Napa Valley

Published March 26, 2016 - Updated January2021

How does a landscape cultivate mildness, elegance, and wealth? You can find out if you visit the Napa Valley in California during spring. It is a composition of vineyards, small towns, wineries, forests and low mountain ranges that slowly narrow until you reach Calistoga. You will find some of the best restaurants in the world, expensive hotels, and rich tourists. This culture of living well is embedded into a traditional California country-side, with small towns that show their wealth through a display of architecture and modern art, beautifully maintained gardens, and vineyards that seem to belong to the surrounding nature forever.

Napa county today has around 138,000 inhabitants. The first settlers, a southern branch of the Wintu tribe, came to the valley about 10,000-12,000 years ago. They were hunter-gatherers who consumed local seafood, deer, rabbit, fowl, acorns, and roots. They lived along the creeks and rivers in small villages, and were generally peaceful. Due to the abundance of food and vegetation, a basket-making tradition emerged early on among the Indians. The Spanish arrived in the 1820s; they began to conquer and settle the area and created large cattle farms. After the 1846 war between Mexico and the United States, California was annexed to the United States, and in 1850 California became the 31st state in the Union. Napa county was one of the original 27 counties that formed California.

The main town is Napa, with a population of approximately 80,000 people, strategically located next to the Napa River. In the early years, settlers could go by boat from San Francisco all the way north to Napa, which made the town the main trading center with the rich agricultural areas further north. The first steamboat arrived in Napa from San Francisco in 1850. Commercial wine production started in 1858, and by the end of the 19th century, there were already more than 140 wineries in operation. Major setbacks came through the infestation with the Phylloxera louse that killed many of the vines throughout the valley. And when the prohibition of alcohol in the US went into effect in 1920, most wineries had to close. But Napa valley bounced back, and began to thrive again after the Second World War. The warm and protected Mediterranean climate is ideal for wine-growing, and in the 60s and 70s large-scale industrial wine-making was introduced, spearheaded by Robert Mondavi. The region got a boost from the Paris Wine Tasting competition of 1976, which included a Napa Valley Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. These wines won in a blind tasting comparison, and this success cemented the region’s reputation as a producer of world class wines.

With the vineyards came the tourists and the restaurants. The best restaurants today can be found in the small villages north of Napa, like Yountville, Rutherford, or St. Helena. Yountville is a small town of 3000 people, but it houses 18 restaurants, and three of them have Michelin stars. The leader is still the French Laundry, a restaurant that received three Michelin stars and was nominated several times as the best restaurant in the world. It offers an expensive, sophisticated and yet simple menu. How do you reach and maintain a level of perfection in cooking? What happens in the kitchen is only the endpoint in the chain of production, as the French Laundry Cookbook demonstrates. Finding and selecting ingredients is integral to its success, and in this way, the restaurant connects to the surrounding land and the farms. Cooking itself has become a high-end skill: being a chef today is a very intense and complex profession that has little in common with the way people cooked even 50 years ago. The owner and chef of the French Laundry, Thomas Keller, renovated the kitchen and the restaurant in 2018 for a reported cost of 10 million dollars.

At the end of 2019, there were 10 Michelin-rated restaurants in Napa Valley, which makes it the culinary equivalent to Silicon Valley on the northern side of California's Bay Area. Some of these restaurants deserve a visit: The Auberge du Soleil, La Toque, the Japanese Restaurants Kenzo and Morimoto in Napa. There is another three-star restaurant in Rutherford, the Meadowood Restaurant, which operated its own garden as well. You cannot visit it any ore, because it was destroyed by the wildfires in September 2020. The website indicates that they are looking for a way to survive. It also demonstrates that these high-end restaurants are not the work of an individual culinary genius: They are successful enterprises run by talented teams. A few years ago, they expressed their philosophy of cooking in these words:

We strive for seriousness, for meaning, and for permanence in our cooking. We attempt to cook in service to the place in which we find ourselves–hoping that, if we succeed in doing so well, that we may cement our legacy within this greater thing. We hold the thread of the multitudes of collaborators and of a history shared by chefs and cooks that have preceded us. We try to do things right in how we shop and cook; how we approach the sanctity of the products that we grow and procure; how we teach and mentor and support our team. We are relentless in trying to make the food better, more delicious, more relevant, more singular, more personal. We are smart enough to know that this is a forever task, yet impetuous enough to try to still do it all today. Our food is what we give of ourselves. It is at once our daily efforts and their culmination.

Unfortunately, human effort alone does not guarantee success.

The density of expensive and high-end restaurants cannot exist without wealthy patrons: Napa Valley attracts a never-ending stream of visitors. As of 2019, around four million people visited Napa Valley each year, spending a whopping two billion dollars. The annual growth rate of visitors has been around 4%. Even wildfires and the pandemic will not substantially change this trend. Napa Valley is one of the top Tourist destinations in the US, and “The World’s Best Wine and Food Destination” as awarded by TripAdvisor in 2010. You can spend an entire vacation going wine-tasting and dining! (They even have a wine train that will transport you up and down the valley.) There are about 400 wineries with tasting rooms in the valley, and around 600 if you include neighboring areas like Sonoma and Santa Rosa as well. Small towns and vineyards have evolved into major attractions: they offer tours, explanations, wine-making activities, nice restaurants, exquisite architecture, and, of course, shopping. In spite of so much tourism, the area has kept its low-key feeling of casual elegance, where time flows slowly, just as the grapes ripen. But danger is looming: Will climate change destroy its culture? Napa Valley is a place where American culture will have to defend itself and learn how to live with climate change. Geography is destiny, and running away is not an option.

At the northern end of the valley is a small town, Calistoga. Famous for its mud-baths, it is more town-to earth, and also worthy of a visit. If you go even further north, you will reach large forests that were destroyed by major fires in 2015 and revisited by fires in the following years. These wildfires are now encroaching seasonally on Napa and its wine industry. 2020 was the worst fire season ever (see the Glass Fire), with some of the wineries burning, and fires directly bordering on the vineyards. Weeks of smoke leaves the grapes "marinated" before they get harvested. What will the ecological change bring to this region?