When people think Californian wine, they immediately think of Napa Valley. It’s an area north of San Francisco that has over 400 wineries located within its 16 smaller sub-districts (some of the most famous AVAs being Oakville, Rutherford, Stags Leap, and St. Helena).
However, Napa Valley only makes up 4% of California’s wine production! It’s actually a fairly small area – only 30 miles long and 5 miles across at its widest, but full of varying microclimates ideal for quality wine production. Indeed, it’s home to the most expensive vineyard land in California, and home to some of the most prestigious wineries* in the world.
The soil patterns across the region are complex, ranging from volcanic to gravelly loam to clay. In fact, more than half of the soils that exist on earth can be found in Napa Valley. Surrounded by the Mayacamas mountains on the West and the Vacas mountains on the right, the climate variation and multiple cooling influences (fog, ocean breezes, and elevation) mean that grape varieties with different temperature needs can all be grown relatively well, if planted in the right areas. Cabernet Sauvignon is the most popular planting and makes up 40% of the vines in Napa. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Merlot are also widely grown.
Due to the cost of the land itself and the actual production (not to mention the prestigious names), wines from Napa are sold at premium prices. It is actually a Napa Cabernet that holds the title of most expensive wine in the world – a 6 litre bottle of 1992 Screaming Eagle sold at auction for $500,000 – that’s half a million dollars for about 40 glasses of wine!
*It was the Judgement of Paris in 1976 that helped launch California wine onto the global scene. In a blind taste test set up by British wine merchant Steven Spurrier, the top French Chardonnay and red Bordeaux were pitted against the best California Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays. It rocked the wine world when the judges declared a 1973 Cabernet from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and a 1973 Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena the winners – both Napa Valley wines. France, until this blind tasting, had been the pinnacle of high end wine in the world, and Spurrier, who only sold French wine, didn’t believe California wines could possibly win. You can watch an entertaining version of this in the Hollywood film Bottleshock.
The fires that have raged across the Napa area this year have been devastating to the local wine industry. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from the area, vineyards and full wineries, tasting rooms, and cellars have been utterly destroyed. Those that have escaped the immediate flames have been severely impacted by the smoke pollution. Many harvests this year were a total loss. Decades of history have been wiped out, with homes and wineries built back in the 1800s, and vines planted almost as far back, being consumed by fire.
What’s inspiring, in the midst of all this loss and devastation, is the strength and community spirit shown by the Napa Valley vintners. They are not defeated, and they will rise from these ashes.