How did the Napa Valley, a 30-mile-long strip of rural land stretching from the San Pablo Bay to Mount St. Helena, where livestock used to be the most important industry, vault itself into the global wine scene?
The Napa AVA (American Viticultural Area) was California’s first, established in 1981. Through a hard-won blend of intentionality in vineyard farming, winemaking, marketing, and maintaining family ownership and tradition, Napa winemakers have been able to consistently create wines of rare and notable character.
There are many articles on the history of Napa Valley – and history is central for this one. But we’ll go a little deeper – what really makes up Napa’s greatness?
Bedrock of Greatness: An Argument for Napa Valley Terroir
What is Terroir?
We know the word terroir can immediately bring up feelings of wine snobbishness. Even for wine lovers, it can feel at worst pretentious, at best, vague and confusing.
But terroir isn’t just a buzz word – and the argument that Napa really is “great” – that Napa’s wines taste like nowhere else – is centered around it.
If you’re completely unfamiliar, a shorthand idea that gets at the essence of terroir is “somewhereness,” coined by wine author Matt Kramer.
That is, a wine tastes like the collective elements of the place it came from – soil, climate, irrigation, farming and winemaking techniques.
While all wines are influenced by environmental and human elements, not all wines are “great” or have “terroir,” though they may purely express where they were grown.
Terroir is the effect of these combined elements to create a distinct, individual beauty in a wine.
It can seem silly to look at a standard of “distinctive beauty” in a consumable product, in wine.
But for lovers of wine, wine is a work of art. A wine can have a beautiful color, beautiful aromas – or be beautiful overall (and perhaps, it’s all the more beautiful because, unlike a painting or poem, it is consumable, fleeting, each bottle unrepeatable).
Being “terroir-driven” is a type of this overall beauty that points to greatness in a wine.
Do Napa Wines Have Terroir?
Soil of Napa Valley
The first thing we think of when we see “terroir” is, of course, earth – like “terrain” or “terra cotta.”
Soil composition is an important part of terroir, but terroir isn’t just tasting the dirt or rocks in a glass of wine.
Soil influences grape vines by its drainage properties, depth, warmth retention, and mineral composition, among several aspects.
Napa is home to various soil types, situated between the Mayacamas and Vaca Mountain ranges:
- In general, the mountain AVAs (Diamond Mountain District, Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder etc.) have more shallow, infertile, well-draining soil composed of volcanic and marine sedimentary soil types. Combined with the higher elevations, these soils produce Cabernet Sauvignon and other varietals at lower yields, but with great intensity, balance, and refreshing acidity.
- The AVAs of the valley floor and lower hills (like Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena) in general have fertile alluvial soils on the western side and eroded volcanic soils in the east that drain well, which is ideal for Cabernet especially.
Variations in soil can produce different expressions even in the same vineyard – giving winemakers options for optimal varietal planting and care.
Climate of Napa Valley
One of the most important factors of terroir consideration is climate. Overall, Napa has a temperate Mediterranean climate, which presents an ideal opportunity to grow grapes that are very balanced between ripeness and mature acidity.
Napa also has many microclimates that vary even within each of the 16 Napa AVAs.
These are often due to elevation differences (i.e., more sun up in the mountains, and fog influence on the valley floor) and whether AVAs are at the cooler, southern end of the valley near the San Pablo Bay or the warmer, northern end around St. Helena.
Our V. Sattui estate AVA, the St. Helena AVA, is uniquely warmer than the rest of the valley because the valley constricts to its narrowest point here, trapping warmth. This helps create more fully and evenly ripening vineyards in the area.
We also have an estate vineyard property in the cooler Mt. Veeder AVA, and source from high quality producers in the neighboring Rutherford AVA, from both Preston Vineyard and Morisoli Vineyard (the Rutherford AVA is unique for the distinct “Rutherford dust” characteristic that its soil imparts to wines).
The Vine: Grape Varietals of Napa Valley
The vines planted in the Napa Valley have changed significantly over its history – it was not always the mecca for world-class Cabernet Sauvignon and other quality wines that it is today.
In the 1960s, there was a third of the current acreage of grapes in Napa, and grapes were a crop of up-and-coming importance.
The most grown red grape was Petite Sirah, followed by Zinfandel and a couple of others. The now-ubiquitous Cabernet Sauvignon brought up the rear at fifth-most grown out over 80 total varieties (red and white).
