Napa Valley History - Pt. 1

 

by Doruk Gurunlu

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Napa Valley is considered California's little slice of wine heaven as it is only 30 miles long and a few miles wide. Arguably, it is the New World’s most important fine wine region.

The first vineyards were planted by George Yount in 1831 and later bore his name as the town of Yountville. At this time California was still a part of Mexico. In 1850 California became a state of the United States of America which was the same year gold was discovered in the Sierra foothills. As a result, California’s population boomed. Charles Krug, a German native, started the first commercial winery in 1861.

Tragedy struck the region in the 1880’s as a plague of phylloxera insects destroyed crops and many plants suffered from rootstock disease. This event alone caused the loss of 19,000 acres to the Napa Valley region. During the early 20th century two events shaped the region, World War I, followed by prohibition which started in 1920. While prohibition could have killed the wine industry during that time, some resourceful farmers found ways around the law and kept a small production afloat.

The wine industry in Napa did not start to come back to the pre-phylloxera levels until the 1960’s. In 1976 the ‘Judgment of Paris’ was formed, a wine competition organized by wine merchant Steven Spurrier. This event was a blind tasting held in Paris and graded by French judges. Who could predict that this event would bring international attention to the Napa Valley? When Napa wines took first place in both red and white, European investments began to migrate to the Napa Valley.

Devastation came again in 1986 when Napa Valley received massive flooding and the return of phylloxera, which forced vintners to replant wineries. During the replant, many Napa vintners modeled the composition of their vineyards after Bordeaux. High density planting and low fruiting zones were designed to maximize the warmth and sunlight of the hot and sunny California weather. As a result the grapes produced ripe and fruity wines.

In 1991 “60 minutes” did a special on the French paradox, promoting the consumption of red wine as a part of a healthy diet. This publicity ensured that in 1992, Cabernet Sauvignon became the desired wine over the Chardonnay.  This is considered to be the beginning of the modern Napa Valley.

By 1997, that year’s vintage proved to be an extremely successful year. There was so much fruit on the vines, most of the wineries did not have the tank space to process everything at once. They harvested the first wave at “normal” ripeness levels and left the remaining crop hanging until the initial batches finished fermentation. Finally they harvested and vinified the second wave, they found the result to be concentrated, lower acid and smooth tannins. Many winemakers blended the “first” and “second” batches together. When the wines hit the market a of couple years later, consumer and critics responded with enthusiasm. This event paved the way for the extended hanging time to become the new norm.

During the beginning of the 21st century, both ripeness and the prices continued to climb. In 2008 the national housing market crashed and hurt consumption as people did not want to spend money on expensive wine. This set back was short lived as younger producers started a new California movement. They rejected the Bordeaux/Burgundy domination and took their inspiration from different wine regions of the world and even used techniques from Napa’s own past. The result was that the wines varied widely in terms of varietal compositions and tended to be lower in alcohol and higher in acidity. This led to the exciting diversity of wines available on the market from the Napa Valley region. George Yount would not recognize the growth started so long ago in his backyard.

 
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DORUK GURUNLU

Originally from Turkey, Doruk Gurunlu has lived in the United States since 2005 when he came to South Walton. Doruk has many passions – wine being one of them. He truly enjoys talking about wine with his friends and guests at Pescado in a way that makes the knowledge of wine accessible and relatable.