienced first hand Napa’s hospitality, strength and strong sense of community.
1. Viticultural Diversity
Napa’s climate is exceptionally unique. Boasting a Mediterranean climate, the warm days, cool evenings and hot dry summers make for a great grape growing environment. Only 3% of the world experiences a true Mediterranean climate. The valley’s proximity to the ocean brings in an evening fog and cool ocean breezes, creating a wide diurnal range (warm days and cool nights), that allows for the perfect balance of sugar and acid to develop in the grapes. There are several climate zones in the valley, and many micro-climates. On the same day, the temperature in the northern part of Napa Valley around Calistoga can be 15 degrees warmer than its southern counterpart in Carneros. Varying climates allow for a wide diversity of grapes and flavor profiles of the wines.
Geologically, Napa Valley is a relatively young wine region formed 150 million years ago. A confluence of geological events created by plate tectonics pushed the ocean floor up. These events, along with volcanoes that were erupting, formed the valley floor and mountain ranges. These massive events uplifted many diverse soil types in the Napa Valley region. Napa is one of the very few wine regions around the globe that has such a wide variety of soil types. Half the world’s soil types are found here, allowing Napa to grow a wide variety of grapes and make many different styles of wine.
Geographically Napa is interesting, diverse and complex. Napa runs north to south, parallel to the Pacific Ocean. Made up of 16 AVA’s, Napa Valley is only 5 miles wide and 40 miles long. Though many think Napa Valley is big, it is quite small, especially compared to a region like Bordeaux. Napa is only 1/8th the size of Bordeaux, but the differences in terroir, climate and soils are much more diverse in Napa than Bordeaux. Napa is flanked by the Mayacamas Mountain to the west and the Vaca Mountains to the East with the valley floor in between. The cooler southern end of Napa Valley in Carneros is mostly clay soils, thus you find Chardonnay and Pinot Noir flourishing. It is important to distinguish wines from the valley floor versus those from the mountain(Spring Mountain, Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder). The valley floor produces broader, bigger, more lush wines compared to the mountains which have more purity of fruit, minerality, and higher acidity. Calistoga with its warmer temperature and volcanic soils deliver wines that have great depth and concentration.
2. Diversity of Cabernet Sauvignon – Diversity of Grape Varietals
Cabernet Sauvignon is King in Napa Valley. 55% of the grapes harvested are Cabernet Sauvignon. So you ask where is the diversity? The diversity lies in the styles of Cabernet Sauvignon produced. With such a wide variety of soils, elevations, and climates you get wines that are distinctively unique, wines that express a sense of place. Cabernet from the valley floor can be more acidic and tannic with bold intense flavors and concentration of fruit, whereas the mountain Cabernets can have more purity of fruit, great structure and are highly age worthy.
In a region where Cabernet is King, there is also a huge diversity of grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon demands high prices in the valley, so to have a producer dedicate vines to other grape varieties shows the passion, expertise and dedication of the winemakers. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are also widely planted and grow beautifully in the Carneros region. With its many micro-climates and soils you also have Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Grenache and rare grapes varietals like Ribolla, Barbera, Mondeuse and Pinot Meunier.
3. Ageability of its wines
Another factor that makes Napa Valley incredibly special and unique is the age worthiness of its wines. Napa wines are balanced and structured, making them highly ageable. Unlike its Bordeaux counterpart, Napa wines can be enjoyed young but are also highly age worthy, thus appealing to a broad range of wine drinker. Recently I had the opportunity to taste decades old wines that have aged gracefully.
Recent examples of older vintage wines I had the opportunity to taste and are evolving beautifully, are the 1988 Trefethen Dry Riesling, 1979 Library Selection Trefethen Cabernet Sauvignon, 1978 Robert Mondavi Pinot Noir, 1986 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, and 1994 Burgess Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon to name just a few. All the wines aged incredibly well and are drinking wonderfully right now. Napa wines definitely deserve a place in collector’s cellars.
4. Multi-Generational Family Owned Wineries
Napa has many small, multi-generational family owned wineries. 95% of the vineyards are family owned and 80% of the wineries make less than 10,000 cases. There are many wonderful hidden gems with unique stories. Visit a small boutique winery and you will be enamored by the wines, hospitality and beautiful properties. Often times when visiting a small family owned vineyard you will be greeted by the winemaker or vineyard owners personally.
There are many stories that I could share with you about the many multi generational winemakers in the valley, but one that remains close to my heart is a lunch I shared with the winemaker from Nichelini Winery, Aimée Sunseri. Aimée shared her stories about her great great grandfather Anton Nichelini, one of Napa’s pioneers. Nichelini is one of the oldest running vineyards in Napa Valley dating back to 1895. Aimée shared stories of her family’s struggle during prohibition and how they managed through the times. If you visit Nichelini Vineyards you will find displayed on their wall, tickets and violations they received during the prohibition era and you will find Aimée proudly sharing her family history with visitors.
