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Thinking pre-Auction thoughts of Napa Valley

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My relationship with Napa Valley goes all the way back to 1979, when my cousins brought me there on my first winetasting trip. We were then living in Benicia, in Solano County, which borders Napa County; I was supposed to be a transpersonal psychology major at John F. Kennedy University, in their graduate school, but changed my mind after visiting the campus and discovering it was kind of loony, even for an old hippie like me. Good thing, that decision; had I become a therapist, I probably never would have been a wine writer. Now, I need a therapist.

We went, that day as I recall, to Charles Krug and Robert Mondavi (where else?) and one or two others. It’s still a subject of debate with my cousins concerning who got drunk. They say I did; I say Keith did; we’ll never know. At any rate, I visited Napa Valley as often as I could during the 1980s, when I was living, working and going to school in San Francisco. But it wasn’t until I began writing about wine, in 1989, that my visits became less about tourism and more about covering this very important wine region.

Nowadays when I go to Napa it’s with the sense of seeing an old friend. There’s the familiar battle to break out of Bay Area traffic. Once you get past the Berkeley-Emeryville bottleneck and get to the Carquinez Bridge, you’re halfway there; but you’re not out of the woods yet, traffic-wise. Highway 29 through American Canyon can be a grind. They’ve built so many houses up there, at relatively affordable prices, that the population has exploded over the years, while 29 remains a pokey little road, with lots of stoplights. It’s not until you cross that bridge over the Napa River (what’s its name?), with that long row of eucalyptus trees on your left, that you have the sense that now, you’re close to wine country.

Past the Yountville Hills, the valley opens up, and there are the old, familiar wineries dotting 29. Domaine Chandon, Trefethen with its odd pink color, the old Turnbull barn, Mondavi’s arch and campanile, Nickel & Nickel with that old car in front, Peju with its graceful plane trees lining the driveway, Beaulieu’s industrial-looking brick facade, and so on. Beyond the familiarity, however, I still feel something of an outsider when I go to Napa Valley, even after all these years. It’s like I don’t really belong. I think you have to live and work in Napa for a long time to feel like you’re actually a part of the community.

I’m thinking Napa thoughts because, of course, the Auction is coming up. I‘ll be there for at least two events: the big walkaround tasting at Jarvis, and a dinner at Kenzo, to which I’ve kindly been invited. As for the auction itself, I won’t be there, although other colleagues from Wine Enthusiast will. When I used to work for the other magazine, I covered that auction like white on rice. I’d sit there with my little hand-held calculator, tallying up every lot, even though the auction officials were doing that. I couldn’t even go to the bathroom out of fear of missing any of the action. That’s how ambitious I was, to succeed at this crazy business of wine writing. If I have any advice to give to the legions of wannabe wine writers out there, it’s this: Work hard.

There are a lot more wineries in Napa Valley today than there were in 1979. Then again, even 33 years ago, oldtimers would tell me how crowded Napa was getting; they could remember when there were only a dozen or so. I doubt if there will be many new wineries established in the future, although, of course, there are always new negociant brands, or virtual wineries, made under someone else’s bond.

For all the changes, the logic of Napa Valley is pretty much the same as it’s ever been: the hilly vineyards of the Mayacamas in the west, the benches along Highway 29, the wineries of the central valley, on either side of the Napa River and Conn Creek, and then the vineyards of the Vaca Range, on the valley’s eastern side. Then, of course, there’s the temperature gradient from southeast to northwest. As with all great wine regions, that intellectual topography is at once easy to grasp, yet exasperatingly complex in its details. A wine writer could study it for decades without being able to fully account for all the exceptions to the rules. At least, that’s been my experience. Maybe in another 30 years it’ll make sense.

  1. TomHill says:

    Interesting thoughts on NapaVlly, Steve.
    Like you, my first foray into wine visits was to the NapaVlly…in ’74.
    I remember driving down MainSt (Hwy29) in StHelena about 6:30 am, looking for a
    BB court to shoot some hoops, and seeing this little ole lady walking down the
    street to pick up her SFChron, dressed in this ratty blue terrycloth robe and fuzzy
    blue scuffs, hair all askew. The place is probably so chi-chi now that she’s be thrown
    in jail for being a public nusiance.
    Certainly, the NapaVlly has changed from those days. A plethora of life-style statement
    wineries, the hills dotted w/ McMansions, the nightmare of trying to turn across traffic
    on Hwy29 during the weekend, very upscale restaurants…the whole shebang. The NapaVlly Auction
    (never been myself….not likely to ever go), at least from the coverage I see in WineSpectator and other wine lifestyle magazines of that ilk, goes a long way to further that image.
    That being said….I think the NapaVlly often gets a bad rap from many of us who like to drink real wine…”real wine” not in the sense of Alice…but real wine that doesn’t come in a wooden 3-pak box w/ wood-burned labeling..real wine that doesn’t cost $200+/btl…real wine that you can sit down and knock back with gusto with a pizza or pig parts. If you poke around a bit, you can still find, amidst all the life-style statements there, real people out there making real wine, real people who are a joy to talk to and hang with and not just trying to sell you another high-end NapaVlly Cab..people who make Tocai or Ribolla or Refosco or StLaurent or GreenHungarian or Mondeuse. And that’s what keeps drawing me back to the NapaVlly. It’s still a very special place to me.
    Tom

  2. Ted Henry says:

    Its called the Butler Bridge. You left off passing the grape crusher statue and welcome to Napa Valley sign. I have strong memories of these landmarks from my first Napa visit.

    Hope you enjoy the auction events Steve.

  3. Ted Henry, thanks! The grape crusher statue is an icon. I should have included it.

  4. David Ashcraft says:

    Thanks Steve!

  5. My landmark is an odd, mental one that lasted only a brief moment, but solidified my love for this place. It was around the time of the first wine auction. I was driving in my car down Main Street, paused at the stop light, and here was this man sitting on a trash can in front of a drug store yakking with a friend. Very animated, he began to laugh and unconsciously leaned backward tipping the trash can and if the friend hadn’t caught him, Bob Mondavi would have ended up on the sidewalk on his ass along with the trash can. That’s the real Napa Valley, behind whatever facade that we create and despite what some people think, we really aren’t any more sophisticated now than we ever were.

  6. John Roberts says:

    True. Nice imagery in a post that a lot of us can probably relate to. I like Morton’s point too. For me, living in or coming from Sonoma Co so much, it’s the American flag on the redwood when one makes their way down Calistoga Rd into northern Napa Co, in Calistoga. The street of elms, Zinfandel Ln, and the bridge by Rutherford Crossing. They certainly hold a sense of nostalgia almost innately. I hope you’re right Steve, that the volume of new wineries will shrink or drop considerably. This isn’t an ever expanding drift of desert and the continual planting is unsustainable. Long live the classics, and I think the barriers to entry for newcomers is appropriate. There’s some exciting possibility with the outskirts, with pioneers and their young fruit and new terroir, but the valley, let’s preserve this. Cheers

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