Our Napa Valley is truly a special place. As timing would have it, I wrote this week’s column before the devastating fires we experienced this week struck, rendering so many monumental losses. I debated holding the column for a future date, but decided that nothing can permanently destroy this valley we treasure.
Over the last several years, my wife Barbara and I have been fortunate in having had the opportunity to lead several wine-loving groups on extensive wine, culinary and cultural visits (by land and sea) to world renowned wine grape-growing areas throughout Europe. To say the least, the experiences we shared were exciting, educational and definitely unforgettable. But coming home to the beautiful Napa Valley reminds us of how lucky we are to live in a community every bit as charming and inspirational as those we recently visited.
Perhaps growing grapes and the production of world-class wines is the common denominator between Napa Valley and the unique character of Burgundy, Bordeaux, Veneto, Tuscany, the Douro Valley and other locales we’ve recently visited. But I have long felt a far deeper connection.
Family histories in the Old World may go back centuries as seen in Tuscany with the Antinoris and Frescabaldis, in Bordeaux with the Rothschilds, in Bassano del Grappa with the Nardinis and in the Douro with the Symingtons and Taylors, along with many others in these regions and beyond.
Here in the Napa Valley, we also have our devoted families that have diligently and proudly worked individually and together to establish one of the world’s foremost wine growing areas in this precious place we call home. The Mondavis, Davies, Trefethens, Neibaums, Daniels, Grfgichs, Winiarskis, Martinis, Wagners, McCraes and many others have in just decades accomplished to a great degree what the Old World families have done over centuries.
Our valley is smaller than many other wine grapegrowing areas of the Old World but every bit as complex with dozens of soil types, varying exposures on the valley floor and surrounding hillsides, and an intricate diversity of climatic conditions. The cool foggy nature of Carneros in the south to the warm days and chilly nights of Calistoga in the north (and a multifaceted variety in between) exemplify the particular nature of the 16 AVAs (American Viticultural Area) that comprise the Napa Valley.
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This diversity of soil type, exposure and weather (the major components of terroir) is extremely similar to the character of the specific appellations of the Old World. And although the modern history of the Napa Valley only dates to the 1960s (after a Prohibition and post-Prohibition hiatus in development) the progress made since is extraordinary and seen as the benchmark for many other New World growing areas.
Some mark the re-entrance of the Napa Valley to the world of fine wine with Robert Mondavi’s launch of his eponymous winery in 1966 or with the stellar performance of Mike Grgich’s 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and Warren Winiarski’s 1973 Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon in the 1976 “Judgment of Paris.” Both are consequential points in time as is the emergence of countless new faces appearing in the 1970s (Shafer, Duckhorn, Clos du Val, etc.) that helped attract worldwide acceptance of our wine country’s position among the greats of both New and Old World producers.
Whether we drive from south to north or up the magnificent hillsides of the Mayacamas and Vaca mountain ranges, the beauty and character of this valley rivals that of any other wine grapegrowing area of the world. We may not have the centuries-old towns, churches and histories of Europe, precipitously steep terraced hillsides of the Douro or the majestic river banks of Bordeaux, but the complexity of our vistas and shared culture certainly combine the best qualities seen throughout the Old World.
The strong mutual interest expressed here in the Napa Valley among vintners, winemakers, growers and the general community elevates the Napa Valley experience above all others. And nowhere in our history was this expression of community better demonstrated than during the recent fires where neighbor helped neighbor for the greater good of all.
It is often said that in Burgundy the vignerons rarely (if ever) taste the wines of neighboring Domaines. This is definitely not the case in Napa Valley where vintners, winemakers and growers are connected socially and professionally as part of the overall community. They often and willingly share vital information and work together to accomplish mutual goals in the spirit of Robert Mondavi who often said “A rising tide will lift all boats.”
The spirit of the Napa Valley is matched only by its intrinsic beauty and cultural individuality in the world of wine. A great place to live and return to regardless where our travels may take us.