Last week, I had the good fortune to be one of twenty-nine writers to attend the inaugural Wine Writers’ Educational Tours conference. It was held in Napa Valley, California. Over the course of forty-three classroom hours in four days we visited nine wineries, walked four vineyards, and tasted over 130 wines.
We learned from fifty of Napa Valley’s best and brightest winemakers, winery and vineyard owners, vineyard managers and wine educators. As if that is not enough the sampled wines included 23 grape varieties from all 17 Napa Valley AVAs*. They ranged in age from 40-years old to just bottled.
While I was “in class,” Gary hung out in the town of Napa, sipping wine, relaxing and reading a book. A perfect vacation according to his definition. The conference ended on Wednesday afternoon, so Gary joined me and our new friend and wine writer Amber from Wine Travel Eats, for 2-1/2 more days of wine tasting and winery visits.
This trip was thrilling, eye-opening, exhausting and all I dreamed it would be and more.
And to answer the question, I know you are dying to ask…
I spit – most of the time anyway. There is no way to drink that much wine in a 12-15 hour day and keep your wits about you.
But now I am home trying to make sense of all the information, scribbles and wine I gathered. OY, this is going to take some time. I probably won’t spit now.
And Why Do You Care?
This week was a serious wine enthusiast extravaganza, and I totally got “my geek on.” I doubt that the level of minutiae that I loved will be of interest to you. So I make you this promise. My deep dive will be your executive summary. Or as close to that as this verbose wino can achieve.
So buckle up and get ready for the “Big Pour” (as in out of my brain). Or the wine below. It is superb.
Napa Valley: An Introduction
Here is some general information about Napa that you may not know. I trust this will get everyone up to speed.
When thinking of Northern California’s wine regions the two most well known are Napa and Sonoma. These two regions share a border (the Mayacamus Mountains) and one AVA (Carneros) but are very distinct from one another.
The Napa AVA is thirty miles long and five miles wide at its widest point. It accounts for only .4% of the world’s wine production. Another shocking figure is that only 4% of California’s wine grapes come from Napa Valley. Thirty-four (34) different grape varieties grow in Napa Valley although 47% of that is Cabernet Sauvignon.
Napa Valley is home to over 475 physical wineries. There are even more wineries when you include those that “custom crush” (a legal winery makes its wine by using another winery’s equipment). They then sell their wine through collectives and other private tasting rooms.
Ninety-five percent of Napa Valley’s wineries are family owned. While some of those families include the Peter Mondavi family, owners of Charles Krug or the Clif Family. Yes, those Clifs that created the Clif Bar, many started out as small family farms that grew grapes to sell to other wineries. After years of farming and watching others make award-winning wines with their fruit, the farmers became boutique winemakers creating a winery using their fruit to make a few hundred cases of wine.
Make no mistake about it, when one acre of land planted with vines sells for $500,000 this is now big business. But the families that retained their land are doing great things and are making some of the finest wines in the world of which you may never know existed.
A Very Brief History
About ten years before the start of the California Gold Rush, George Yount (yes, Yountville is named for him) planted the first commercial vineyards in Napa Valley. In 1849 the Gold Rush began, and the area exploded with folks looking to make their fortune mining for gold. Then in 1861, Charles Krug established the first commercial winery. By 1889 there were more than 140 wineries with 16,000 acres of vineyards.
Next vineyard disease epidemics, earthquakes, World War I, PROHIBITION (ok that was huge!!!), the Great Depression and World War II all had a devastating impact on the region. A few winemakers persevered, and things slowly started to change for the better.
The 1976 Paris tasting brought acclaim to the region as two Napa Valley wines took top honors. (Bottleshock, a highly fictionalized yet entertaining movie will give you the necessary details of the impact this had on the American wine industry.)
I hope you enjoyed this intro to Napa and will be looking forward to more stories about some of the wineries I visited and wines I tasted.
AVA – American Viticultural Area – A federally designated area of a wine grape-growing region in the United States. It is distinguishable by geographic features including but not limited to soil type and elevation. Napa Valley is an AVA. Within the Napa Valley AVA, there are 16 smaller AVAs. Some say sub-AVAs because they are within the boundaries of a larger AVA. Sub-AVA is merely a way to describe a region within a region but is not technically accurate.
That is all for now.