By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: This article is also an updated chapter for the next edition of my book Northern California History Weekends. I concerns the Napa Valley’s passion for cabernet at many historic wineries. When all the 52 chapters are revised, a new edition of the book will appear.)
While many adventurers were drawn to California in search of gold nuggets, some discovered that the true gold was to be found in agriculture. The early Napa Valley farmers showed a passion growing grapes and the making of wine. For example, they especially liked Cabernet wine. Visit the historic wineries to learn more about this phenomenon.
The Historic Story
Because there are hundreds of Napa Valley wineries, you may find difficulty choosing where to tour and taste. However, three wineries are noted for their historic contribution to the development of California wine. In addition, these vineyards excel in their architectural significance. And they continue to serve a vital place in wine production today. These well-aged gems are sure to delight a traveler. First, you should visit Inglenook in Rutherford. The second is Beringer Vineyards in St. Helena. Finally, see Robert Mondavi in Oakville.
To begin, Inglenook was founded in 1879 by Gustave Niebaum. He was a Finnish sea captain. He 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 Valley. Niebaum concentrated on producing rich Bordeaux-style Cabernets.
In the 1990s, a Parisian-style park and fountains were established in front of the winery. 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.
Several Napa Valley pioneers contributed to the German Riesling wine-making traditions of the Rhine and Mosel River valleys. Foremost among these were the Beringer brothers. The brothers arrived in 1876 and built a palatial Rhine House and winery. The Rhine House is considered an outstanding architectural treasure of the region. As in the old country, the Beringers dug caves deep into the limestone hills. The caves provide a year-round, climate-controlled, cool environment for the wines.
The Beringers stored wine in barrels in caves, which are high in humidity. Thus, the barrels did not lose much liquid through evaporation. Some humorously say that evaporation loss from exposed oak barrels is called “the angel’s share.” However, evaporation cuts into the grower’s profit. Meanwhile, the lawns, oak trees, and stately house provide an attractive setting. Basic tours and tastings are provided for a fee. While Beringer emphasizes the white wine varietal Chardonnay, it still makes a German-heritage Riesling.
The name Robert Mondavi is legendary in the modern era of the Napa Valley. That period began in the 1960s when Americans once again learned to enjoy wine. Previously, the Valley flourished with wine-making before Prohibition. However the Volstead Act of 1919 made wine-making illegal. That act decimated the industry. The Great Experiment, as some called Prohibition, lasted 1919-1933. During that time, many wine families went into other businesses.
However, a few families persisted. For instance, the Mondavis managed to hold their acreage together. In 1890, there were 140 wineries in the Napa Valley. However, only 25 remained in 1965. Robert Mondavi was a tireless spokesman for promoting wine drinking as an element in the good life. His Cliff May-designed winery, with echoes of California Mission architecture, is in Oakville. He died in 2008. But Mondavi is still 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. Here you will find a rustic vineyard landscape to greet you.
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.
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.
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).