Napa Valley, California

Wine History

Napa Valley: Two words that scream volumes to fans of wine around the world. Single handedly, this thriving region has helped define what sophisticated wines, tasting rooms, California cuisine, and wine country lifestyle is all about.

The proof, as they say, is in the pie. Located just an hour north of San Francisco, Napa Valley is now the most visited wine region in the world on an annual basis. Because of this, humility has been replaced by elegance, brashness and competition. However, if you look deep enough, you’ll realize that its pretty damn fun to explore all the intricacies the valley has to offer.

Geographically, the valley stretches 30 miles from San Pablo Bay in the south, to the base of Mount St. Helena in the north. At its largest point, the valley is no more than a few miles wide, and tucked between the Mayacamas and Vaca mountain ranges.

Today, 35,000 acres of vineyards are planted in this pristine wine region. Cabernet sauvignon is the king, chardonnay the queen. Other varietals grown in the valley include merlot, zinfandel, pinot noir, syrah, petite sirah and sangiovese for the reds; sauvignon blanc, pinot gris, and viognier for the whites.

George Yount planted the first grapes in the valley in 1838, and Charles Krug became the first large-scale commercial producer of wines in the 1860s. However, the first wine boom didn’t hit until the 1880, when nearly 20,000 acres of grapes were planted in the region.

The Beringer brothers, Jacob and Frederick, were members of this first wave of pioneers, establishing their own winery in 1875. Beringer’s famous Rhine House–still a popular attraction in the valley today–was built on the estate property in 1884.

In the early 1900s, other notable families began to move to the area. Despite starting small, many of them would later play important roles in establishing a solid reputation for the valley. For instance, Frenchman George Latour moved to California and sold cream of tartar before starting Beaulieu Vineyards in 1900; Louis M. Martini, born in Italy in 1887, started his winery south of St. Helena in 1932 before Prohibition ended; and Ceasare Mondavi, father of Robert and Peter Mondavi, grew grapes near Lodi before beginning to acquire property in the valley in 1943.

In 1966, near the small village of Oakville, Robert Mondavi started his own winery, an architectural wonder and the first tasting room of its kind. "Everyone said I was crazy, and that I didn’t know what I was doing," said Mondavi, "but I stopped at nothing to get that piece of land."

At his 90th birthday celebration, held this past June, the spirited and resonant Mondavi said that an important lesson he learned along the way was to be open to diversity and sharing ideas. He’s accomplished all that and more. Mondavi is now considered a true icon for the quality of wine made in Napa Valley, a world ambassador for California wines, and a man with great vision, forethought. After all, he’s been a proud supporter of the Wine Brats organization since the beginning.

Other important factors put Napa Valley on the map to stay.

The most poignant occurred in 1976, when Stags Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon was chosen over ultra premium wines made in France’s famed Bordeaux region at a famous blind tasting held in Paris. Ten years later, Clos Du Val, another Napa Valley winery, won a rematch of the same competition with its 1972 Stags Leap District Cabernet. In the white wine category, Napa Valley’s Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay won over the premium producers from France’s prized Burgundy region.

Today, you’ll discover all sorts of personalities–doctors, lawyers, dot-com geniuses, high-profile personalities like director Francis Ford Coppola, race car driver Mario Andretti, and football legend Joe Montana–that have all moved to the valley to grow grapes along side established family farmers. Passion for wine has been the driving force in all cases. Diversity is a beautiful thing!

Appellations and Zones

Like a virtual Disneyland for wine lovers, there are many special regions to explore on the valley floor and highland areas. In addition to the regular "Napa Valley" appellation that includes grapes grown throughout the county, there are also 14 sub-appellations, and each has its own special, unique soil, climate and historical significance.

The two main travel arteries in the county are Hwy 29 and the Silverado Trail, that flow parallel to one another south to north. During summertime, when the valley floor bubbles with wine tourism, it’s very important to know the crossroads that link the two highways in order to get around in a smooth, manageable fashion.

Also, it’s worth noting that most wineries in the valley charge for wine tastings; however, many will wave fees when you make a purchase.


Los Carneros, celebrating its 20-year anniversary as an appellation this year, is located south of Napa on the edge of San Pablo Bay. The name, ‘sheep’ in Spanish, is a symbolic reminder of the animals raised in the area before grapes were planted on a much larger scale in the 1960s.

Maritime influence and a relatively cool, balanced growing season make this region a prime place to grow chardonnay and pinot noir grapes. While a large percentage of these grapes are used to make still wines, there are also producers in Carneros that have earned their brilliant reputations for making high-quality sparkling wines; Domaine Carneros and Mumm Napa are bubbly, delicious examples.

