Wine came to California with the establishment of Catholic missions. Between 1769 and 1826, Franciscan monks founded 21 missions and forts along the California coast, south of Napa, between San Diego and Sonoma. With the missions came the need for sacramental wine for use during mass.

The first vineyard was planted at the Mission San Diego within a few years of its founding in 1769. The first non-native vines were Listan Prieto, also known as Palomino Negro, brought to the New World from the Canary Islands. Over time the grape was planted at each new mission and became known simply as the “Mission” grape. 

At first the territory that would eventually become California was under the jurisdiction of Spain. In 1821 the land came under Mexican rule. A decade later, the Mexican government sought to secularize the missions. In 1833 Mexican generals started to divide church land holdings, deeding parcels of land to military officers and influential private citizens. As control of former church-owned vineyards came into public hands, wine could be made commercially for the first time.

In 1836, General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, namesake of the town of Vallejo, awarded the Rancho Caymus to a former employee, George Calvert Yount. The 12,000 acres (4856 hectares) included much of what is now southern Napa Valley. In 1838 or 1839, Yount planted a small patch of Mission vines that is now considered Napa Valley’s first vineyard. 

While Yount is credited with planting the first vineyard, John Patchett is given credit for founding the first winery in Napa Valley. Patchett planted vines in 1854 on his property, making wine in 1857, and building a cellar in 1859. Others would follow. In 1859, Samuel Brannan purchased a tract of land called Agua Caliente (“hot water”) Ranch in the far north of the valley. Brannan planted over 100 acres (41 hectares) of vines and named the region Calistoga, a combination of the words California and Saratoga, New York (the latter because of its hot springs).

At the end of The Mexican War (1846-1848), California territory was ceded to the U.S. Then gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in the Sierra Foothills in 1848. In a few short years, hundreds of thousands from all corners of the globe came to California to seek their fortunes– along with scores from the East Coast and Midwest. San Francisco grew from a small coastal town to a city of over 25,000 in the space of one year, and Napa Valley also prospered.

Among those seeking to make their fortune were winemakers and vineyardists from Ohio, then the country’s preeminent wine region, as well as others from major European winemaking regions. Mostly notably was Charles Krug, a German native, who founded Napa’s first commercial winery in 1861. Jacob Schram, another German immigrant, founded Schramsberg in 1862 (and also planted the first hillside vineyards). In the following two decades other Europeans, mostly of Italian, Swiss, and German heritage, would start wineries in Napa Valley. In 1875 the Beringer Winery was founded by brothers Jacob and Fredrick Beringer, who previously worked for Charles Krug. By the end of the 1880s, less than 30 years after Krug founded his winery, Napa Valley had over 140 wineries and 15,000 acres (6,070 hectares) under vine. Wines from To-Kalon, Sunny St. Helena, Inglenook, and Niebuam were winning awards in domestic and European competitions.

Just as Napa Valley wines were starting to make their mark on the international stage, phylloxera struck in Napa in 1872.

By then, phylloxera was already devastating vineyards throughout France and threatened to destroy cultivation of vitis vinifera grapes on a global scale. In Napa, numerous remedies were tried, including flooding vineyards and using poisonous gases. George Hussmann, a German immigrant and leading expert viticulturist from Missouri, is credited with perfecting methods for grafting European vines onto American rootstocks. But less than 50% of the vineyard area planted in the 19th century survived. Grapes that had previously demanded high prices were non-existent. Many vintners rushed to plant lesser quality varieties or tore out vineyards and planted to other crops. It would literally take a century before wineries in Napa Valley equaled their pre-phylloxera number.

In 1909 the 16th amendment was passed establishing a Federal Income Tax.

Overnight, alcohol tax as an important source of federal government revenue vanished and the way was paved for national Prohibition to become a reality. With the passing of the 18th amendment and the Volstead Act in 1919, production, sale, and transportation of all alcoholic beverages became illegal.

