100 Years of Napa Valley Winemaking History 1917-2017

In 1917, the United States was two years away from passing the Volstead Act, known as Prohibition. It was the law of the land until the 18th Amendment rescinded it in 1932. While the law made exceptions for sacramental wine, allowing for personal production of up to 200 gallons a year, all but 100 of the 2500 wineries in operation before 1920 ceased to exist.

It wasn’t until the late 40’s that wine-making in Napa started to pick up again. Louis Martini and Inglenook were among the post war pioneers, but the most influential force during this time was Beaulieu Vineyards and its new winemaker, André Tchelistcheff.

Born in Russian in 1901, Tchelistcheff’s family fled during the revolution. He studied agriculture in Czechoslovakia and then went to France where he dived into the science of wine-making at the Institute National Agronomique and the Institute Pasteur. It was at the latter that he met Georges de Latour, who purchased what became Beaulieu Vineyards in 1904. Latour made him an offer that he couldn’t refuse and Tchelistcheff arrived in Napa in 1938, becoming the chief winemaker and vice president of what was already considered one of the best wineries in California. He lived and worked in Napa until he passed away in 1994.

To say that Tchelistcheff revolutionized wine-making is an understatement. Planting at higher density using French oak barrels and frost protection in the vineyards, he introduced cold fermentation and promoted malolactic fermentation. His impact was far reaching and certainly not lost on Robert Mondavi, who broke with his family (who owned Charles Krug) and started his own winery in 1965.

Mondavi was not only a great winemaker but also a brilliant marketer. He expanded his holdings throughout the 60’s and 70’s, turning Robert Mondavi Winery into a highly recognized brand. Not least, he was a huge proponent of bottling single varietals, which was surprisingly pretty uncommon during this time. While Inglenook and Louis Martini had been doing this for decades, Mondavi had a distribution channel that made his wines nationally famous.

By the late 60’s, there were not only more single varietal wines but also single vineyard bottling, which began to emerge with Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard and the Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon being among the earliest.

The pivotal moment for Napa Valley wine came in 1976 at the Judgment of Paris. There, 11 judges (nine of who were French) blind tasted one panel of Chardonnays and another of Red Bordeaux blends and, low and behold, the top gold medals were awarded to two California wines: the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay — made by Mike Grgich who went on to start his own winery, Grgich Hills in 1977 — and the 1973 Stags Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon. Other California wines placed very well too, with the 1973 Chalone Chardonnay taking home the bronze. Nearly overnight, California wines had a newfound respect and were taken much more seriously.

As its reputation for making world class wines soared, “cult” wines began to emerge. Diamond Creek, which was founded in 1968 started to acquire a following by the 1980’s, as did Bryant Family Wines and Dunn. Colgin, Araujo and Harlan entered the picture in the 1990’s, and if there were ever a cult Cabernet, Screaming Eagle, which sells for almost $2000 a bottle, would be it.

While Napa Valley is Cabernet Sauvignon focused, many other grapes are grown and the region continues to evolve. It has become a hotbed of influence for aspiring winemakers who come to work here from all over the world. In 1917, it might have seemed as if winemaking was on the way out but Napa is now held in the same regard as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany and Piedmont. What a difference a 100 years makes!

Frank Melis

Golden Gate Wine Cellars