Ask nearly anyone about the crops of the Napa Valley and the answer one hears is almost always the same: wine grapes. But the valley’s rich agricultural heritage long predates the arrival of the grapevines from Europe in the early 19th century. Now a book retells that history with an array of photographs and commentary that captures a different essence of the valley.
“Napa Valley Farming,” by Paula Amen Judah and Lauren Coodley, in collaboration with the Napa County Historical Society, is a historical and photographic rendering of the agricultural communities of the Napa Valley predating the rise of today’s wine grape monoculture.
The book starts in 20,000 B.C. identifying many of the plants essential to the native hunter/gatherer populations: California black oak, California bay, blue elderberry, ghost pine, angelica, hazelnut, toyon, madrone, buckeye and manzanita. These plants helped sustain a native Napa Valley estimated by some archaeologists to be as great as 20,000. But as new settlers arrived, that reliance on native plants changed as each new wave of immigration — first Mexican, followed by American, Chinese and European — brought new crops to the valley, changing the landscape. Forests were cleared, fields were grazed, acreage was divided and plowed, and a civilization of farming prospered and grew.
The book is more about the people of the valley than the crops that were grown. The earliest photographic portraits are of Don Ignacio Vallejo, Gen. Mariano Vallejo, Cayetano Juarez and George Yount: patriarchs, each with that frozen look of determination that marked early photographic portraits. Yet as the photos of Napa Valley residents progress through time within the book, the subject matter expands into landscapes of orchards and groves and wheat fields, and the eye of the reader begins to penetrate the black-and-white palette into a beautiful countryside abounding with fruit, nuts and a myriad variety of farm produce.
At the same time, the images of residents also soften into self-conscious smiles, revealing moments of triumph or even glimpses of childhood mischief. It’s these images of the people, ranches, cattle, horses and sheep — each captured by the click of a shutter — that are the poignant reminders of a time in the valley before it was lost to the rows and blocks of shoulder-high vineyards.
The book is 128 pages of historical photographs — each picture generously described — divided into six chapters representing a time period starting in prehistory and culminating in the year 2010. Each chapter begins with a poem or a recipe that the authors feel uniquely highlights an aspect of the Napa Valley. It’s a book about homesteaders, housewives and ranchers who were focused on a kind of harvest that would not be vinted or bottled. Even the beekeeper — essential to orchardists — is given his due.
“Napa Valley Farming” is published by Arcadia Publishing and is part of its “Images of America” series.