5. Strong Sense of Community
Napa’s wineries display a strong sense of community and commitment to its land, region and people. Throughout my visit I witnessed a strong sense of community and friendship, a community that was small enough, where everyone knew each other. Many view Napa as a big area with big corporations and big wineries, but Napa is quite the opposite. I was enamored by its winemakers and their commitment, not just to the land and winemaking, but also their strong ties to the community.
Throughout my time in Napa I heard many wonderful stories of winemakers giving back to the community. One that especially stood out in my mind was the example of Gerret and Tatiana Copeland, from Bouchaine Vineyards. They generously participate in Auction Napa Valley, which has raised over $170 million over the years. The auction provides funds for local clinics for healthcare, farm worker housing, English classes, grants for preschool, grants for reading and many more local projects for the community. Gerret and Tatiana Copeland are also the founding sponsors of Festival Napa Valley and sponsor the Bouchaine Young Artist Series. The Copeland’s provide scholarships and funding to help promote and encourage local talent.
More recently during the fires, Napa came together in a way unlike any other. During this time of terrible tragedy, vineyard owners, winemakers, workers, first responders and the community as a whole, quickly came to the aid of those affected through donations and fundraisers. Many even took in employees, neighbors, and friends into their homes during this most tragic time. The community came together and supported and lifted those that were affected. Through the heartaches and loss, Napa remained strong, united and committed to the greater community. With a deep sense of compassion, the community came together to help rebuild and return even stronger.
6. Diversity of Winemakers
My first trip to Napa was in 2007 and over the last 10 years, with every visit, I hear more and more about minority owned wineries. Not a lot is written on this topic, so I don’t have numbers to share, just general observations. With each visit I meet with more minority owned businesses and winemakers in the valley. From Chinese, Persians, Native Indians, Mexicans, Asian Indians to African-Americans, and the numbers are growing. Again very few wine regions around the world can speak to ethnic diversity. Though still small in numbers, it is heartwarming to hear more and more stories of minority owned vineyards.
Mi Sueño Winery(Spanish for ‘My Dream’) is the epitome of the American dream. Owner, Rolando Herrera at the age of 15 left his home in Mexico and came to Napa Valley. While going to high school during the day he started working as a dishwasher at Auberge du Soleil at nights. With hard work and the support of the community and mentors(Warren Winiarski from Stag’s Leap Cellars and winemaker Paul Hobbs), Rolando and his wife Lorena pursued their dream and made their first bottles of wines in 1998. This year they celebrate their 20th anniversary making impressive wines.
7. Rich History
Napa Valley boasts a rich and diverse history going back to the early 1800’s. In 1838 George Calvert Yount(Yountville named after him) planted the first vines. In 1850 California was awarded statehood and during that time experienced the Gold Rush. The impact of the gold rush was huge, as it bought in pioneers and visionaries from all over the world looking to make their fortune. This helped spur the development of California’s wine industry. Later in 1861 Charles Krug founded the first winery in Napa, followed by Schramsberg, Beringers, Ingelnook, and more than 140 wineries were formed. By 1870, there were 16,000 acres planted in the valley. In 1881 Hamilton Crabb planted the first To Kalon vines. Devastation came in the form of Phylloxera in 1890. With the onset of Phylloxera and the economic depression, vine acreage went from 16000 acres to 2000 acres.
After World War I came prohibition and many of the vines were ripped out for walnuts, prunes, and livestock. Then after the repeal of prohibition from 1933 to the mid sixties you saw many older wineries and new pioneers come back on-line like Charles Krug, Robert Mondavi, Andre Tchelistcheff, John Daniel Jr. and Louis Martini. In 1944 Napa Valley Vintners formed to create strength, innovation and leadership which still runs today.
Then came the Paris Tasting of 1976, which put Napa Valley on the map. Napa Valley wines were blind tasted by the French and Napa came out ahead, giving great credibility to Napa Valley. There were more investments in Napa with many new names like Shafer and Turley to name just a few. In the 80’s you saw the emergence of Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and Robert Parker. Their love for big wines started to create the Napa Valley cult wine sensation with smaller wineries like Screaming Eagle, Dalle Walle, Colgin and Bryant Family demanding huge dollars for their limited production wines. Then in the late 2000’s we see the emergence of new winemakers such as Steve Matthiasson, Dalia Ceja, Loren & Hailey Trefethen, Joe Wagner and Christina Turley.
There is no other place in the world that has all these unique factors come together in one region. Napa Valley is a region to visit year round. Experience the beauty and the quiet tranquility of the mustard fields in the winter, to the gorgeous warm autumnal colors of the fall. There are lush flowers, lavender fields and greenery in the spring. The summer brings to Napa warmth and festivities(music festivals & art fairs). So come experience for yourself Napa’s world-class wines and uniqueness that are expressed year round.