Where Has Napa Valley Gone?

As I look back on the changes in Napa Valley over the last 40 years since my friends and I first started going there in the early 1970s, I cannot help but reflect on the great Pete Seeger song “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” This song was popular in the ‘60s and ‘70s and was sung by several different folk singers. It is a haunting social lament about the transformations in our lives that occur over time. In those early days, my wife, friends, and I spent a lot of time visiting the Napa Valley and getting to know the wines and the people. It was a magical place filled with special wines and very special and dedicated people. There were very few places to stay and very few restaurants. We first stayed at the El Bonita Motel in St. Helena. Later, when the first phase of the Harvest Inn opened, we would often rent the owner’s house and buy provisions in Sonoma to do our own cooking. In the evening we would invite friends, winemakers, and winery owners to dinner and enjoy a lot of Napa Valley wines. There were many wonderful cabernets available to buy from 1968, 1969, and 1970, as well as some lovely 1973s.

Then everything really began looking up in the late 1970s. There was the famous Judgment of Paris Tasting where Napa Valley wines bested those from France (to read about that tasting and another version of the tasting done much later, click here), and several great vintages beginning with 1974. These include many superb cabernets from the 1976, 1977, and 1978 vintages, which are still remarkable today. After a century of producing wine, Napa Valley was just beginning to make its mark on the world of wine and become an “overnight” success. New wineries continued to open, and there was the beginning of an explosion of new restaurants and hotels. From an area where there were few places to stay and very few places to eat, Napa Valley was soon to become a mecca for really good restaurants and nice hotels.

For most of the existence of Napa Valley it was an agricultural area where a wide variety of crops were grown. The first grapes were planted here in the 1830s and the town of Napa was founded in the mid-nineteenth century. In the later part of the nineteenth century, grapes were planted in several areas of Napa Valley, as they were in other parts of California, and commercial wine production began. Wineries slowly began to emerge. The best known of these early wineries was Inglenook, which was founded by Gustave Niebaum in the 1870s. The next few decades resulted in the production of very fine Napa Valley red wines that achieved worldwide recognition for quality. There were probably something like a dozen Napa Valley wineries in existence during this period.

Then came Prohibition, and in the 1930s wine production was severely curtailed (some wineries survived by mostly selling wine for church communion). After this period, Inglenook produced some of the greatest wines ever made in California. Unfortunately, a change of ownership resulted in the end of the great Inglenook wines after the early 1960s. And, after all this time, it has never achieved the same level of excellence. Other old established wineries such as Charles Krug, Louis Martini, Beaulieu Vineyards, Beringer, and a handful of others were also producing some fine wines during this period and they continue today.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s expansion began, and several new wineries came into being. These included wineries such as Robert Mondavi, Souverain, and Heitz Cellars. At this time there were only about two dozen wineries in Napa Valley. Then, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, there were many more new wineries such as Burgess Cellars, Cakebread Cellars, Conn Creek, Chappellet, Cuvaison, Spring Mountain, Diamond Creek Vineyards, Caymus, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Joseph Phelps Vineyards, Sterling, Ritchie Creek, Shafer, and others such as a reappearance of Château Montelena, Mayacamas, and Freemark Abbey which had been originally founded as early as the late nineteenth century. The late ‘70s and early to mid-1980s resulted in the creation of even more wineries such as Grace Family Vineyards, Dunn Vineyards, Dominus Estate, Forman Winery, Spottswoode, Duckhorn, St. Clement, and others.

During the period of the ‘70s, many of the new wineries and others pushed for the establishment of designated areas for growing grapes. I remember speaking with winery owners many times about the differences in the cabernets from different parts of the valley. In particular we would talk of the difference between wines from the more established areas such as Rutherford and others from newer parts of Napa Valley, including those of our friend Al Brounstein at Diamond Creek Vineyards. Also, there was much discussion about the differences between the wines from the valley versus those from the mountains. The cabernets from all these areas could be great, but they were different. Yet within many of these smaller Napa Valley areas, the wines had a stylistic similarity. Years later, through much time and effort involving many people, specific areas within Napa Valley were finally designated. In 1981 Napa Valley became first Agricultural Viticulture Area in California and the second Agricultural Viticulture Area in the United States (an American Viticultural Area (AVA) is a designated wine grape-growing region that is distinguishable by geographic features. The boundaries are defined by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), United States Department of the Treasury). In Napa Valley there were 16 AVA sub-classifications made. These were made to distinguish areas with differences in climate, soil, and exposure. The idea was that each of these areas was capable of producing its own distinct wine, and this would be designated by the specific AVA, such as Oakville, Rutherford, Stags Leap, St. Helena, Calistoga, Diamond Mountain, etc.

