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In the years from George Yount’s first land grant in the Napa Valley in 1836 to Gustave Niebaum first opening a “sample room” at his Inglenook Winery in the 1880s, the valley went from wilderness to wine country.

The Napa Valley was far from the largest wine producing region in the state, but hundreds of wineries were in operation, an infrastructure of wine associations and cooperatives were in place, and the traditions — excellence, diversity, hospitality —  that are the hallmarks of the wine culture of the Napa Valley up until this day had been established.

One would have thought that the valley was well on its way to taking its place among the world’s great wine producing regions, but this was not to be. A long series of negative natural and man-made historical events would set back the wine business almost a full century.

Pestilence, prohibition and wars

The first of these historical catastrophes was devastating not only for the Napa Valley but for viticulture in the rest of the U.S. and Europe.

Living in the soil in places east of the Rockies was a louse called phylloxera that destroys the root system of grapevines. Over the centuries, many grapevine species native to North America had become resistant to phylloxera, but the Old World Vitis vinifera vines were defenseless.

Phylloxera had begun to infest the mission vines brought in by the Spanish priests as well as the other European varietals planted by Agoston Haraszthy in Sonoma, Charles Krug in the Napa Valley, and other early  California viticulturists. Of even greater consequence, native American species of grapevines sent to Europe brought with them their deadly cargo of phylloxera lice. The phylloxera epidemic was discovered in French vineyards in the late 1860s, which predates its discovery in Napa in 1872.

Phylloxera infestation now threatened to destroy Vitis vinifera viticulture throughout the world. In the final two decades of the 19th century phylloxera hit the blossoming wine industry in the Napa Valley. Every type of remedy was tried, including the flooding of the vineyards and the use of poisonous gases, but nothing worked.

Eventually it was discovered that a Vitis vinifera grapevine grafted to the root stalk of a North American species retained its own desirable fruit characteristics while the stock and root system of the American varietal below the graft protected it from the phylloxera lice in the soil, but the havoc that resulted from the infestation — the time-consuming search for solutions and the replanting of vineyards — set the Napa Valley wine industry back decades.

Phylloxera continued to afflict the Napa Valley wine industry well into the 20th century. Fewer than half of the grapevines planted in the 1800s survived into the 1900s. Napa Valley grapes and wines had not attained the prestige to demand high market prices, and vintners either gave up and ripped out vineyards in favor of other crops or continued to struggle through the early 1900s.

The outbreak of World War I was a challenge for the economy of the entire nation and did not help the wine industry in the Napa Valley. Then came perhaps the greatest challenge of all in the form of the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution. It was ratified on January 16, 1919, and it ushered in Prohibition on January 16, 1920. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how devastating the prohibition of the sale of alcohol was on the already-struggling Napa Valley.

Many wineries had no choice but to close or convert to other enterprises, although some managed to get contracts with the Catholic Church making sacramental wine, which was legal under the Volstead Act that implemented and enforced Prohibition.

Another loophole for Napa Valley viticulturalists was section 29 of the Volstead Act, which authorized the home production for personal consumption of small amounts of fermented fruit juices. Some vintners sold grapes or grape juice to families who had migrated from the wine-drinking areas of Europe. Regretably, this often required using grape varietals that had thicker skins and, thus, could tolerate bulk shipping, or varietals that could withstand dilution with water.

America’s biggest failed social experiment nearly destroyed the valley’s wine industry, but was not enough to extinguish viticulture. About 60 Napa Valley properties operating as wineries or vineyards survived Prohibition, but the vast majority were producing bulk wines often sold to out-of-state bottlers, or wine in barrels sold to retailers, often from inferior grape varietals.

The survivors included Charles Krug, Beringer Brothers, Christian Brothers (operating out of Benicia during Prohibition) and Beaulieu Vineyard, started by Frenchman Georges Latour only a decade before Prohibition was put into place; two that shut down were Jacob Schram’s Shramsberg and Gustave Niebaum’s Inglenook.

A handful of men and at least one woman went to work to revive the wine industry in the valley after repeal of Prohibition in 1933. While the quality wine industry in the valley remained extremely small, that period produced people who earned their place in the pantheon of Napa Valley wine producers.