Merlot, syrah and pinot gris grapes are among the other specific varietals grown in Carneros.

Today, there are a combination of wineries that you can visit in the region, and others that just own vineyards property in the appellation. Examples: Etude, Acacia, Bouchaine, Madonna Estate, Saintsbury, Artesa; Havens, Sinskey, Clos Du Val, Beringer and Mondavi.

Wild Horse Valley is a more isolated appellation located southeast of Carneros.

Stag’s Leap District

Unlike the calm, soothing rolling hills in Carneros, the Stags Leap District, located five miles north of Napa along the Silverado Trail, is the extreme opposite. The Palisades, a wall of volcanic rock that shoots up the Vaca Mountains in this micro-region, gives off an impression that you’ve entered a sacred land. In many ways you have.

In fact, the name of the district is taken from an Indian legend of deer jumping from ledge to ledge on the rugged mountainous terrain to avoid hunters. Falcons, bobcats and rattlesnakes can also be spotted in the area. Overall, it’s quite obvious that nature created the area, not man. As Robert Brittan, winemaker at Stags Leap Winery, puts it, "This is no Neiman Marcus."

Cabernets made in this area are powerful yet elegant–a style that winemakers refer to as "rock soft." Essentially, the combination of hot days and cool nights help these grapes mature in a unique fashion, separating them from all other cabernets made in the greater Napa Valley. Merlot, petite sirah, sangiovese and sauvignon blanc are the other main varietals.

Overall, there are 13 wineries in the area and 1,350 acres of vines planted in the appellation. Examples: Stags Leap Winery, Robert Sinskey, Clos Du Val, Pine Ridge, Seltzner, Stags Leap Wine Cellars.


On Hwy 129, once you pass the city of Napa, you’ll start to notice that buildings begin to vanish, replaced instead by vineyards. This is a true sign that you’re entering the Yountville appellation. Grapes grown in this region include cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay, and sauvignon blanc. Example: Cosentino, Domaine Chandon.

Another potential appellation in the area, the Oak Knoll District (near Oak Knoll Avenue) is currently under discussion. If approved, it will become the 15th sub-appellation in the county. Example: Trefethen.


Vineyards surrounding the small village of Oakville produce a tremendous amount of flavorful red wines, especially high-end cabernet. This is the first of a series of appellations that stretch from one side of the valley to the other. Currently, there are 48 wineries and growers in the Oakville AVA. Examples: Robert Mondavi, Franciscan Oakville Estate, Miner Family Vineyards, and Flora Springs.


The Rutherford appellation is located smack dab in the center of the valley. Overall, the region is only 3.3 miles long and 2 miles wide. The area features rich, silty soils, commonly referred to as ‘alluvial fans’, which gracefully descend from both the Mayacamas and Vaca mountain ranges.

More than half the grapes farmed in this area are cabernet sauvignon, and overall 80 percent are Red Bordeaux varietals. Sauvignon blanc is the main white grape, and it’s mainly planted in the deeper soils along the Napa River in the middle of the region.

In 1994, wineries and growers in the AVA came together to form the Rutherford Dust Society, an association that works to preserve and enhance the natural beauty of the land. Annual events include the Rutherford Chili Ball BBQ and the "Day in the Dust" wine tasting. Currently, there are 33 wineries and 52 growers–both big and small–involved in the association. Examples: Beaulieu Vineyard, St. Supery, Frank Family Vineyards, Frogs Leap, Quintessa, Niebaum-Coppola, Grgich Hills, Rutherford Ranch, and Freemark Abbey for its outstanding Bosche and Sycamore vineyards.

St. Helena/Calistoga

It’s rare to find "St. Helena" mentioned as an appellation, even though it is one. Instead, most wines made in the area usually say "Napa Valley" on the labels. This beautiful area is better known for being a major hub for wine commerce, vineyards, and collection of classy, established tasting rooms. Examples: Louis M. Martini, Trinchero Winery, Beringer, St. Clement and Freemark Abbey.

On the other hand, the booming resort town of Calistoga, located further north, isn’t recognized as an appellation yet, but more for specific vineyards and the many wineries that own estate property. If you’re traveling along Hwy 29, you’ll know you’re entering this region once you see the bright white, monastic-style architecture at Sterling Vineyards resting, majestically I may say, on the hillside to your right.