Some loopholes in the law, however, enabled a few wineries to survive: Wine could be made for sacramental and medicinal purposes, and each household could produce up to 200 gallons/ 757 liters of fruit juice a year—regardless of use. Instantly demand for winegrapes increased exponentially. More often than not, however, fruit shipped by rail cross country oxidized and arrived in poor condition. Vineyard owners responded by ripping out Cabernet Sauvignon and other fine winegrapes, replacing them with varieties that would travel well. By 1926, Napa’s vineyards were made up of grapes such as Alicante Bouschet, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, and Carignan—all hardy varieties that could withstand the harsh conditions of rail travel. 

With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the American wine industry, most notably in Napa Valley, was left in ruins. Many of the best winemakers were gone and vineyards had been replanted to lesser grapes. The valley had to start over— in the midst of the Great Depression.

After Prohibition, few Napa wineries remained. Those that had survived made a living on sacramental wine and home winemaking kits.

American wine tastes had also changed during Prohibition, moving from quality dry table wines to sweet fortified wines or inexpensive blends labeled “Claret,” “Burgundy,” and the like. Winemaking technology and equipment were also lacking. Redwood tanks and concrete vats — both sources for microbial spoilage — were commonly used for fermentation and American Oak Bourbon barrels for aging red wines. Not until the mid-1960s was the trend reversed.

In the decade that followed the repeal, Louis M. Martini built his winery in 1933 (the first new post-Prohibition winery), Georges de Latour resurrected Beaulieu Vineyards (BV) with the hiring of André Tchelistcheff, a French-trained Russian winemaker, in 1938, John Daniel Jr. reopened Inglenook in 1939, and the Mondavi family purchased Charles Krug Winery in 1943. 

Under Tchelistcheff’s direction at BV, winery hygiene became paramount and smaller barrels were used for aging red wines. De Latour also wanted to produce a reserve Cabernet Sauvignon that would be a benchmark for Napa Valley wines. The result was the George de Latour Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon which quickly became one of Napa’s finest wines. Tchelistcheff would go on to be one of the most influential figures in the history of Napa Valley wine. He was convinced that Napa Valley, like other great European wine regions, had distinct terroirs. Pinot Noir and white grapes did best in the cooler southern end of the valley, while Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel did better in the warmer northern part of the valley. Even into the late 1980s, André was serving as a consulting winemaker and mentor. 

In 1944, seven Napa Valley wineries signed an agreement forming a non-profit trade organization called the Napa Valley Vintners Association. Today it has more than 550 members.

After World War II, the Napa Valley wine industry continued to grow slowly. Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s inexpensive sweet fortified wines were still the most popular with American consumers. It would take the right person with vision to change that. And that person was Robert Mondavi.

In 1943, Robert Mondavi learned that the Charles Krug Winery was for sale, and convinced his father, Cesare Mondavi, to buy it.

After attending university at Stanford, Robert and his brother Peter returned home to work with Cesare at the winery. Robert focused on sales and Peter on winemaking.

By the mid-1950s Robert Mondavi was convinced that America would someday have a fine wine culture and that in the future every restaurant table would have a bottle of wine on it. Mondavi also believed that Napa could become an international brand and the Valley a world-class wine region and destination. 

After a falling out with his brother in 1965, Robert left Charles Krug. In 1966 he opened the Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville, the Valley’s first new winery since the late 1930s. The winery was revolutionary in every way, from its design to the concept of single varietal wines as the focus. 

Years later, when asked about opening the winery, Mondavi was quoted as saying, “We knew then that we had the climate, the soil, and the varieties that made our own distinct style of wine that could be the equal of the great wines of the world, but it did require the winegrowing and the wisdom to know how to present it to the world.”

Others quickly followed Mondavi’s lead. In the 1960s several notable wineries were founded by a legendary group winemakers: Joe Heitz of Heitz Wine Cellar, Warren Winiarski of Stags Leap Wine Cellars, Don Chappellet of Chappellet Winery, Sir Peter Newton of Sterling Vineyards, and Al Bronstein of Diamond Creek. Two in the group, Heitz and Winiarski, had worked as assistant winemakers with Mondavi. 

