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When did Cabernet Sauvignon arrive in Napa Valley?



I’m doing some research for a project I’m involved with at Jackson Family Wines, and one of the things I’m interested in establishing is when the first Cabernet Sauvignon vines were planted in Napa Valley, by whom, and where.

You’d think such things would already be well-documented. After all, Napa Valley is one of the most famous winegrowing regions in the world, and Cabernet is its crowning glory. And Napa Valley is not so old that its vinous origins are lost in the mists of time, as they are in Burgundy and Bordeaux.

So why is it so hard?

I have about a zillion wine books, and I couldn’t find the answers. So I turned to my trusty online source, Facebook, where a number of my friends weighed in. They suggested everybody from H.W. Crabb in 1868 to Capt. Niebaum in 1883, but one, Tom Ward, said “George C. Yount, in 1836, at the site of the current Napanook Vineyard,” a claim Tom says was substantiated by the winemaker at Dominus, Tod Mostero.

I’ll have to do some more fact-checking on that myself, but the point it raises is how easily we in California lose our history, in this fast-paced, twitterized world, where Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes have shrunk to 15 seconds.

I went to some of my California wine books to see what I could find on George Yount, after whom Yountville is of course named. He was the first white settler in what we now call Napa Valley, having come there from Sonoma. Leon Adams, in The Wines of America (1973) says Yount planted “Mission vines,” which he vinified in 1841: no mention, though, of Cabernet Sauvignon. Thomas Pinney’s “A History of Wine in America” (2005) does not even list Yount in the index, nor does his “The Makers of American Wine: A Record of Two Hundred Years” (2012). Then again, Yount doesn’t even appear in Frank Schoonmaker’s and Tom Marvel’s epochal 1941 book, “American Wines,”

Yount does make an appearance in Robert Mondavi’s charming memoir, “Harvests of Joy” (1998), in which Robert calls him “a tough, adventurous trapper”; but Robert does not say Young grew Cabernet (although he does refer to Crabb who in 1868 “obtained certified cuttings of ‘noble varietals’ from Bordeaux…” in the vineyard that eventually became Tokalon (or To Kalon).

Yount also makes a brief appearance in The Oxford Companion to the Wines of North America (2000), with information drawn from other sources. Ditto for Hugh Johnson’s Story of Wine (1999), with the added tidbit that Yount had started as a seal trapper. I could mention a dozen or more other books in my library that refer to Young, but with no additional information.

It seems important that we should establish these facts, of the origins of Cabernet Savignon in Napa Valley. It didn’t happen so long ago that it should be impossible. And yet, maybe it is. Today, everything is recorded. We tend to forget that, not that long ago, not everything was. Nor did men even have the notion that everything should be recorded. Marriages were, and births, and deaths; but the planting of agricultural crops? I mean, what man planted the first plums in Napa? The first nut trees? Then too, we must remember that our obsession (for that is what it is) with specific varieties is of comparatively recent origin. It hardly existed in Old Europe, where they made “Bordeaux” and “Burgundy” and “Hermitage,” not “Cabernet Sauvignon” or “Pinot Noir” or “Syrah.” It was, in fact, due in large measure to Mr. Schoonmaker that our present way of thinking about (and labeling) varietals came about. So maybe it’s not so strange, after all: Young made wines from his estate: what the particular grape variety or varieties was, nobody cared.

Do you know anything about the origin of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley? Can you document it? I’d love to hear from you.

  1. I would recommend talking to the wonderful folks at the Napa Historical Society. I doubt that Yount planted Cabernet. He most certainly did plant Mission grapes, as did most at that time. Have you spoken to Napa Valley Vintners? Charles Sullivan?

    Having written an unpublished app on the history of Napa, I am not surprised this info hasn’t been printed. Napa history books have not exactly been best sellers. Maybe it has more to do with the expectation that all information should be available as a book or as online. Knowledge is broader than that.

    I would also try talking to some old timers like the Pelissa family descendants who farm and live on the land that Yount lived on. Andy Hoxsey might be a good person to ask more about the history of the Yountville area specifically.

  2. Always enjoy your thoughts, but I’m easily distracted by typos; please do a global Search for “Young” & Replace with “Yount” to avoid a citation from the Proofreading Police.

  3. Steve,

    You sound like a man on a mission. Please let us know if you find out the answer.

