In the world of fine wine, “the Valley” almost universally refers to Napa Valley. A small city 50 miles north of San Francisco lends its name to the storied Napa County and the famed Napa Valley AVA. Join us for a walk through the stony, hallowed halls of wine history and find out what makes Napa Valley America’s Top Wine Region.

Napa Valley Takes Root

Napa Valley’s roots take hold with Spanish Missionaries, well versed and self-reliant in slaking their thirst with wine, planting Mission grapes across California. It’s been a wild ride since then.

Napa’s First Generation gave us some true heavy hitters. Names like Charles Krug, Rutherford, To Kalon, and Inglenook start Napa’s enological hall of fame.

The Establishment gets Established

Haven’t heard of John Pratchett? He establishes the first commercial vineyard in 1858 and hired winemaker Charles Krug. Krug opens his namesake winery in 1861. George C Yount establishes himself as a founding father of Napa Valley with his 1,00o acre gift to Thomas Rutherford. And shortly thereafter, in 1868, HW Crabb plants what later becomes To Kalon Vineyard. And in 1879 Gustave Niebaum founds Inglenook Winery.

Inevitably, what goes up must come down. And the early 1900’s visits Phylloxera, Prohibition, and the Great Depression at the Valley of Gold. From these lean times, wineries survive making sacramental wine and later emerge victorious.

Beaulieu Vineyards hires Andre Tchelistcheff in 1938 and kick-starts modern winemaking in the Valley. Small, French oak barrels for aging; cold fermentation; vineyard frost protection; and malolactic fermentation offer foundational lessons for Blue Chip, powerhouse producers. Beringer kick starts wine tourism, distributing “All roads lead to Beringer” promotional maps and luring Hollywood stars in for visits (Hello Clark Gable). Because of their efforts, and with the help of Christian Brothers Winery, Napa Valley opens for tourism across the country, and America’s thirsty enthusiasts roll in.

Promotional poster showing actor Clark Gable with Beringer Bottle superimposed over front of image.

Beringer Promotional Poster (image courtesy of

The Guarded Avant-Garde

Thanks to this interest, boutique wineries like Mayacamas and Stony Hill emerge in the 1950s. Larger, more established wineries develop into prestige brands with Robert Mondavi, Freemark Abbey, and Chateau Montelena leading the way. Afterward, smaller operations gain a foothold and Heitz, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Diamond Creek, and Schramsberg enter the stage.

Well-established but not yet internationally recognized, Napa finds its voice in the 1960s and 1970s. Massive investment in the region scales the 20 foundational wineries to more than 200. And then in 1976, the global flood gates open with the Judgment of Paris. And yes, we think 2008’s Bottle Shock cinematic debut is well worth watching.

For all of its glory and power, Napa Valley only gains its status as an American Viticultural Area   (AVA) in 1981. It takes the prize for being California’s first formal AVA.

Yet, Napa Valley’s fame and prestige present modern connoisseurs with a sharp double-edged sword. The delicate balance of power and parody threatens to tumble the regional reputation into that of a drunken Disney for adults. The natural reaction from winemakers? Do less and do it exquisitely well. Napa Valley enjoys the establishment and proliferation of Cult Brands alongside its Blue Chip brands from the 1990s into today.

Two magazine pages on a table to display original copy of Judgment of Paris tasting article

Judgement of Paris article (image courtesy of UC Davis)

What Makes Napa “The” Valley

In the spirit of “less is more”, Napa Valley contains an expansive diversity of terroir in a land mass roughly 1/6th the size of Bordeaux. The 40-mile-long arc of valley eases from the San Francisco Bay north to its closing peak on the western slopes of Mount St Helena.

Napa Valley’s western edge is flanked by the Mayacamas Mountain Range. Significantly, these mountains cast a rain shadow and protect from the marine influences of the Pacific Ocean, creating the hallmark arid conditions of Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain, and Diamond Mountain.

Similarly, the Vaca Mountains which edge Napa Valley to the east offer protection from the Central Valley’s intense heat, offering a more moderate growing season in Atlas Peak, Stag’s Leap, and Howell Mountain.

Napa Valley’s cooler regions anchor at its southern end in the San Pablo Bay. Here, sedimentary soil deposits hold court from the bay’s ebbs and flows. The fog patterns keep the tradition alive and Summer evenings see it roll in from the Pacific through mountain gaps pushed by cooling wind patterns. This fog covers the valley-floor vineyards, often lingering until late morning and creating a 40-degree change in temperature through the day.

The overall climate warms as the Valley winds north towards the decomposed volcanic lava and ash fields. In between these two far reaches lies a remarkable 33 soil types from gravelly loam, to clay, to this rocky soils. From the valley floor, you’ll find a stunning 2,000-foot elevation climb to the highest surrounding peaks.

Napa Valley showcases marvelous diversity and variety across its landscape. It’s no small wonder that with 46,000 acres under vine, America’s most famous wine region is planted at capacity.

Topographical overview of Napa Valley superimposed over an aerial image.

Napa’s Topographical landscape (image courtesy of Napa Valley Vintners)

The Sum of Its Parts

The use of place-name systems to catalog and protect regional produce and identity makes a lot of promises. The imperfect system offers as much controversy and argument as it does the protection of people and terroir. The French AOC system, German QBA, and Italian DOC were joined by the American Viticultural Area system in 1980. And yes, Augusta Missouri was America’s first AVA in 1980, followed very shortly by Napa Valley’s triumphant arrival in 1981. A decade later, Napa Valley growers looked to Bordeaux’s Haut-Médoc and proposed dividing Napa up into communes.

