In its many forms and styles, wine has been produced and consumed for centuries. Even during biblical times, consumers in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia are known to have consumed wines during their festive occasions and even as medicines.

As early as 1000 BCE, the Etruscans and Greeks are believed to have domesticated grape production and promoted winemaking on a large scale.

Today Napa Valley wine country in California is known as one of the world’s most highly respected winemaking regions.

So, when how and when did grape cultivation and winemaking begin in this critical region?

Looking Back: 19th Century California

The history of wine in Napa Valley is a rich and fascinating story that began during the mid-19th Century, soon after the famous Gold Rush that changed California’s landscape forever.

Here are some critical milestones in Napa Valley’s winemaking history:

  • During the late 1700s, missionaries directed by Father Junipero Sera planted vines to be used solely for religious purposes. Their “mission wines” were consumed by residents of the nine regional Catholic missions.
  • Around 1836-1839, George Calvert Yount was considered the first to cultivate grapes for commercial use in Napa Valley. While his land was still part of Mexico until 1850, George Yount’s and his family’s efforts would be recognized in naming the pivotal community of Yountville, situated in the heart of Napa Valley.
  • In 1859, Samuel Brannan purchased a tract of land on the northern end of Napa Valley, where he planted grapevines on 100 acres of what he named Agua Caliente Ranch. The ranch served as the hub of what would become Calistoga.
  • John Patchett is credited with creating the first vineyard, winery, and cellar from 1854 to 1859, with Charles Krug as the Winemaker.
  • In 1861, Charles Krug established the first recognized, long-standing, and successful Napa Valley winery.
  • Around 1864, John Lewelling, Peter Veeder, and Captain Stelham Wing began planting vines in different parts of Napa Valley. Mt. Veeder and Wing Canyon would eventually be named for two of these gentlemen.
  • In 1865, John Steckler began farming a 365-acre property near what is now the village of Rutherford. The Staglin Family Vineyard continues cultivating part of that property today, and the original Steckler farmhouse remains.
  • By 1889, Napa Valley boasted at least 140 operating wineries. Other early pioneering wineries were Schramsberg (1862), Beringer 1876, and Inglenook (1879).

Adding New Grape Varieties

By the second half of the 19th Century, many growers were convinced that the combination of microclimates, soil types, and elevations in Napa Valley could support the development of a far more comprehensive range of grape varieties. As a result, the race was on to bring in many more wine grape types from Italy, France, Germany, and other origins.

Eventually, varieties like Zinfandel, Petit Sirah, Malbec, Riesling, Grenache, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Petit Verdot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Muscat, Cabernet Sauvignon, and more would grace the landscape in sectors of Napa Valley that could support their unique characteristics.

Catastrophe Strikes

As the pioneering vintners and winemakers of Napa Valley flourished and expanded, the demand for their wines snowballed during the latter decades of the 1800s.

But, as the 20th Century dawned, two devastating events occurred that would nearly obliterate the Napa Valley wine industry.

The first event that began in the 1890s would devastate the industry for several decades. The outbreak of the Phylloxera epidemic occurred. This blight, caused by a parasitic, root-eating insect, initiated the development of a destructive fungus in the vines.

In time, the condition spread throughout the region, killing thousands of acres of grapevines.

Eventually, the epidemic subsided once vintners learned to graft Phyloxera-resistant American rootstock to their European vine varieties. Today, the heritage of nearly all the world’s grapevines traces back to the influence of American rootstock, and the problem has been virtually eliminated.

The Onset of Prohibition

A second notable event that nearly destroyed the Napa Valley wine industry occurred in 1920 with the passage of the 18th Amendment (aka the Volstead Act) to the United States Constitution. Prohibition banned the “manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquors” for mass consumption which impacted the further growth and profitability of the wineries.

As a result of the growing Temperance Movement, the Amendment resulted in the virtual closing of nearly all the 2,500 wineries throughout California. However, some vineyards continued producing table grapes while others converted their vineyards into fruit orchards of various kinds.

A few wineries did continue making small amounts of wine legally for religious purposes, mainly as sacramental wines for church services. Some, like Beringer Vineyards, could continue operations on a smaller scale.

Interestingly, however, some wineries spotted an ingenious loophole that allowed them to produce “raisin cakes” that could be marketed legally. The products bore a “warning” that cautioned that “cakes” that are reconstituted into a liquid, then placed in a jug and allowed to sit out for a few weeks, the liquid could begin to ferment. Many consumers ignored that “warning” and performed fermenting at home.

A New Age of Napa Valley Winemaking

By 1933, the United States Congress and many states began to show an inclination to repeal Prohibition. Eventually, nearly all the states adopted laws allowing for producing and selling of alcoholic beverages.

So now, the rebuilding of the once-flourishing Napa Valley wine business has begun once again.

In Napa Valley, one of the most recognized leaders of this “new age” of Napa Valley winemaking was Andres Tshlistcheff, a Russian winemaker living in France. Widely recognized for his extensive knowledge and advanced winemaking techniques, Tschlistcheff was recruited by Georges de Latour, the owner of Beaulieu Vineyards, to help revolutionize the rebirth of wine production in Napa Valley.

Besides upgrading the winemaking processes and sanitation within the winery, Tschlistcheff also shared his vast knowledge of improved viticulture and terroir-specific varietal planting.

Another leader in the re-emergence of the Napa Valley wine industry was Robert Mondavi. Besides converting the original Krug operation into a more modern, highly efficient winemaking entity, Mondavi led the initiative to prove that wines from Napa Valley could compete with others worldwide.

Winning the Paris Wine Tasting: The Judgement of 1976

To date, the worldwide conviction was that the best wines in the world all originated in Europe. American wines were considered substandard, so organizers of a Paris Wine Tasting in 1976 had little apprehension about including some Napa Valley entries into a competition judged by nine of France’s most respected wine experts.

In the blind wine tasting, two Napa Valley wines earned first place, indeed a shocking outcome for wine enthusiasts everywhere. Some French judges even asked to have their ballots returned to avoid the inevitable reputation damage that could follow.

Most importantly, from then on, Napa Valley wines have shared center stage with all the world’s top wine-producing regions.

Napa Valley Wines Today

Napa Valley’s reputation for producing some of the best wines in the world continues to grow. The region boasts over 450 operating wineries, although over 1,700 are registered with the Alcoholic Beverage Board of California. As wine consumption increases, interest in winemaking and grape production in Napa Valley is also rising rapidly.

One of the primary objectives for visitors coming to Napa Valley is to participate in one of the well-organized California wine country tours and participate in various Napa Valley wine-tasting events.

One premier California wine country tours company based in Napa, Platypus Wine Tours, offers safe join-in and custom Napa Valley and Sonoma wine-tasting activities created to entertain and educate guests as they travel from one boutique winery to the next.

Reserve Your Napa Valley Wine Tasting Tours with Platypus Wine Tours

Learn about the history and development of the Napa Valley wine industry firsthand as you travel through the region with Platypus Wine Tours as your guide. A professional guide will answer your questions along the way and offer fascinating anecdotes about many of the vineyards and wineries you will pass along the way.

Contact Platypus Wine Tours in Napa for a fun, insightful, and safe Napa wine-tasting tour with the most reputable and well-prepared California wine country tours company.

Visit the Platypus Wine Tours website and learn about the extraordinary opportunities to learn about the history of winemaking in Napa Valley and some insight into the winemaking process from vine to bottle.

To reserve your join-in, private, or custom group outing for your California wine country tours, visit the Platypus Wine Tours website.

If you have specific questions or wish to reserve your Napa Valley wine tastings and tour by phone, call (707)-253-2723.