Discover Napa Valley
Our Napa Valley Wine Travel Guide shares a brief history of the region, terroir, where to sip, where to stay and things to do beyond the vines
The Napa Valley is located in northern California with the closest major airports being, Oakland International Airport (50 miles south); San Francisco International Airport (55 miles south of Napa Valley) and Sacramento International Airport (60 miles west of Napa Valley). Plan to rent a car, hire a private driver or grab an Uber into wine country. Prices will vary for each depending on the time of day and the season you’re visiting. For those of you coming in from San Francisco International Airport, you may want to consider taking the San Francisco Ferry across the Bay to the Napa Valley Wine Train Station. Check for details.
TOP GRAPE VARIETIES IN NAPA VALLEY
The Napa Valley is known for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet-led Bordeaux-style blends. The saying goes, Cab is king in the Napa Valley. But, it’s not the only red wine produced in the Valley. Merlot and Pinot Noir are two other popular red grape varieties. As for white grape varieties, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are the most widely planted.
The diversity of the region plays a huge part in which grapes can be grown where and allows for other varieties to be successfully grown and produced. Other leading red grape varieties include, Zinfandel, Cabernet Franc, Petite Sirah and Malbec. White grapes – Semillion, Pinot Gris/Grigio, Muscat.
White Wine Grapes
RED Wine Grapes
The first vineyards in the Napa Valley were planted in 1838 by George Calvert Yount, who was the first permanent settler in Napa Valley. The Mexican government granted him 11,000 acres in an area that stretches from what we now call Yountville, through Oakville and north through Rutherford. He planted the first vines and named his new community Sebastopol. There were four other towns with the same name in California, so when Yount died in 1867, the town chose to renamed itself to Yountville, in his honor.
The Gold Rush began bringing immigrants who knew about wine making into the Valley in the 1850’s but it wasn’t until 1858 that the Valley’s first commercial winery was established by John Patchett on the outskirts of the town of Napa in 1858. His winemaker, Charles Krug, left in 1861 to establish his own winery in the town of St. Helena. The winery that is still in operation today.
Charles Krug is the family winery that was purchased by the Mondavi family. Both Robert Mondavi and his brother Peter operated it until Robert left in 1966 to establish the Robert Mondavi Winery
St. Helena was growing in popularity as a wine destination. In 1876, the little town in Napa Valley brought German immigrants Jacob and Frederick Beringer who founded Beringer Brothers Winery (now Beringer Vineyards). By 1889 Napa Valley boasted more than 140 wineries, the area was thriving! This is until the pesky little aphid arrived. The “small yellow root-feeding aphid” known as Phylloxera wreaked havoc in vineyards for the next few years. The Valley’s plantings declined from 15,800 acres in 1888 to just 2,000 acres by 1900.
Just when winemakers in the Valley thought they could recover from Phylloxera, National Prohibition hit. From 1919 to 1933 wine sales were illegal, forcing most wineries to close. Only a few were able to survive by exploiting the loopholes—either by making wine for religious or medical use or by supplying unfermented grape juice to home winemakers. By the time Prohibition ended, there were just a few dozen wineries in the Napa Valley.
Beringer Brothers Winery (now Beringer Vineyards) is the oldest continuously operating Napa winery, and one of the few that were able to stay open during Prohibition by producing sacramental wine.
The wine industry in Napa Valley reopened for business in 1933, but the region wasn’t on the world wine map until 1976 when a few wines were submitted to what has been named the “Judgment of Paris” and WON!
The “Judgment of Paris” was a blind tasting among French judges who unknowingly selected California wines as the top Chardonnay and top red blend. This shook up the world of wine since it was the first time American wines had beat French wines. This alone, peaked interest in the region, resulting in wine production doubling in California over the next decade. While the Judgment of Paris spurred tremendous growth and notoriety in the Napa Valley, it also resulted in kick-starting wine growth throughout the country with Napa Valley still leading the way.
Napa Valley is one of the most renowned wine regions in the world, but it is also one of the smallest. The valley floor is roughly 30 miles long and five miles wide.
While Napa Valley may be small it’s rich in minerals. The Napa Valley contains half of the soil orders that exist within the world. To be more precise, Napa Valley contains 33 soil series with more than 100 soil variations.
Napa Valley contains 16 sub-AVAs that delineate different terroirs within the region. The nine primary AVAs within the Napa Valley follow the course of the Napa River down the valley. They include, Calistoga, St. Helena, Rutherford, Oakville, Yountville, Stags Leap, Oak Knoll, Coombsville and Los Carneros.
Robert Mondavi Winery
Planning Your Napa Valley Wine Country Vacation
- Private Limousine Service
- Sonoma Sterling Limousine
- Should you hire a private driver, group tour, DIY or Uber?
BEYOND THE VINES
If you’re looking for things to do besides sipping in the Napa Valley wineries, we have A LOT OF IDEAS for things to do in Napa Valley that go well beyond the vines.