A fresh look at the most celebrated wine region in the United States
It’s a sunny weekday afternoon in northern California’s Napa Valley and all is quiet on the wine front, except at the sprawling Robert Mondavi Winery, where a parade of limos and luxury cars is pulling into the parking lot. Attendants in spiffy black suits escort the vehicles’ smartly clad occupants through huge, barnlike doors into a warehouse space where everyone is gathering in eager anticipation of Napa’s premier wine event.
They call it the Taste of Oakville, an ultra-exclusive sampling of new releases from the valley’s most prestigious appellation, the Oakville American Viticultural Area (AVA) between Rutherford and Yountville. Not only does Oakville produce what many connoisseurs consider the best American wines, but these vintages are also the most expensive, with some bottles fetching as much as US$8,000 at auction. Attendance at the event is by invitation only, and most of those waiting to get inside are top buyers from around the world and scribes from the leading wine journals.
At precisely two o’clock, the cordon comes down and there’s a mad rush up a ramp to the tasting areas. Like Black Friday at Macy’s, people are pushing and shoving each other to get to the head of the line—and the privilege of being the first to sip the 2009 Bond St. Eden, the 2011 Entre Nous sauvignon blanc, or the 2010 Screaming Eagle cabernet sauvignon. Their attire might be elegant, but there isn’t anything the least bit dignified about throwing elbows to reach the celebrated wines.
And that’s exactly what these wines are, the “stars” of a valley that in 40-odd years has transformed itself from a local phenomenon that few outside California knew about into a global icon of the wine business and vineyard tourism. Locals can tell you precisely when the evolution started: May 24, 1976, when British wine dealer Steven Spurrier organized a blind tasting called the Judgment of Paris that pitted Napa Valley vintages against the best French wines. As Time magazine crooned at the time: “Last week in Paris the unthinkable happened: California defeated all of Gaul.” In fact, Napa Valley wines won both the red and white categories, with a Stag’s Leap cabernet sauvignon taking the former and a Chateau Montelena chardonnay capturing the latter.
“Not bad for kids from the sticks,” said Montelena owner Jim Barrett after the upset victory over the snooty (and understandably shocked) French winemakers. But rather than rest on their laurels, Napa’s growers decided to turn the whole business topsy-turvy and in the process revolutionize the wine-tourism experience.
It was back around that same time that I first experienced the Napa Valley. Not the drinking part—I was much too young—but certainly the visitor experience. Blame it on my Uncle Emile, who was keen on anything new or trendy. He was the first in our family to own one of those original Mustangs, the first to have a home computer, and the first to embrace wine tasting as a legitimate hobby. Uncle Emile would haul all of us up to Napa on weekend road trips to tour the half a dozen wineries—Mondavi among them—that were open to the public.
Like much of rural America at the time, Napa had a sort of Happy Days mentality. The wineries didn’t charge for tastings; you just rolled up and they poured you as much plonk as you wanted. Everyone had very basic tours that explained the winemaking process to neophyte American drinkers. And there wasn’t anything the least bit pretentious about it. In those days, the closest thing to a swish resort in the valley was a roadside motel. Forget gourmet food, too. The epitome of Napa dining in the 1970s was a burger at Foster’s Freeze.
But the Judgment in Paris changed everything. Suddenly, growing grapes was trendy and winemaking all the rage. Corporations and celebrities (including the Smothers Brothers and Francis Ford Coppola) began investing in vines and creating their own vintages. Country clubs and luxury resorts began to sprout around the valley, and it wasn’t long before the first gourmet restaurants appeared, skippered by chefs (like Thomas Keller) who would earn multiple Michelin stars and soar to the ranks of the country’s most feted culinary talents.
The nitty-gritty of winemaking has also changed radically since the ’70s. There has always been a certain science to growing grapes. But taking a page from nearby Silicon Valley, the vintners of Napa have come to rely on technology to the point where remote-control agriculture is now just as important as hands-on farming in the quest to produce the best grapes and superior wines.
Among the arsenal of high-tech gadgets pioneered in the valley (and by the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis) are remote weather stations, soil-moisture probes and sap-flow monitors that regulate vineyard irrigation, computer-controlled wind machines that prevent frost damage to the grapevines, and software programs that alert winemakers by phone, text message or e-mail if something goes wrong in their vineyards or stainless-steel vats.