The American Viticultural Area system acts as a nesting doll system and seeks to categorize and group Viticultural Areas with a focus on geographic designations, microclimates, and historical distinctions. The North Coast AVA is one of California’s big four wine-growing regions. Napa Valley joins Sonoma Valley, Mendocino, Lake, Marin, and Solano to offer a whopping 800 wineries in the North Coast AVA, about half of all the wineries in California. The Napa Valley AVA features more than 450 wineries and 16 smaller AVAs within its borders.

From South to North, the Napa Valley sub-AVAs break into the cooler regions around the city of Napa, the middle Valley along Highway 29, and into the foothills and mountains of the Mayacamas to the west and the Vaca Mountains to the east. And each subregion boasts a climate, soil array, history, growing pattern, and terroir unique to the region. Styles deliver immense diversity, the seductive nature of Carneros Chardonnay; lush Coombsville Cabernet; Rutherford’s Red Dust; Diamond Mountain’s stunning structure; Atlas Peak’s rustic rumble.

The Napa Valley Sub-AVAs

Map of Napa Valley with sub AVAs demarcated by various pastel colors

Napa’s Sub AVAs (courtesy of Visit Napa Valley)

South City of Napa AVAs:

Los Carneros
Wild Horse Valley

Middle Valley South to North:

Oak Knoll
St Helena

Mayacamas (West) South to North:

Mount Veeder
Spring Mountain
Diamond Mountain

Vaca Mountains (East) South to North:

Altas Peak
Stag’s Leap
Chiles Valley
Howell Mountain

The Fruits of the Labor

For all the diversity offered by the Napa Valley landscape, the array of styles and grapes produced from its soils boggles the mind. Sparkling, still, and sweet wines make their delectable debut and feature more than three dozen grape varieties. Cabernet Sauvignon reigns supreme and claims the Napa Valley throne on the global stage. Not be outdone, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot all keep happy homes throughout the Valley.


Cabernet Sauvignon

If any grape is synonymous with Napa Valley, it is Cabernet Sauvignon. King Cab represents a resounding 60% of Napa Valley’s overall wine crop and covers 18,200 acres under vine. When grown along the valley floor, Cabernet Sauvignon shows off its fleshy, lush side. Ripe, velvety tannins pair with juicy flavors and a medium-bodied style for Napa’s most welcoming ambassador. The hillsides and mountain expressions tend towards robust, concentrated, deeply colored styles with fine yet powerful tannins. Both styles frame Cabernet Sauvignon’s tell-tale black fruit, floral, and herbaceous character against the Mediterranean climate, varying soil expressions, altitude, and oak regimens. At its best, youthful Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon offers smooth, potent glassfuls. With time, many bottlings age into profoundly elegant wines.

Cluster of Cabernet Sauvignon Grapes on white background

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes (image courtesy of


The undisputed Queen of Napa Valley, Chardonnay covers 7,300 acres under vine. Known for its Terroir-centric character, Chardonnay thrives equally well among the cooler southern reaches of Napa as it does the warmer enclaves further north. Signature styles excel with complex, age-worthy glassfuls that deliver creamy, supple, fleshy beauty. Warmer vineyards feature tropical fruit and Napa’s fingerprint of buttery, toasty oak. Cooler vineyards deliver brighter acidity, citrus, and orchard flavors in a palate rounded out by brioche, vanilla, and hazelnut lace.

Cluster of Chardonnay grapes on vine

Chardonnay grapes on the vine (image courtesy of


Velvety, luxurious Merlot holds its own equally well as Cabernet Sauvignon’s blending partner and as a stand-alone bottling. Soft tannins, juicy cherry character, espresso, and cedar nuances keep Merlot as a stand-out ambassador of Napa Valley grandeur and hedonism.

Sauvignon Blanc

Breaking out from Robert Mondavi’s classic Fumé Blanc style, Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc brings a vibrant, tropical show to the region’s portfolio. North Valley, locally referred to as Up Valley, shows a style famed for its tropical, glamorous edge. Cooler sites eschew grandeur for a lean, grassy, herbaceous edge.

Pinot Noir

Napa Valley’s cooler sites play host to the world’s more finicky stunner. Los Carneros delivers many of Napa Valley’s cooler microclimates, making it ideal for traditional method sparkling wines as well as bright, floral, spicy Pinot Noir.

The Long View

From Benchmark Wines headquarters along Napa’s southern reaches, it’s easy to see why 475 wineries make Napa their home. Over 95% of these wineries are family owned and the wine industry here produces more than 1,000 brands. Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay claim incredible loyalty from producers, who produce some of the most sought-after and collectible bottles in the world. This region continues to safeguard the avant-garde, giving room for obscurities like Albariño and Charbono in their vineyards alongside the region’s tried and true champions. Napa Valley’s growth and international fame drive producers towards responsible stewardship of this remarkable land. Environmental efforts start with conservation, and Napa County protects 90% of its land from development. Sustainable agriculture, conservation, and green business practices work to ensure a bright future for these rolling vistas.

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