Photo: Joe Roberts
In a word, Napa Valley is popular. The fact that nearly 4.5 million people visit this small area each and every year is a strong testament to just how well-loved the Napa Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area) truly is. Napa might feel a bit played out to the more jaded wine lovers out there, but there are literally millions of people who would disagree with them.
Napa Valley has been well-loved for a long time, by American wine standards. Commercial wine production started in Napa in 1858, and by the time that the nineteenth century drew to a close, there were more than one hundred and forty active wineries in the region. Of those original pioneering producers, an impressive handful still operate in Napa Valley to this day, including household names like Beaulieu, Beringer, Charles Krug, Chateau Montelena (which became the centerpiece of a Hollywood wine movie), Far Niente, Mayacamas, Markham Vineyards, and sparkling wine Schramsberg Vineyards (whose wares have often been on the dinner menu at official White House dinners).
At this point, many of you reading this will think that you know pretty much everything that there is to know about Napa Valley wine country. But chances are good - very good actually - that you’re wrong. Here are a few facts that you probably didn’t know about one of most important winemaking regions in all of the U.S. (and, by extension, in all of the world).
While small, Napa Valley wields a powerful brand name when it comes to fine wine. The area put itself on the international fine wine map in the 1970s, when wines from the area bested some of the best that France had to offer during the now famous “Judgement of Paris” blind tasting. While wines from Napa Valley are now well known, and often pigeon-holed stylistically as fruity, full-bodied, and bombastic in aroma and flavors, the facts behind this famous region are fascinating, and less well-known than its wine styles.
While it might be tempting to think of Napa Valley as a one-trick pony in terms of wine styles, its variations of climate, geography, and elevation, coupled with its small size and focus on high quality fine wine, makes the region much more interesting and diverse than its tiny size might suggest. It’s well worth taking a deeper dive into the diversity of the region by splurging on the wines made by the smaller producers in its distinct sub-regions.
Photo: Joe Roberts
Diversity is (literally) at its roots
While some critics are quick to point out that Napa Valley wine can seem homogenous in its style, the reality of its winegrowing area is much more diverse and subtle. The fact that there are sixteen sub-regions within Napa’s small borders tells you something of the diversity of its winegrowing areas. This small region contains approximately half of the world’s soil orders in the grounds where its vines are planted, which means that there are dramatic effects in the quality and flavor development of grapes depending on where they are planted in the area. Napa’s geographic topography is similarly diverse, ranging from valley floor vineyards planted at sea level, to steep mountain terrain vineyards at elevations of 2600 feet or more.
Much of this is thanks to geography: the valley floor lays between the Mayacamas Mountain Range and the Vaca Mountains, with many smaller valleys between those two ranges. Napa Valley’s elevations stem from sea level to over 350 feet in Calistoga. The Oakville and Rutherford sub-regions in Napa lie within what is widely called the Rutherford Bench. The soils range from ancient sediments deposited by San Pablo Bay to volcanic lava and ash. It’s basically a treasure trove of soil types from a grape vine’s perspective.
It’s small, but mighty
While large in stature, Napa Valley only accounts for four percent of California's wine harvest and is a mere thirty miles long and five miles wide. Napa Valley commands a respect in the fine wine market that is disproportionate to its overall size and production. It measures only 30 miles in length and five miles in width, and contains just 45,000 acres of vines (roughly nine percent of Napa County’s total acreage). In terms of production, Napa Valley makes up only four percent of California's total wine harvest, but has an estimated annual economic impact of $50 billion. The numbers are even more impressive when you consider that ninety-five percent of Napa Valley wineries are family-owned, and almost eighty percent of them produce fewer than 10,000 cases of wine per year each.
A lot of Napa’s impact has to do with its rich wine history. André Tchelistcheff is usually credited with bringing modern winemaking practices to California (and the USA) when Beaulieu hired him in the late 1930s. His introduction of techniques like aging premium wines in small French Oak barrels, utilizing cold temperatures during fermentation, preventing frost from destroying grape crops in the vineyards, and encouraging what’s known malolactic fermentation in the winery (to give wines a smoother mouthfeel) made Napa a pioneer among U.S. wine regions. In the 1960s, icons like Napa’s Robert Mondavi started promoting Napa Valley as a premium wine region, and with it promoting the inclusion of fine wine enjoyment as a staple of a well-lived life. With the huge increases in the overall quality of wines from Napa that followed, its influence outshined its small size.
It’s the U.S.’s first Agricultural Preserve
In 1968, Napa Valley was established as an official Agricultural Preserve, the first of its kind in the U.S., thanks largely to the work of then-Napa County Assessor George Abate, who spearheaded the effort. The Preserve now covers 38,000 acres of land. In 1976, its first conservation easements were enacted, which today protect around 53,000 acres. In the early 2000s, the region began its Napa Green Winery certification program, which has saved an estimated three million pounds of CO2 emissions. In 2013, Napa Green Certified wineries produced over three million cases of wine.