Edmund Wilson once said, “No two people ever read the same book.” Certainly that will be the case with Kelli A. White’s “Napa Valley Then and Now,” since it is a book of discovery. In an interview with White, a sommelier at Press in St. Helena, she admits that probably only her mother will read it cover-to-cover, but that doesn’t underlie its merit.
Whether you are a sommelier requiring an excellent reference on the wines of Napa Valley, a history buff wanting to know more about the storied Napa Valley legends and gentlemen like Randy Dunn, or just an oenophile like me who likes wines of all kinds – there is a story in this tome for you.
To begin with, you need to put aside fears of weight-lifting a 12-plus pound book, grab a glass of wine and open the book to almost any page to uncover a treasure of how Napa Valley wineries and its wine became who and what they are today.
I was lucky enough during my interview with White to experience her daily life in wine from a winemaker showcasing his own label to assessing a purchase of 150 cases of Napa Valley library wines from the 1970s. Now this isn’t the norm for most of us, but after the interview, I went to her prose on two of the wines we tasted that day.
The first was a 1972 Louis M. Martini California Mountain Barbera, which interestingly was about half petite sirah. Barbera, a wine naturally high in acidity with more ageability than many realize, was still in excellent condition. Perhaps I loved this wine even more in retrospect as I learned about how it came to be made from the historical Monte Rosso Vineyard with petite sirah from the Hayne Vineyard, the labeling issued that created the “California Mountain” moniker or just reading Kelli’s tasting notes on similar vintages.
The second was a cabernet sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, not the historical 1973 from the Judgment of Paris but a 1976 from the same vineyard, albeit in a drought year. For those of us living in Napa Valley in the 1970s, the meteoric rise of fame of the new winery and Warren Winiarski, its winemaker, was a story we all knew as well as the influence of consultant André Tchelistcheff in Napa Valley. For me this wine was closed with substantial sediment. I would have loved to be able to taste this wine after it had time to air. I still enjoyed Kelli’s thoughtful retelling of a familiar story enhanced by almost 40 tasting notes from various wines and vintages.
I flipped to the Appellation Section at the front of the book that tells of land development and how the borders of Stags Leap District, one of the best known of Napa Valley’s AVAs (American Viticultural Areas), were determined; a story about Robert Mondavi Winery and Sterling Vineyards with lands to the west and S Anderson (now the site of Cliff Lede) with land to the south and their successful petition to be included. This book has the depth of information that allows your mind to explore through your own unique path of discovery.
Now this book is far from a complete winery list, an in-depth history of Napa Valley or the perfect form of tasting notes for everyone. It is, however, the best compendium of Napa Valley wines, especially through historical tasting notes and background material, that I have had the pleasure of reviewing. Enjoy the tasting notes as a conversation about the wine with your own personal sommelier.
White said that in the beginning residents were amused by her interest but generous in their willingness to open their homes and wines with her while sharing their stories of a farmer’s way of life.
In asking White where she thought Napa Valley winemaking might go in the near future, she saw many avenues from empowered winemakers, to a dialing back of style, to a comfort with diversity.
White was named one of Food & Wine’s top 10 sommeliers in the country in 2013. She is also a staff writer at Antonio Galloni’s Vinous and co-founded a small wine brand, Houndstooth, with her financé Scott Brenner. She said that she is blessed to live with one foot in both worlds: the physical work of a restaurant sommelier and the sedentary work of an author.
“Napa Valley Then and Now” is available for $95 from White’s website, napavalleythenandnow.com. The book’s Napa Valley launch was in early November at Press.
Jolene Patterson is a freelance photographer and journalist living in Northern California since the late 1960s and an avid student of American wines.