Where Has Napa Valley Gone?

Staff Writer
At this stage in my life, I can remember what Napa Valley used to be

What it will be tomorrow is anyone’s guess.

As I look back on the changes in Napa Valley over the last 40 years since my friends and I first started going there in the early 1970s, I cannot help but reflect on the great Pete Seeger song “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” This song was popular in the ‘60s and ‘70s and was sung by several different folk singers. It is a haunting social lament about the transformations in our lives that occur over time. In those early days, my wife, friends, and I spent a lot of time visiting the Napa Valley and getting to know the wines and the people. It was a magical place filled with special wines and very special and dedicated people. There were very few places to stay and very few restaurants. We first stayed at the El Bonita Motel in St. Helena. Later, when the first phase of the Harvest Inn opened, we would often rent the owner’s house and buy provisions in Sonoma to do our own cooking. In the evening we would invite friends, winemakers, and winery owners to dinner and enjoy a lot of Napa Valley wines. There were many wonderful cabernets available to buy from 1968, 1969, and 1970, as well as some lovely 1973s.

Then everything really began looking up in the late 1970s. There was the famous Judgment of Paris Tasting where Napa Valley wines bested those from France (to read about that tasting and another version of the tasting done much later, click here), and several great vintages beginning with 1974. These include many superb cabernets from the 1976, 1977, and 1978 vintages, which are still remarkable today. After a century of producing wine, Napa Valley was just beginning to make its mark on the world of wine and become an “overnight” success. New wineries continued to open, and there was the beginning of an explosion of new restaurants and hotels. From an area where there were few places to stay and very few places to eat, Napa Valley was soon to become a mecca for really good restaurants and nice hotels.

For most of the existence of Napa Valley it was an agricultural area where a wide variety of crops were grown. The first grapes were planted here in the 1830s and the town of Napa was founded in the mid-nineteenth century. In the later part of the nineteenth century, grapes were planted in several areas of Napa Valley, as they were in other parts of California, and commercial wine production began. Wineries slowly began to emerge. The best known of these early wineries was Inglenook, which was founded by Gustave Niebaum in the 1870s. The next few decades resulted in the production of very fine Napa Valley red wines that achieved worldwide recognition for quality. There were probably something like a dozen Napa Valley wineries in existence during this period.

Then came Prohibition, and in the 1930s wine production was severely curtailed (some wineries survived by mostly selling wine for church communion). After this period, Inglenook produced some of the greatest wines ever made in California. Unfortunately, a change of ownership resulted in the end of the great Inglenook wines after the early 1960s. And, after all this time, it has never achieved the same level of excellence. Other old established wineries such as Charles Krug, Louis Martini, Beaulieu Vineyards, Beringer, and a handful of others were also producing some fine wines during this period and they continue today.

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