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Wine industry

History in a glass: Valdiguié encapsulates Napa’s grape growing past

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: Nov. 27, 2021 series
  • Updated
David Wilson, Wilson Foreigner outside in vineyard

David Wilson of Wilson Foreigner in front of his family's Valdiguié block. 

If you have ever sampled a Napa Gamay or a locally grown “Gamay Beaujolais,” chances are you were actually sipping on the nearly forgotten Valdiguié.

A variety that originates in Southwest France, Valdiguié is one of many reds used for table wines due to its deep color and high acidity, and was once seen as a cash crop grape here in Napa Valley. Before labeling laws tightened up, the wine was often labeled as a “Mountain Gamay,” “Burgundy,” and everything in between, but despite its popularity, has since largely disappeared from area vineyards.

For Virginia and Terry Wilson, though, this varietal is what kickstarted their grape growing careers. The couple purchased and planted Rancho Chimiles -- which is located between Napa’s Wooden and Gordon Valleys -- in the early ‘70s, and planted their first 10-acre vineyard with what they then-called Napa Gamay.

“Over the years, it went to a different number of clients, including some larger wineries that were doing a sort of blush type wine with it,” said David Wilson, Virginia and Terry’s son. “But no one was doing a single bottling of it.”

“But at the time it was a really popular grape and it was in demand, so the original block was these 10 acres here,” said Wilson, gesturing to the autumn-colored block. “There was a planting boom during that phase and a lot of people were getting their start like Robert Mondavi and Warren Winiarski ... Winiarski and Stag’s Leap Winery were our first client.”

Wilson now lives at Rancho Chimiles -- which still grows grapes for Stag’s Leap -- and also has his own wine brand, Wilson Foreigner, that sells a flagship Valdiguié from this block each vintage. While eight acres of the original Valdiguié block were removed and replaced with Cabernet in 2002, Wilson says there are still two acres remaining and he has absolutely no plans of removing it any time soon.

“My folks didn’t have a formal education in grape growing, but they saw what was happening in Napa at the time and they knew there would be demand for the grapes,” he said. “They really just went with it.”

Nowadays, there are 70 acres of vineyard at Rancho Chimiles growing Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Semillon and more, but the ranch has undergone a great transformation since first being planted.

“Over time [the vines] all became infected with phylloxera and had to be pulled out, but the Valdiguiés remained due to the fact that they were planted with St. George rootstock,” Wilson said. “We have found that these are just really resilient vines.”

Wilson says Valdiguié clusters and berries are large, “Which is funny because it was called Gamay for so long, but Gamay berries are actually quite small,” he said. “I guess it had more to do with the wine characteristics than the fruit.”

Wilson says he tends to harvest between 21 and 22 point brix, a measure of the sugar content of grapes, because he wants the alcohol level to stay somewhere between 12 and 13 percent, which is all part of the process in creating a fresh and versatile table wine suitable for any type of meal.

“That's the type of wine that we really like to drink, and that’s the type of wine that they were making back in those early days when they were calling it Gamay,” he said.

As for the winemaking process, Wilson likes to stick to 30 percent whole cluster.

“Basically that can add some dried herb and cracked white pepper characteristics to go with the fruit,” he said. “There's a lot of red berry characteristics and as it gets more ripe, it becomes more like nondescript red wine, but when it is harvested early, and perhaps with some whole cluster included, it has a lot of those same floral aromatics and the fresh fruit.”

Not many folks grow Valdiguié locally anymore, let alone do single bottlings, but those that do hold it near and dear to their hearts.

For the Battuello family of Battuello vineyards, they squeeze every bit they can out of their 0.32 acre block, producing a Valdiguié and rosé version year after year.

“Our estate grown Valdiguié has been a staple at Battuello Vineyards for decades,” they said of their 2020 vino. “[And] there's a light fruitiness on the palate which makes it the perfect pairing to any warm afternoon.”

As we approach the holiday season, Wilson suggests some of his favorite savory pairings like bacon-wrapped scallops and roasted meat, but the table wine nature of Valdiguié lends itself to be a bit of chameleon when it hits the dinner table.

“When someone familiar with that era of Napa tastes that wine, they tell us it takes them back and it sounds like it was a really exciting time for everyone,” he said. “It was the whole start of this modern era of wine.”

Downtown Napa mainstay, Shackford's Kitchen Store and More, is going to change its business model from brick and mortar retailer to online merchant. Take a tour inside the store here.

You can reach Sam Jones at 707-256-2221 and

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Napa Valley wine industry reporter

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