Napa Valley Fun Facts

About 48 miles (77 kilometers) north of San Francisco, Napa Valley is California’s best-known wine region. To be such a renowned wine region, it is responsible for a ridiculously small amount of all the wine produced in the state–only 4 percent.

Here are some more fun facts:

  • There are more than four hundred wineries in Napa Valley. Most are small and family-owned.
  • However, there are also grand wine estates like Inglenook, that was built by a sea captain and a fur trader. More than one hundred years later, it was sold to the famous film director Francis Ford Coppola.
  • Napa Valley also boasts the wonderful Opus One winery that was built by history’s greatest vintners, Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild.
  • The first Napa Valley wine to cost $100 per bottle was made in 1989, the first to cost $200 was made in 1994, and the first to cost $300 was made in 2006. The first two wines were Diamond Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Lake Vineyard 1987 and 1992, respectively; the third wine was the 2004 Harlan Estate.
  • Four thousand years ago, Napa Valley was home to many thousands of Wappo Indians, although there is almost no trace of a Native American population in the valley today. The word napa comes from the Wappo dialect and means “plenty.
  • Napa Valley’s main downtown, St. Helena, would not get its first traffic light until 1972.

Napa Valley Geography

Volcanic eruptions occurred here millions of years ago, causing the valley to rise and fall. And sedimentary soils were once deposited on a regular basis when the North American and the Pacific plates were compressed together at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

Today, vast amounts of soil conveyed by water flow down from the mountaintops to the valley below.

In addition, the cyclical flooding and receding of the Napa River have left the valley with a huge diversity of soils. Soil scientists characterize all the world’s soils into twelve orders--and the tiny Napa Valley has an amazing six of them! Within those orders are about three dozen different soil series and over a hundred soil variations.

The topography itself is also irregular. Many benches, canyons, and “toes” have formed as a result of landslides. Because of these geological differences, independent winemakers can make wine that tastes totally different from wine made by their neighbors.

Napa Valley in the 60s

Grape crops were already wildly popular in Napa Valley by 1966. But the leading agricultural industry was still livestock (mostly cattle). Prunes and dairy were the next most popular agricultural products (Napa Valley schools started late so children like Michael Mondavi could help pick prunes). And more than 4.5 million dozen Napa Valley eggs were sold that year!

1966 was also the first year that the Napa Valley Agricultural Commission reported the exact number of grapes grown in the valley.  Even though it only had a third as much vineyard acreage as it has today, there were eighty different varieties of grapes grown (forty-two reds and thirty-eight whites).

At the time, the valley’s most planted reds (in order of prominence) were: Petite Syrah, Zinfandel, Gamay, Carignane, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The most planted whites were: French Colombard, Sauvignon vert, Sauvignon blanc, Golden Chasselas, and Burger.

In 1966, the most sought-after Napa Valley wine was Inglenook Cask Cabernet Sauvignon at $5 a bottle. It was the most expensive wine in the state.

There were a few women winemakers in Napa Valley in the 1960s. But they would have been mostly self-taught. The first woman to earn a degree from the viticulture and enology department at UC Davis was MaryAnn Graf, in 1965.


Joseph Phelps, The Napa Valley Visionary

In 1974, winemaker Joseph Phelps had an idea to make a separate cuvee every year, one that would represent the finest wine he could make from each vintage. It might be white wine in some years--a Chardonnay or a Riesling--or maybe a Syrah or Merlot. His goal was to make one wine that represented the best of what Joseph Phelps Vineyards had to offer each year.

He decided to name the wine Insignia, a proprietary name that would give him the flexibility to make the wine out of any varietal he chose.

It turned out that 1974 was a great year for Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley, and the 1974 Insignia was 94 percent Cabernet from the Stag’s Leap District.

The following year, 1975, Merlot dominated the blend. And in 1976, it returned to Cabernet, this time from the Eisele Vineyard. At the time it was beginning to be clear that Bordeaux varieties–especially Cabernet Sauvignon–were perfectly suited to Napa Valley and would consistently yield the best wines of the vintage.

From 1977 on, the Insignia blend was never less than 50 percent Cabernet. Joseph Phelps’ vision had evolved, and Insignia would always be a proprietary red Bordeaux-style blend.

Robert Parker (the most influential wine critic in the U.S.) states of Phelps: “He was one of the great visionaries of Napa Valley. Insignia remains one of the world’s finest Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated blends.”

Napa Valley, California

Napa Valley may be tiny, but chances are it’s one of the first places that springs to mind if you think of American wine.  And it’s definitely famous for a reason.  Tell us your favorite Napa Valley wine in the comments!