It must also be remembered that, during the period of expansion from the ‘60s into the ‘80s, wine research institutes were advising new plantings with a wide variety of different grapes — think riesling, French colombard, gamay Beaujolais, etc. This was just to make sure that there were always grapes to sell that were “commercial.” HELLO! Talk about lack of vision. Fortunately, there were many mavericks who rejected this “wisdom” and proved to be right. Today, as in the very early days, Napa Valley is mostly known for cabernet sauvignon, and this was the primary grape planted by most of the new wineries.

For example, one of the late, great, Napa Valley mavericks, Al Brounstein, knew very little about wine when he started in the late ‘60s. But, he eschewed the conventional advice and planted only cabernet sauvignon in the north end of the Napa Valley in Calistoga on Diamond Mountain where the “experts” said this was not possible. So much for conventional wisdom! His first commercial vintage was 1972, an auspicious start since it was a rare Napa Valley vintage marred by rain at the harvest. But it was, and continues to be to this day, an excellent wine. And the fact is that many of the Diamond Creek Cabernet Sauvignons from the 1970s are some of the best wines ever made in California. Initially there were some complaints about the tannins, just as there were for many Napa Cabernets, but this was a good thing, as the wines were in balance with the fruit and concentration of the wine. My friends and I loved these Cabernets. They were made in very small quantities and we bought them, drank a few, and cellared the rest. I also wrote about and recommended the Diamond Creek wines in The Underground Wineletter. Some of the other “critics” did not like that the wines were not instantly drinkable and had very little experience in buying, cellaring and drinking old wines. Sadly, it would turn out that their audience was mostly from the same camp! But the old Diamond Creek Cabernets that are still left today are great wines by any definition and great examples of what Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon can be. I have been drinking them for years and still have a lot left to enjoy.

During this period of the early 70s to the early 90s, accompanied by my wife Laurie and friends including Edward Lazarus and Geoffrey Troy, I visited Napa Valley often. With the launch of The Underground Wineletter in 1979, our visits became more frequent. We began reviewing hundreds of Napa Valley wines each year, visiting dozens of wineries, and tasting hundreds and then thousands of wines from barrel as well as hundreds and then thousands of wines from bottle in blind tastings. Our first review of new California Cabernet Sauvignons came in the Volume I, Number 5 issue of The Underground Wineletter published in April May 1980. This featured a report on the 1974 Cabernet Sauvignon vintage. The 1974 Heitz Cellars Martha’s Vineyard was pictured on the cover (to read the Retrospective Review of that issue click here).

The Underground published glowing reports on many of the early California cabernets and history has proven this to be correct (to read about some of these wines please take a look at those original issues and the Retrospective Reviews by clicking here). The Underground was a pioneer in doing barrel tastings in Napa Valley, and we discovered many wines such as the 1978 Grace Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and the 1978 Diamond Creek Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Lake Vineyard. After tasting the Lake Vineyard from barrel (there was only 1 barrel – 25 cases) we convinced the owner, the late Al Brounstein, to bottle the wine and the rest is history (to read more about the Lake Vineyard story as well as about Diamond Creek wines a great Diamond Creek tasting click here and to read the Retrospective review and the Underground issue containing the information on the discovery of Lake Vineyard click here and scroll down to Barrels and Bottles).

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, we bought, drank, and cellared many of these new Napa Valley wines as well as other new wines from California (think Ridge, Mount Eden, Au Bon Climat, Calera, etc. and to read about current wines from these producers click here). As I said, these were magical times. We watched the evolution and development of Napa Valley wines and other California wines with admiration and respect. The best wines were harmonious and balanced with alcohol levels in the 12-13 percent range. While discovering all the new wines, we were also searching out old bottles of Napa Valley wines such as the old Inglenook Cabernets. The old Inglenook cabernets from the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s were just amazing and continue to be to this day. I have bought, drank, and cellared hundreds and hundreds of bottles. And, I still have a lot in my cellar for future years. And there were a few others such as Hallcrest from the 1940s and 1950s and some Martin Rays and BVs from the same period. Luckily, I also still have a few of these.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s things changed. I needed to devote all of my time to a rapidly growing investment management business and turned The Underground Wineletter over to a new group of people, and I became less involved. It was in this period that the style of Napa Valley wine began to change. Driven by the 100 point mania, wines became increasingly extracted and alcoholic, and the number of wines being produced increased at a phenomenal rate. For a while, the old established producers mostly stayed true to the things that had worked them over time. But there were many new people lured to the promise of doing even better by changing things. This was driven, in large part, by big numbers critics tasting massive numbers of wines and declaring that bigger was better.