Inglenook founder Gustave Niebaum died in 1908, and the winery was shut down after Prohibition went into effect. However, Niebaum’s widow, Suzanne, reopened Inglenook shortly after Repeal. She found a wine marketing and operations wonder named Carl Bundschu and also brought on board her great-nephew John Daniel Jr. The two went to work to upgrade the vineyards and wine-making operations. Unlike virtually every winery in the valley at the time Inglenook bottled its best quality wines, many of which were single varietal, and all of their bottled wines carried the Napa Valley label. John Daniel Jr. took over operations in 1939, and Inglenook was reestablished as a fine wine producer.

Another of the heroes of the era was Georges de Latour. A native of France who had migrated to United States at age 26, he’d survived Prohibition by getting contracts to sell sacramental wine. He was not only an astute businessman, but one with a desire to produce fine wine. 

In the early days after Repeal, Beaulieu Vineyards mostly produced bulk wine, but de Latour continuously made premium bottled wine from even before the end of Prohibition all throughout his career. On a trip to France in 1937, he hired Andre Tchelistcheff. 

A major force in the Napa Valley wine industry until his retirement in 1973, Tchelistcheff helped de Latour modernize his operation and continuously grow the fine wine production at Beaulieu. Among his many credits,  Tchelistcheff pioneered the process of aging wine in small French oak barrel. He defined a style for high-quality California cabernet sauvignon and initiating the program for “Private Reserve” Cabernet wine at Beaulieu.

Another luminary from the era is Brother Timothy. A Christian Brother, he taught science during Prohibition, but transferred to Mont La Salle in Napa in 1935 to become the wine chemist for the local  order, which had been making sacramental wine. Under the guidance of Brother Timothy, the Christian Brothers Winery went on to produce quality wines beginning in the late 1930s. The order bought Greystone Cellars in St. Helena (today the home of the Culinary Institute of America).

Brother Timothy, who lived to be 94, was an ambassador of Napa wine for 70 years and is recognized as one of the most influential men in the California wine industry during the 20th century.

Wine historian James Lapsley quotes Andre Tchelistcheff as saying there were only four “outstanding wine processing plants” in the valley after Repeal: Ingelnook, Beaulieu, Larkmead and Beringer. Lapsley adds to that group the Christian Brothers Winery and Louis Martini Winery whose owner and namesake, having produced sacramental wines during Prohibition elsewhere in the state, built a state-of-the-art winery in 1933 — the first winery built in the valley after Prohibition.

Prohibition overlapped the Great Depression, followed by World War II and the Korean War. It wasn’t until the Eisenhower era that normal, sustained economic activity began to fuel economic growth in the U.S. in general, which applied to the Napa Valley as well.

And the properties of the men who created the Napa Valley wine culture in the first place in the 19th century would all eventually play a key role in the ultimate ascension of Napa Valley wines and wine culture on the world stage. Charles Krug continued to be a leader in quality and varietal diversity in the 20th and 21st centuries, thanks to the Mondavi family. In the 1960s Jack and Jamie Davies revived Schramsburg, continuing the traditon of innovation as it became America's first sparkling wine house. Beringer Winery remained a stately place of beautiful ambiance under a succession of owners, and Inglenook was reborn as a stellar example ofhospitality with the new name, Rubicon Estate, under the ownership of Frances Ford Coppola.

From long before recorded history, the valley possessed the natural elements of terrior, the soil and weather conditions, to make it potentially a special place in the world of wine. But it took a unique social, political and individual human history, along with individual struggles and triumphs to get to today’s Napa Valley wine industry and wine culture. The Napa Valley has an abundance of quality wines, different wine varietals, beautiful ambience and phenomenal hospitality at its hundreds of wineries, but this did not occur spontaneously or instantly. Knowing the story of how this all came about should help the visitor to enjoy all aspects of the Napa Valley wine culture, not just the wine, and the residents of our valley to better appreciate this special place where we live.

Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a six-part series excerpted from Napa author Tim Gaughan’s book that traces the history of wine in the Napa Valley. E-mail him at togaughan@gmail.com

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