The wines of the Napa Valley
Just over an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, the Napa Valley has become the country’s most highly regarded wine region, with millions of tourists flocking to its designer wineries for a taste of its iconic reds.
It’s been a bumpy road. A fledgling wine community had settled here in the late 19th century, counting 120 wineries on the eve of Prohibition. Over 13 dry years, Napa lost two-thirds of its wineries, and it would be a long, bumpy road to Cabernet greatness.
The region’s pioneer, Robert Mondavi, arrived in the valley in 1936 and said that he was “tremendously impressed by what [he] called the big four of the California wine industry… Inglenook, B.V. [Beaulieu Vineyards], Beringer Brothers, and Larkmead” and allegedly bowed his head when he drove past the first two. It would be another 50 years before Bill Harlan bought his 240-acre property that became Harlan Estate, and would go on to craft the “single most profound red wine made not just in California, but the world” according to Robert Parker.
Just 30 miles long and four miles wide, Napa packs a lot of prestige between the Vaca Range to the east and Mayacamas to the west. Cabernet Sauvignon is the grape of choice here, filling the valley floor and climbing up its hillsides. The southern end of the Valley, close to the waters and Pacific fogs that roll in through the San Francisco Bay, enjoys a cooler, milder climate than those further up the valley. Elevated, hillside vineyards also provide cool microclimates that slow ripening and preserve freshness.
While Cabernet Sauvignon is the region’s red calling card, Chardonnay is its most successful white, with Chateau Montelena famously beating the Burgundians at their own speciality in the Judgement of Paris in 1973, and you’ll also find Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, alongside limited plantings of other varieties.