Overall, wines made in this sub-region feature unique, intensive aromas and flavors that are influenced during summer months by a combination of hot days and warm nights–usually 8 degrees warmer than Oakville. Popular varietals include cabernet, zinfandel, syrah and sauvignon blanc. Examples: Sterling, Chateau Montelena, Frank Family Vineyards, Clos Pegase, Schramsberg, Larkmead, Summers.

Off the beaten path–The Highlands
There are also very important appellations located in the rugged mountain ranges overlooking the valley. Concentrated hillside fruit flavors are common trademarks of wines made in these unique micro-regions.

West–Mayacamas Mountains
Named for the extinct volcano located in the Mayacamas range west of Napa, Mt. Veeder is one of the most fascinating regions to visit. The roads leading up to the area are steep, windy, and lined with densely wooded forest and small parcels of vineyards. The main pockets of land where the dinky 1,000 acres of vines are planted, feature thin, rocky soils and not much water. Varietals grown in the region include hillside renditions of cabernet, merlot, cabernet franc, syrah, viognier and chardonnay. Examples: Mt. Veeder, Chateau Potelle, Vinoce, Jade Mountain, Mayacamas Vineyards, Hess Collection.

Spring Mountain, located west of St. Helena, is similar to Mount Veeder, just warmer with more isolated micro-climatic areas. Examples: Spring Mountain Winery, Cain, Pride Mountain. Diamond Mountain, southwest of Calistoga, is dramatic as well. Put it this way: I wouldn’t ride a mountain bike downhill on the dirt roads at Sterling’s Diamond Mountain Ranch unless you wrap me in bouncy rubber armor. It’s just too steep! In addition to the regular big reds, there are interesting plantings of malbec and petit verdot. Examples: Von Strasser, Reverie, Sterling’s DMR.

East–Vaca Mountains
Unlike the woodier mountain range across the valley, appellations in the Vaca range feature more volcanic soils and ample amounts of sunshine at elevations above the fog line.

East of Napa, the Atlas Peak appellation is comparable to hills in Tuscany or Portugal’s Douro Valley: fairly barren, but look bright and beautiful once the vineyards are in full-bloom. As a rule, grapes are stressed in this region, resulting in wines that are quite intensive. Sangiovese, merlot and cabernet are key varietals in the region. Examples: Atlas Peak, Pahlmeyer.

Chiles Valley and Pope Valley are isolated appellations located near Lake Berryessa and Conn Dam, respectively. Each area features a number of established wineries and more room to grow. Examples: Brown Estate, Catacula, Nichelini, Eagle & Rose Estate. Howell Mountain is located around the town of Angwin at elevations of 1,400 feet and above. This is a wonderful area where grapes used to produce old vine zinfandels featuring big, briary berry flavors, or concentrated cabernets are grown. Examples: D-Cubed Wines, Howell Mountain Vineyards, and Beringer’s Bancroft Ranch.


Chefs in Napa Valley have helped define what California cuisine is all about by fusing together international styles–especially French and Italian–with local ingredients. Fresh produce and pasta, herbs like mustard, tarragon, sage and sweet basil, olives, fish from the nearby Pacific Ocean, free-range chicken and beef from the Niman Ranch, are products you’ll commonly see referred to on menus at the cool restaurants.

While the French Laundry, Tra Vigne and Auberge du Soleil are each known internationally for their trademark-style dishes, there are many other restaurants that locals go to on more of a regular basis (see below). As a rule, entrees usually run between $10-$20. 


Until five years ago, I would have told you to forego stopping in Napa, the county seat, and continue on to the smaller, cutesy towns further north. Luckily, times and styles have changed, and the historic downtown area has been completely renovated, making it especially cool place to check out on foot.

Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, has evolved into a primary destination for wine lovers. The center features educational courses on wine and food, regional tastings, guest winemakers and cuisine specialists like Jamie Oliver (the ‘Naked Chef’), Julia’s Kitchen (a super on-site restaurant named after legendary chef Julia Child), art shows, and hip independent film series.

Closer to the city center, you’ll find the new Napa Valley Opera House, retail shops, and cool tasting rooms that specialize in wines made by local boutique producers like Robert Craig, GustavoThrace, and others.

For restaurants, Cole’s Chop House is known for the prime cuts of beefs that work especially well with phat Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons; ZuZu features tapas—style cuisine with an American flair; and Bistro Don Giovanni goes the Italian route with dishes like fresh-made raviolis stuffed with duck confit decorated with drizzles of pesto. Alexis Baking Company (‘ABC’), specializing in fine coffees and pastries, is a great place to go for breakfast.

