By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: This article is also an updated chapter for the next edition of my book Northern California History Weekends. When all the 52 chapters are revised, a new edition of the book will appear.)
In Brief: While many adventurers were drawn to California in search of gold nuggets, some discovered that the true gold was to be found in agriculture. No agricultural product was pursued with more passion than the growing of grapes and the making of wine, especially Cabernet wine in the Napa Valley.
The Historic Story: Because there are hundreds of wineries in the Napa Valley, choosing where to tour and taste is a challenge. However, three wineries in can be celebrated for their historic contribution to the development of California wine, their architectural significance, and their vital place in wine production today. These well-aged gems are sure to delight a traveler: Inglenook in Rutherford, Beringer Vineyards in St. Helena, and Robert Mondavi in Oakville.
Inglenook was founded in 1879 by Gustave Niebaum, a Finnish sea captain who came to Napa and built a classic structure known as the Inglenook Chateau. The handsome brown stone building, covered with ivy, is an architectural treasure in the Napa Valley. Niebaum’s wine goal was the production of rich Bordeaux-style Cabernets. In the 1990s, a Parisian-style park and fountains were established in front of the winery for the enjoyment of the public. Inside, you can see memorabilia from the Niebaum era. There are two tasting rooms, one casual and one more formal. Francis and Eleanor Coppola purchased the property in 1975 and have spent many years restoring Inglenook’s illustrious heritage.
The great German Riesling wine-making traditions of the Rhine and Mosel River valleys contributed several pioneers to the Napa Valley. Foremost among these were the Beringer brothers, who arrived in 1876 and built their palatial Rhine House and winery. The Rhine House is another outstanding architectural treasure of the Napa region. As in the old country, the Beringers dug caves deep into the limestone hills to provide a year-round, climate-controlled, cool environment for their wines. Wine stored in barrels in caves, which are high in humidity, also did not lose much liquid through evaporation. This loss to evaporation from exposed oak barrels not in caves was sometimes called “the angel’s share,” with some humor mixed in to mitigate the pain from actual cost in profit. The lawns, oak trees, and stately house at Beringer Vineyards make the scene inviting. Basic tours and tastings are provided for a fee. Beringer puts emphasis on the white wine varietal of choice for the modern drinker, Chardonnay, but still also makes a German-heritage Riesling.
The name Robert Mondavi is legendary in the modern era of the Napa Valley, that period since the 1960s when Americans once again learned to enjoy wine. The Valley flourished with wine-making before Prohibition, but was decimated when the Volstead Act of 1919 made wine-making illegal. The Great Experiment, as some called Prohibition, lasted 1919-1933. Sons from a generation of wine families went into other businesses. However, a few families persisted, among them the Mondavis, holding their acreage together. There were 140 wineries in the Napa Valley in 1890, but only 25 in 1965. Robert Mondavi, who died in 2008, was a tireless spokesman for the joy of moderate wine drinking as an element in the good life. His Cliff May-designed winery, with echoes of California Mission architecture, is in Oakville. Mondavi is respected for its big-flavored Cabernets.
For a pleasing outing, drive north on CA Highway 29 and stop at the three wineries. Then turn east and drive south along the eastern side of the valley on the scenic Silverado Trail, where the rustic pleasure of the vineyard landscape greets you.
Getting There: Drive north from San Francisco on either the west side of the Bay on Highway 101 or the east side on Interstate 80. Depart from the major road to pick up Highway 29 and drive north through the Napa Valley.
Be Sure to See: Traveling north along Highway 29, all three of the wineries are on the left side of the road. The first of the three wineries you’ll encounter is the Robert Mondavi Winery, 7801 St. Helena Highway (Highway 29), Oakville; 707/226-1395; www.robertmondaviwinery.com. Next comes Inglenook, 1991 St. Helena Highway, Rutherford; 800/782-4266; www.inglenook.com. Finally, you’ll see Beringer Vineyards, 2000 Main St., St. Helena; 707/257-577 or 866/708-9463; www.beringer.com. North of Beringer, turn east on any side road, then drive south on the Silverado Trail to savor vineyards, far from the traffic and development along Highway 29. Napa Valley wineries are open roughly 10 a.m.-5 p.m. seven days a week, with hours sometimes longer in summer, shorter in winter. Wineries generally charge a modest fee for a basic tour with tasting of wines.
Best Time of Year: Any time of the year is good, but the autumn months of September-October are especially pleasing. Then the bustle of the grape harvest is under way and the vine leaves are changing from shades of green to flaming reds and yellows. Autumn is almost as popular as summer, the peak travel time, so travelers desiring the quietest period visit here during winter and spring. After winter rains, the fields are colorful with wild mustard. Many musical and art events are scheduled throughout the year.
Lodging: The city of Napa enjoyed a bucolic Victorian gentility at the turn of the century. Some of the great houses built at that time have become B&Bs today. One example is the Beazley House, with its half-acre of lawns and tranquil gardens. The Beazley House B&B Inn is at 1910 1st St., Napa; 707/257-1649 or 800/559-1649; www.beazleyhouse.com.
Dining: The Restaurant at CIA Copia in downtown Napa brings chef creations directly from the kitchen to your table to choose from and share, along with a curated selection of wines. The operation is part of the Culinary Institute of America’s carefully coordinated California farms and gardens produce sourcing. Location is 500 1st St., Napa; 707-967-2555.
For Further Information: Contact Visit Napa Valley (600 Main St. Napa; 707/251-5895 or 855/847-6272; www.visitnapavalley.com).