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:
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.
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.
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 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!