Despite being just 30 miles long and a few miles wide, California’s Napa Valley produces a not-insignificant 49.7 million cases of wine per year, contributing $50bn to the total US economy and accounting for 27% of California’s total wine industry economy – no mean feat considering only 4% of California’s wine grapes come from the region.
Napa Valley is small, but it’s a major player in the wine world. Its dry, Mediterranean climate – which covers only 2% of the Earth’s surface – coupled with more than 100 soil variations and half of all soil orders found in the world means Napa Valley vintners are able to produce consistent quality wines from a wide-ranging selection of grapes, although the region is probably best known for its Cabernet Sauvignon.
California’s first recognised AVA (American Viticultural Area), Napa Valley – an appellation itself – is home to 16 subappellations, with terroir ranging from the cool, mountain-influenced temperatures of Atlas Peak’s 2,600ft-above-sea-level elevation, to the hotter, drier climate of St Helena, the narrowest part of the Napa Valley floor.
Over 700 wineries have developed within Napa’s young history. While records show the first commercial vineyard opened in 1858 (where John Patchett sold his wine for $2 a gallon), premium wine production didn’t begin until the 1960s – the area had to contend with a phylloxera outbreak, Prohibition and the Great Depression in between – and it wasn’t until the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, when a Napa Valley Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon bested several famous French labels, that the area’s reputation as a producer of world class wines was cemented.
This status (coupled of course with the area’s good weather and near-coastal location) means Napa Valley is now a one of enotourism’s most popular destinations, with 4.5 million people visiting the area’s 1600 vineyards every year.
However, such is the impact of its tourism industry – and the relatively intense environmental footprint that comes from producing so much from so little – that the area is generally regarded as one of the most environmentally-conscious wine-producing regions in the world. Indeed, it became the first agricultural preserve in the United States in 1968, and is now home to a number of green winemaking initiatives and certification schemes, designed to ensure sustainability now and in the future, lest the delicate balance of economy and environment be disrupted.
It’s no surprise, then, that Napa Valley wines tend to command higher prices than wines from the region’s more unassuming neighbours, such as Sonoma Valley. Its consistent climate and extraordinary combination of diverse soils and topography make the area unlike any other wine-producing region in the world, and its wines are held in high acclaim by critics throughout the industry. The Cardinale 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon scores a perfect 100 points from Wine Enthusiast, while famous critic Robert Parker gives no less than 14 different producers full marks for their offerings. Shafer Vineyards, Schrader Cellars, Lokoyo and Harlan Estates are stand-out names, while Robert Mondavi and Rubicon Estate offer Napa’s unique New World quality at a more accessible price.
Yet despite the flourishing economy surrounding Napa’s wine production, there remains a solid sense of community – no doubt due to the region’s modest size. Some 95% of all the area’s wineries