The new generation of winemakers made use of the latest technology, including temperature-controlled stainless steel for fermentation, and aging in smaller French barriques. It was no accident then when dry wines finally overtook sweet wines in 1967 in domestic consumption and sales. It had taken over 30 years to change the post-Prohibition wine trends. 

The 1960s were also a time for the Napa industry to protect the Valley for future generations. Concern over future urban encroachment in other parts of California led to the 1968 Agricultural Preserve, a landmark piece of environmental legislation that limited development within much of Napa Valley to preserve its agricultural heritage.

Foreign investment in California vineyards and wineries was inevitable. In the 1970s several Napa Valley wineries were founded with European backing: Clos du Val in 1972, Domaine Chandon in 1973, and Opus One in 1979. With the latter, Robert Mondavi figured prominently again, forming an alliance with Baron Philippe de Rothschild of the Bordeaux first-growth Château Mouton Rothschild to create a luxury-tier winery focused on a Cabernet Sauvignon-based blend.

With the surge in production and improvement in wine quality, it was only a matter of time before Napa Valley wines would take their place on the world stage. And in 1976 they did just that.

In the summer of 1976, British wine merchant Steven Spurrier set up a tasting in Paris to celebrate the 200th birthday of the U.S.

The tasting was held in a double-blind format (when you have no identifying information on the wine– neither grape variety, region nor year) featuring top wines from California and France. A panel of French judges chose the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon as the top wines over white Burgundies and classified growth Bordeaux. The results sent a shock wave through the international wine community, and the controversy was instant–  some believe it has never fully subsided. With the tasting’s results, there was a rush to buy land, plant vineyards, and open wineries in Napa Valley. By 1980 the number of wineries in the Valley had finally risen to the level of the 1880s. It had taken a century for the Napa Valley wine industry to regain its prominence after decades of challenges and setbacks.

In the 1980s, expansion in vineyard planting and winery building continued at an unprecedented pace. Wine journalism also started to have a significant impact trade and consumers alike. The Wine Advocate (1978) and Wine Spectator (1979) were launched. Both used the 100-point scoring system, to rate wines.

In 1981 the AVA, or American Viticultural Area, was introduced by the federal government as the system for recognizing and codifying unique wine producing areas. Napa Valley was granted AVA, or American Viticultural Area, status in 1981 (it’s also part of the North Coast AVA). Since that time, 16 nested sub-AVA’s have been granted. These AVA’s are often subdivided into appellations located on the valley floor, hillside, and outside the valley proper. This is because differences in wine character caused by location, microclimate, and terroir can be dramatic. 

  • Valley Floor AVA’s: Los Carneros (shared with Sonoma County), Coombsville, Stags Leap District, Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, and Calistoga
  • Hillside AVA’s: Atlas Peak, Howell Mountain, Mt. Veeder, Spring Mountain District, Diamond Mountain District, Wild Horse Valley, and Chiles Valley
In 1991 TV’s “60 Minutes” aired a segment called “The French Paradox.” In it, French scientist Serge Renaud, Ph.D. presented findings from his research showing that by U.S. health standards, the French did everything wrong.

Despite eating a high-fat diet, smoking, and not exercising, they had half the rate of heart disease and lived 2.5 years longer. Renaud attributed the difference to higher levels of red wine consumption in France. After the segment aired, sales of red wine in North America increased by 40%. It’s also worth noting that no better theory has been offered in the years since. 