Today, Napa vintners have found ideal varieties to match the climate and growing conditions of the region, with the star player evidently being Cabernet Sauvignon. Why Cab though?
Napa Valley Cabernet
“The King of Grapes.” Cabernet Sauvignon is a naturally powerful grape, able to produce ample tannins, alcohol, and complex fruit and non-fruit characteristics in the wine. Its typically complex structure also allows it to age well, and beautifully.
The Mediterranean climate of the valley, especially the large shift from warm days to much cooler nights, allows the grapes to reach full ripeness over a healthy period of time.
The cool nights also help it retain and slowly mature its acidity, which balances the power of the wine with freshness. This dynamic also fosters beautiful aromatics and profile notes.
Variations in vineyard elevation and other microclimate factors produce very different expressions of the same varietal. This is a tantalizing opportunity for experimentation with and specialization in excellent fruit that continues to draw the world’s best winemakers.
Vineyards and Winemaking in Napa Valley
That being said, vineyards that make wines of terroir have been crafted towards an optimal state – both by Mother Nature and by the dedicated hands of vineyard farmers and winemakers.
Including human intervention in terroir may seem scandalous. But even the vineyards of Bordeaux were created from intentional draining of swampland, the legendary hillsides of Burgundy from ancient quarries.
Every aspect of the environment and winemaking process has undergone careful consideration and crafting towards great fruit – which allows for great wine in the Napa Valley.
This includes sourcing grapes from other areas outside of the Napa Valley that exhibit terroir. For instance, we have 13 different Zinfandels, each an expression of its region’s unique terroir.
Napa Valley and Climate Change
One of the most important of these winemaking considerations is that these deliberate efforts to match the perfect grapes to this ideal climate, with Cabernet as king among them, is currently threatened by the changing climate.
With rising temperatures year-over-year, it’s possible that the ideal grape of the region may eventually change – resulting in a loss of Napa’s iconic wines.
Which is why now, more than ever, is the time to enjoy the wines of Napa, while they still exist in their ideal state.
History of Napa Valley
Lastly, a key element of terroir that is often overlooked is the evolution of a winemaking area over time, passed down through generations of vintners.
Terroir takes time. Terroir requires a collective effort and history — it doesn’t happen overnight, or usually even in a few generations.
Napa’s meteoric rise to the top of the winemaking world is often questioned along this line of thought. Compared to the Old World of winemaking greats, Napa is very young. How could it be that great? How can it have developed terroir?
Yet, the wines that are a product of its history have been tried and found to hold their own against the best regions in the world, as seen in the “Judgment of Paris” wine tastings of 1976 and 2006, competing against some of the wines most known for terroir in the world.
The effects of Napa’s bold, intentional winemaking has also resulted not only in the boom of the Napa wine industry, attracting world-class winemakers and investors, but has also heralded the advent of a world-class culinary and dining scene in the valley.
However, besides the limelight of international tastings, family-owned wineries remain among the strongest and most unique in the valley for great wine, with long pedigrees of award-winning (and more accessible) Napa wines.
Most importantly is the ongoing devotion of Napa’s wineries and farmers to protect the local agricultural environment, with concrete initiatives such as the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve (zoning laws protecting Napa farmland) contributing to the Valley’s preservation. Without preserving Napa as a place, we cannot preserve “wines of place.”
Historical Napa Greatness: Family-Owned Wineries in Napa
For Napa, this historical stewardship of terroir – of Napa’s greatness – is anchored by the long-standing families and family traditions of winemaking in the Valley.
V. Sattui proudly carries on this tradition of family ownership in the valley. We are deeply ingrained in what makes Napa wine great – an intentional winemaking vision rooted in site expression, varietal quality, and dedication to hospitality through the experience of great wine and food.
Napa, even today, still has some of the charm of a small farming town that belies its global prestige. Visitors are often surprised to find the two-lane highways and small hamlets linking wineries, surrounded by low-key residential neighborhoods and farms as they ride through the valley.
Yet, Napa’s greatness continues to grow and be shaped by the best wineries in Napa, and there’s no better way to enjoy the literal fruits of our labor than tasting our wine in a comfortable, beautiful setting.
Few wineries are as long-established as V. Sattui, with our passion stretching back to our original winery founded in 1885.
Few offer bespoke wedding services in a beautiful winery venue, daily-curated Italian food, and family-friendly picnic grounds.
None surround their history of great Napa wines with such warm, family hospitality as we do – since none so firmly believe that this is the most important part of Napa’s legacy of great wine.