By Vincent Clarke October 5, 2015 Comments Off
Varietals_101_CaliforniaNapaWines

For over 150 years, the Napa Valley has been home to some of California’s finest vineyards. Back in 1838, when George Yount planted the first vineyards there, it’s not likely that anyone really knew how big the wine industry was destined to become.

A Growing Industry

By the mid-1850s, approximately 50,000 grape vines had been planted in the Napa Valley. Within just five years, that number exploded to nearly 200,000. By the late 1800s, the area’s wine industry had seen a tremendous expansion. By the turn of the century, there were no fewer than 150 vintners, many of which still operate (if some only by name) in the area and produce some of the most popular wines in America.

When prohibition hit, however, the industry came to a near halt. Coincidentally, at around the same time, a phylloxera epidemic hit the area, bringing many smaller operations to their knees. It wasn’t until the repeal of prohibition in 1933 that things started to pick up once again, but when they did, it did not take long for vintners to bounce back.

Post-Prohibition Challenges

Other circumstances, like World War II, took their toll on the industry at a time when rapid re-expansion would have otherwise been inevitable. Price controls, labor shortages, and supply problems plagued the entire industry. It was even difficult procuring bottles for wines already in production.

A Collaborative Effort

In 1943, a group of vintners decided that it was time to form a vintners’ association in order to exchange ideas and come up with solutions to many of the problems facing area wine producers. Leaders like Louis M. Martini, Charles Forni, John Daniel, Jr., and Louis Stralla were instrumental in this effort. The collective they started has sustained the industry through the years, making the Napa Valley a true force to be reckoned with among wine producers not just in the United States, but throughout the entire winemaking world, both Old World and New World.

One of the outgrowths of this collaborative effort was the advent of promotional activities created around local winemakers that elevated the Napa Valley to one of the West’s premier tourist destinations. Wine connoisseurs from all over the world started making their way to the Napa Valley to experience all that California had to offer.

Some of these events were rather highbrow and high profile. In 1949, for example, the Napa Valley vintners organized an event for over 700 Harvard graduates. Just a few years later, in 1952, another much larger-scale event attracted over 2,000 guests representing the ranks at General Electric to the Napa County Fairgrounds for a true American West barbecue organized around many of the area’s vineyards and wineries.

It was these savvy moves in marketing and hospitality that paved the way for such long-lived success for the Valley’s wine industry, and that warm sense of welcome and pride still rings true with the area’s winemakers and with visitors.

Napa Valley Grapes

Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon have become synonymous with winemaking in Napa Valley, but those are far from the only grapes planted throughout the region. In fact, the list is so extensive that many winemakers have looked to Napa Valley to either supply or enhance their supply of certain varietals over the years. Here are just a few of the grapes planted throughout the region today:

Merlot These grapes have been grown in the Napa Valley since the early 1970s. Just like in Bordeaux, Merlot is used in Napa Valley blends to add a bit of body and fruitiness to the tannin-rich Cabernet Sauvignons of the region.

Pinot Noir With its earthy aromas and smooth texture, there are few places on earth that manage to bring out the qualities of these grapes that the Napa Valley does. This otherwise temperamental grape feels right at home in California, particularly in coastal areas.

Sauvignon Blanc With its intense, grassy and herbaceous notes, these acidic grapes are used in numerous blends throughout the Valley to give local wines a bolder and fruitier profile. Most Napa vintners choose to ferment these grapes in neutral vessels, like concrete or stainless steel, to allow the natural and distinct qualities of the grapes to express unimpeded. The educated palate can always tell when Sauvignon Blanc is fermented in oak, as the flavours take on more layers as well as a distinct texture. The names are also usually a dead giveaway, often being labeled as Fume Blanc.

Zinfandel A very versatile variety, Zinfandel grapes were one of California’s mainstays for winemaking during the 19th century. Once crafted almost exclusively as drier, complex reds, the wines of today have a slightly sweeter character as evidenced in the numerous rosés and white Zinfandels produced in the Valley.

Petit Verdot and Malbec These two varietals are used almost exclusively in Napa Valley Bordeaux blends. They are also able to be bottled as varietal wines since the Mediterranean-like climate of the valley allows for proper ripening.

Cabernet Franc Contributing to the peppery bouquet of many Bordeaux-styled blends, these grapes produce light, soft reds in French locales, but in the Napa Valley, they lend a much bolder flavour to the local Cabernet Sauvignons.

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Vincent Clarke

Vincent Clarke

With a true passion for wine, Vincent Clarke brings a fresh perspective to everything related to vinography. Whether it is discovering a new wine or uncovering a favourite old vintage, Vincent takes readers through a sensory experience in the world of wine.

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