Just south of the city, activities within the Carneros appellation include: an eco-friendly tour of the wetlands via kayaks, bicycle routes to visit wineries, and an amazing opportunity to see one of the largest rotating art collections in Northern California at di Rosa Preserve (appointment only). Moore’s Landing on Cutting Wharf Rd. is a great place to relax around lunchtime.

Yountville to Rutherford

The further north you go in the valley, the more you realize how cool the county has become. It’s a place where vineyards surround the roadside, and great restaurants are so close you can almost smell each individual dish being served as you drive by.

Yountville is a very hip village, featuring classy restaurants, lodges and shopping. Great styles of food available include French cuisine at Domaine Chandon and Bistro Jeanty; American regional at Brix, Mustards Grill and Napa Valley Grill; and the wine bar at Bouchon--which also features tasty fish snacks and oysters--stays open late and attracts many locals, chefs and winemakers. Hurley’s features a solid wine and spirits bar, Pancha’s is the place to play pool, and, if he’s there during your visit, you can check out Jeremy DuCharme, the best young, super slick magician you’ll find, who performs on weekends at the Viagio Inn.

Oakville, the town, is actually so small, that if you blink you may miss it completely. However, it’s worth your time to visit the Oakville Grocery, a gourmet deli that also features an assortment of wonderful cheeses from around the world. Rutherford is also relatively tiny, but home to the Rutherford Grill, which is usually packed during lunchtime, and La Toque, a stylish restaurant featuring fabulous entrees and complete wine pairing, for dinner.

For activities, you can always do the Napa Valley Wine Train that travels through this zone. But if you want to get more adventurous, check out Off-Road Wine Tours, located off Silverado Trail near Napa. Basically, for a reasonable fee, you can visit a number of great vineyards, as high as Atlas Peak, while riding around off-road in the back of a vintage Pinzgauer, a classic Swiss military vehicle.

St. Helena

The bustling, historic city of St. Helena is complete eye candy. Half the time you want to squeeze the cheeks of the natives, the other half you’re making sure the credit cards are handy in case you find something else to buy at the cool retail shops that line the streets.

Once again, there are fantastic places to eat inside the city limits. In the morning, when you’re watching the city wake up on Main St., Model Bakery is the place to get a great cup of coffee and pastries. For lunch, check out the gourmet burgers and specialty dishes at Taylor’s Refresher, Italian sandwiches at the Cantinetta at Tra Vigne, or fine Mexican food at Villa Corona.

For dinner, there are a number of great choices, including the hip American cuisine served at Market Restaurant; Asian-style fusion at Terra; southwestern style cuisine at Miramonte (owned by Cindy Pawlcyn, the chef at Mustard’s Grill in Yountville); and regional cuisine at Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, which also features local celebrity bartenders each Thursday night. The Martini House, located off the main drag on Spring St., is a comfy, classy watering hole that also features wonderful food and a dense wine list.

There’s always a lot happening in this epicenter of the valley. Off Silverado Trail, Meadowood Resort features dining and a cool bar, golf, croquet, and one of the favorite treats in the valley, full spa treatment. Seriously, if you need to relax, then try the Chardonnay Wrap, an 80-minute process that includes being coated in mud, minerals and grape seed oil, a variety of soothing massages, and a complete body wrap. It’s Hedonism at it finest!

Other things to do in the area include visiting the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone; partaking in an aromatic experience at Hurd Beeswax Candle Factory (near Freemark Abbey’s tasting room); hiking or camping at Bothe-Napa State Park; or catching a film at the Cameo Theater in downtown St. Helena.


While there are all sorts of ways to tour the wine country via car or limousine, Calistoga is the main place to find extreme alternatives: hot air balloons, glider flights and skydiving. If you chose to stay on the ground, the Getaway Adventures Bike & Hike Tours is another great option.

Recommended restaurants in the quaint resort town include Catahoula, Brannan’s Grill, and Wappo Bar & Bistro. For lunch, check out Flat Iron Grill or Calistoga Inn & Brewery, which has fresh, frothy brews flowing day and night.

For activities, you can watch the Old Faithful Geyser strut its stuff; soak in one of the many hot springs or mud baths available in the area; check out the art exhibited at Clos Pegase Winery; take adventurous hikes to the Palisades, which also contects to the Robert Louis Stevenson State Park; or just relax, while enjoying a picnic lunch at the gorgeous Asian pond at the historic Chateau Montelena Winery.

Overall, Napa Valley is full of adventure and entertainment. A day in the valley will give you a mere glimpse at the true, lively energy that revolves around wine, food and adventure each day of the week. So it’s always rewarding to take in as much as possible!