In a few days, many Napa County dining tables will be burgeoning under the weight of the traditional and not so typical Thanksgiving feast. Accompanying a vast majority of those local holiday meals will be bottles of wine — Napa Valley wines, of course. Those delightful companions to the Thanksgiving meal have come to each table with a long and storied as well as complicated journey.
About 65 years ago, the Napa Register published an article about how Napa Valley residents celebrated a much hoped for and needed event a couple of decades earlier. According to the newspaper, in late-1953 the local citizenry commemorated the anniversary of that historically significant political reversal: “Twenty years ago today sirens and winery whistles in the Napa Valley heralded the end of Prohibition and the return of the multi-million dollar wine industry to Napa County.”
The Register added, “Fred Abruzzini, manager of Beringer Brothers Winery at St. Helena, one of a handful of wineries in the county at that time ready for full-scale production, recalled today that winery workers joined in a toast and a cheer as the St. Helena city siren sounded at 5 p.m. on Dec. 4, 1933, when official word of the Repeal came from Washington, D.C. Trucks loaded with Napa Valley wines were lined up in the driveways, unable to leave the grounds legally until the official word arrived.”
The article also reported the value and status of the local circa 1953 wine industry. ”Today, the vineyard and winery properties of Napa County are valued at more than $14 million with more than 12,000 acres in vineyards producing an average crop of 36,000 (tons) annually, according to the Wine Institute statistics.”
The newspaper also stated, “The industry provides employment for more than 17,000 persons in the county, who earn more than $3.5 million annually. Napa wines and brandies also are responsible for millions in tax money to the state and federal governments, local vintners pointed out.”
As Napa Valley regained its stature as a premiere wine region, outside interests began to explore potential options to buy out family owned and operated local wineries. Frequently, while those sales were either in negotiation or pending, those transactions oftentimes were denied by the families and deemed to be just a rumor. But, there were other instances when it was just gossip.
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For example, in 1958, the Register wrote, “Recurrent reports that 58-year-old Beaulieu Vineyards at Rutherford is being sold to other wine interests were characterized today by the Marquise de Pins, president and principal owner of the winery, as ‘complete fabrications that have absolutely no basis in fact. Rumors during recent months that we have sold Beaulieu Vineyards are wholly without foundation. The thought of relinquishing ownership of a house that has been the pride of my family since it was founded hasn’t occurred to us. Beaulieu Vineyards will remain in my family.’”
The winery’s president, Marquise de Pins, was the daughter of the business founders, Georges and Fernande de Latour. However, Beaulieu Vineyards was eventually sold to a corporation.
Regardless of rumors of the rise of corporate ownership and even politically induced hardships and challenges, grape-growing and wines are oftentimes romanticized as a luxurious way of life. But, in reality, it is farming. Like all agricultural crops, viticulture is financially risky and requires long hours of hard, physically demanding labor.
It is also subject to the fickle whims of Mother Nature. A 1952 Register article bears out this harsh reality. In the spring of that year, the balmy April temperatures of 1952 suddenly gave-way to late-season frosts in early May. These conditions posed big problems for local farmers, ranchers and especially the viticulturists.
The Register reported the effects of that severe weather. “Additional reports of damage to Napa Valley’s wine grape crop was reported today after temperatures dropped below freezing early this morning in much of the rich vineyard property in the central part of the valley. The damage ranged over most of the Northern Coast Counties, which produce most of the state’s premiere wines, but Napa Valley appears to be the most seriously hit. While many vineyards were not hurt, the overall damage estimated in some quarters at 25 percent of the crop. In some other vineyards the loss was expected to run 80 percent.”
According to the article, “Temperatures dropped as low as 26 degrees. Reports of heaviest damage came from the Rutherford area.” However, according to the information within the article’s closing paragraph, not all of the local fruit crops sustained frost damage. In fact, it seems, Mother Nature even spared Napa County’s other principal fruit crop of the 1950s. The Register stated, “Prunes were past the stage where the frost could cause damage.”