Napa Valley’s simple past

The Napa Valley has two histories, one that began in the mid-19th century and the second in the mid-20th.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s, the Napa Valley began a renaissance of the vibrant industry that began more than hundred years earlier but which was cut short by Phylloxera and then Prohibition.  When many of us think of the Napa Valley today, we think of the wealthy ex-bankers, lawyers and doctors who built the magnificent architectural wine estates that grace the valley.  We think of the glamour surrounding the ultra-premium wines, star-studded wine auctions, academy-award winning directors, celebrity chefs and the greatest restaurants on earth.  Napa, however, has a pretty humble foundation from the not too recent past.  In the 1950’s, grapes were only the third most important agricultural crop in the valley, the most important cash crop being prunes (not the dried kind, but the plum fruit).  At Charles Krug, prune trees and grapes were planted together in the fields and it was the prunes that paid the bills.  According to Michael Mondavi, the school season did not begin until the prune harvest was finished.

In the 1960’s, the majority of wines in the US were being sold in one-gallon jugs.  At Robert Mondavi, the whites were primarily chenin blanc and Johannisberg Riesling.  Reds were being aged in used whiskey and bourbon barrels, even chestnut.   Bulk wines were the “cash cow” that allowed Robert Mondavi to invest in quality.

In the 60’s and 70’s, modern technology such as temperature-contralled stainless steel vats brought with it improved sanitation, protection against oxidation and cool ferment temperatures which raised the quality and ageing potential of the wines.  The use of new french oak barrels for ageing wine began in the early 60’s.  Robert Mondavi was said to have visited the Bordeaux 1st and 2nd growths in the mid-60’s to gain further insight into quality.  They freely shared information but Robert suspected that they would leave out pieces of information here and there.  So he would return for the next couple of years and visit the same winemakers, finding that they would forget what they had omitted previously and allow Robert to fill in the blanks.  With the new generation of pioneers such as Robert Mondavi and his peers, the quality of Napa Valley wines grew.  With great public relatons skills, the reputation of Napa Valley wines grew and so did the attraction to invest.  In 1965, there were only about 25 wineries, of which only 9-10 were “brands” and three were bulk wine producers.  Today, there are over 325 wineries.