    I suggest that you contact Dr. Carole Meredith. In 1996 she was a geneticist at UC Davis and discovered the orgin of Cabernet Sauvignon. She found that it was an accidental cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc that ocurred in the 17th Century in France. Perhaps she might know how it first made it’s way to the Napa Valley.

    According to Wikipedia, Dr. Meredith retired from UC
    Davis in 2003. She and her husband , Steve Lagie began making wine in Mount Veeder under the label: Lagier-Meredith.

    Good luck on your quest!

  4. Dear Jim LaMar: Done!

  5. Listen to Pam Strayer.

    Charles Sullivan’s “A Companion to California Wine”, published by your friends at UC Press, has suggestions for its arrival in CA but does not specifically address the arrival in Napa question. Still, he would be my first source, and he is accessible.

  6. This is fantastic stuff! I would have thought it would be easy to find this info but it is a real Holmesian mystery. The name Yount caught my eye immediately as he was prominent in a history piece I did on my poodle a few years ago on the Howell Mtn AVA.

    I don’t believe the 1836 date is feasable though. According to the entries on Yount in Charles L. Sullivan’s Napa Wine a History from Mission Days to Present the first Napa plantings could not have happened before the dormant period between 1838 and 1839. General M.G. Vallejo granted Yount his first of two properties in 1836. It is said he did
    not move into the first one until 1838 (near Yountville). This would put the first possible planting at end of 38 start of 39. J.L.L. Warren the founder of the California State Agricultural Society reported
    the plating of Yount’s first vineyard at 1839. A follow up by the society in 1857 also place the vineyard as 18 years old thus corroborating the 1839 date.

    The big question now is what did he plant? Mission varietals or what was referred to then as “foreign varietals” or both? It was originally thought he derived his cuttings from the abandoned Mission vineyards but Sullivan determined he received them from Vallejo’s own stock. Vallejo purportedly salvaged these from the Mission San Rafael and Sonoma as well as some he obtained from the Russian traders from Ft Ross who brought European “foreign” stock with them.

    I could not find the answer to what Vallejo held but one of Sullivan’s references: The Vineyards of Gen. M. G. Vallejo – Madie D Brown may have the answer. There is a .pdf of this but I didn’t bother to eat the $22 for a possible dead end 🙂

    Again we don’t know for sure what he planted even if Vallejo did in fact have Cab in his stock.

    We do know that by 1853 Yount made a wine that and SF news writer described as “clear bright red, and bears a good resemblance to the Bordeaux wines”. It was called a claret by the writer. Could it have had Cab in it?

    Other possibles are Haraszthy or Krug or possibly 1861 when George Belden Crane planted his quality “foreign vinifera” although it still is not clear if Cab was present.

    This really fun stuff. Hope you get to the bottom of it and share with us here on the blog.

  7. I hope Charles Sullivan weighs in here or is contacted by Steve. So far (according to CS writing about CS !!!!) there is suggestion that Gustave Niebaum planted CS at Inglenook by 1883. But I would like to know more about Charles Wetmore’s importations. And didn’t Concannon ancestors bring in cuttings from Ch Margaux (from which modern Clone 7 is derived)? Not sure about the timing of the Wetmore and Concannon imports. Someone else who has researched this is John Wetlaffer, but I don’t think he is active on social media. He’s a fellow Calistoga, so will see try to cross paths with him.

  8. John Costello says:

    You might look into Kelli White’s book “Napa Valley Then & Now”

  9. Katrina Kirkham, Casa Nuestra says:

    Steve, I have electronic copies of some old reports from the Agricultual Research Station in Oakville, c. 1870, These may provide clues. Our old Oakville vineyard is a stone’s throw from the station, was planted in 1920 and, typical of the time, had no Cabernet Sauvignon. As to how Cabernet became so widely planted (which is not technically your question, I know), I believe that the single largest factor is the letter the old co-op sent to growers in 1978 or 1979 saying that they would no longer take mixed black grapes and that all future receipts at the co-op would need to be identified by varietal. The co-op suggested that if growers were going to replant, that they believed Cabernet Sauvignon would be a good choice. That letter prompted widespread replanting to Cabernet Sauvignon. Gene would be a good person to talk to about this. If you’re interested, call the winery or email me and we will put you in touch. He has some other ideas about people who might be good sources. Happy hunting!

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