The massive costly replanting after phylloxera had a silver lining as owners rethought what varieties to replant, and further which rootstocks and clones worked best. Disease-resistant, low-vigor rootstocks were chosen, as well as low-yielding clones. Along with new plant material, many vineyard managers adopted VSP trellising and high-density plantings with more vines per acre. One of the results of new plant material and trellising was longer hang time needed for grapes to achieve phenolic ripeness. That in turn resulted in higher grape sugars at harvest, and bigger, riper, fruitier wines with higher alcohol levels. Most critics and consumers approved of the riper style of wines. Some did not. Regardless, these changes resulted in an overall increase in the quality of Napa Valley wines.  In the 1990s Cabernet Sauvignon’s popularity continued to surge. Many vineyards, formerly planted to a wide range of different grapes from Riesling to Alicante Bouschet, were budded over to Cabernet Sauvignon with Chardonnay and Merlot just behind. By the decade’s end, Cabernet Sauvignon would surpass Chardonnay as the most widely planted grape. The decade also saw the rise of cult wines, primarily Cabernet Sauvignons and Cabernet blends, produced in minuscule quantities and sold for high prices. Wineries such as Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Dalla Valle, and Colgin had lengthy wait lists to purchase the wines direct.

The 21st Century has brought myriad challenges and opportunities to Napa Valley, which has forced the region to innovate and continually elevate the quality of wines being produced.

Climate change has been one such challenge that the region is facing head on. While no one can predict the exact  impacts a warming planet will have on the region, many growers and winemakers are planning for future droughts and increasingly severe heat spikes. To mitigate this threat and ensure quality, vineyard managers are replanting vineyards with the newest technology including drought-resistant root stocks, adjusting row orientation to optimize sun exposure and shading, using modern trellis design and shade cloth to protect the grapes from over exposure to sun and heat, and refining irrigation systems to use water with maximize effectiveness. This level of precision farming allows vineyard managers to grow ever higher quality grapes. 

The Napa Valley is not only responding to climate change in the vineyards, it’s uniting as an industry to do its part to stop it. The industry is working with the local government to create a comprehensive climate action plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the entire community. The Napa Valley Vintners trade association was the first North American wine trade association to sign onto the Porto Protocol, a consortium of industry groups and businesses committed to mitigating climate change. 

The region set a goal to have every eligible vineyard and winery enrolled in the Napa Green Land & Winery programs by the end of 2020. Napa Green is a voluntary and independently certified sustainability program specifically tailored to the local wine industry aiming to reduce the overall impacts of the industry. It regulates vineyard and winery practices to minimize soil erosion, greenhouse gas emissions, water and electricity use and waste production among other things. This grape to bottle sustainability program also requires continual improvement, ensuring that wineries become more sustainable over time rather than meeting static requirements. 

Innovation is not only being adopted in the vineyards. Winemakers are using the latest scientific research and technology including optical sorters, new tank designs and materials, and understanding native yeast fermentations and other innovations to elevate the quality and uniqueness of Napa Valley wines.

While the phylloxera of the past has largely been mitigated by grafting vinifera vines onto native American rootstocks, pests like glassy-winged sharpshooters, various species of leafhoppers, mealy bugs, and others continue to be major concerns. When the European Grapevine Moth was discovered in Napa County in 2009, growers quickly banded together to create a successful program to eradicate the invasive pest, which was successful in 2014. This is a great example of how the collaboration within the Napa Valley wine industry allows Napa Valley growers and winemakers to overcome threats. 

Finally, global financial cycles of boom and bust have created irregularity in consumer consumption of Napa Valley wines, especially at the super-premium tier. The global financial crash of 2008 was particularly devastating for the fine wine market, but also created an opportunity for many wineries to begin selling and shipping wines directly to consumers, bypassing the traditional distribution system. Today, in the wake of the global Covid-19 pandemic, wineries continue to adapt with an increased emphasis on virtual experiences and digital sales and an increased focus on global markets. 

Through it all, Napa Valley has remained a benchmark for fine wine, not only the New World, but throughout the global wine community. Though the industry faces new challenges with ever-changing domestic and world consumer markets, Napa Valley wines continue to set standards for world-class quality and innovation.