For a period of the next 15 years or so I rarely visited Napa Valley. During this period of time, the valley was to change dramatically in many respects. Not only the style of the wines, but the infrastructure, the access, and the commercialization. Revisiting the Napa Valley numerous times over the last few years, I can hardly recognize the transformation.

Today there are more than 450 wineries in Napa Valley which is a number that has not changed much in recent years. But, this number pales in comparison with the number of wines being produced. This number has exploded. Reportedly, there are now over 6,000 different bottlings of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons produced each year! And, from an era of wine growers and a laid back sort of personality, Napa Valley has become a playground for the international jet set and a crowded and busy tourist destination. Virtually everything has a decided aura of commercialization. The sense of place has blurred. Huge investments have been made in winery facilities and vineyards, and foreign investment has played a big part. As I said, I can hardly recognize what Napa was as compared to what it is today.

The increase in wineries and explosion of new wines driven by small production lots (often made from purchased grapes and produced in custom crush facilities where many different producers and winemakers share facilities and equipment) has resulted in the staggering number of wines we have today. It is now totally impossible for anyone to keep up with all the different wines. But, even more strange is that for the flagship wine of Napa Valley, cabernet sauvignon, many of the wines taste the same. The concept that we used to look for called “varietal character” is all but lost. And, the wines taste the same despite the fact that there are differences in the vines, climate, soil, and weather in different parts of the valley. If this continues, there will be no Napa Valley as we have known. What we will have is a “new and improved” Napa Valley. Will we really “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory”? Hard to imagine, but I guess anything is possible.

The efforts of the legacy wineries and many of the wineries founded in the 60s and 70s to establish specific growing areas within the valley (AVAs) have all now largely melded together. Some of the early producers are disappearing just as are the style of wines they made. What has made the wines so much the same today are vineyard practices and the harvesting of really ripe grapes and using various methods and additives to transform the wine. Today the traditional wine making methods have often been replaced by manipulative wine making, and this has created the sense of sameness. Where is the difference between Stags Leap, St. Helena, Calistoga, Rutherford, or any other area of Napa Valley for that matter? There is virtually no difference in many of the wines. In fact it seems that most of the wines are made in a homogenized style. New investors seem to be driven by what all investors seek and that is to make as much money as possible. But there is a difference in investing for the long term and being driven by a fad. Today, for many, all that seems to matter is the quest for that 100 point score as the number of “perfect” wines continues in a spiral upward! And with these numbers come much higher prices. It is sort of mind boggling that all of this is routinely accepted by so many.

For me, these new style big numbers wines that show variously extracted, alcoholic, over ripe, and manipulated qualities, are not something that rings my chime. Occasionally, just out of curiosity and prompted by someone, I try a few. Most are very forward and may be best young if you like big over ripe alcoholic wines. But, again, wines that are not harmonious and balanced are just not the wines for me young or old. And, I think the very greatest wines of all are the wines that, while they may taste lovely young, are not made for instant gratification. The really great wines have the ability to age and improve after they are bottled. These are the types of wines that the Underground has advocated, promoted, cellared, and drank for over 35 years! This is a proven fact.

Fortunately, there are still a few Napa Valley wines that meet the harmonious and balanced criteria. These include some of the older established producers who have not had a change in ownership or winemaking. And there are some newer wineries that are eschewing the more radical practices and making wines with balance and a sense of place. However, they have been largely ignored in the big numbers contest. But, over time, I believe they will emerge as winners. For, hopefully, these current traditionally made wines will live up to the potential that has been realized from many of the great Napa Valley Cabernets from the era of the 1930s to the 1990s. To do anything else is a great tragedy and something that few can be proud of. I have many old Napa Valley Cabernets in my cellar which I love and drink often. They are simply remarkable and a great testament for Napa Valley Cabernets to age and develop over time. I can only hope that this style of wine will be available for future generations of wine drinkers.

At this stage in my life, I can remember what Napa Valley used to be. What it is today is completely different. And what it will be tomorrow is anyone’s guess.


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