Napa and Sonoma Valleys
Producing Wines of Worldwide Caliber
You don’t have to travel to the Northeast United States as the weather cools in America to witness the spectacular colors of the change of seasons. It’s all waiting for you—under much more temperate conditions—in two of Northern California’s premier regions, Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley, both of which produce wines that hold their own against any in the world.
Thanks to meteorological and geographic features, the Napa Valley—about 36 miles northeast of San Francisco—is blessed with several microclimates, or weather patterns, that make it prime for producing world-renowned grapes. From the fog that often lingers on the San Pablo Bay, near the southernmost tip, temperatures can vary as much as 12 degrees as one traverses the 30-mile valley that is bordered and protected on three sides by rugged hills. As you gaze at the hills and meander through the valley floor, you’ll marvel at the picturesque French chateau-like wineries and stone homes built in the 1880s and 1890s. And everywhere—vineyards. From the town of Napa, with a population of 53,000, through Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, and Calistoga, and a string of tinier villages in between, there are now more than 200 wineries of various sizes and varying outputs. You can traverse the bucolic valley either via Highway 29, the more heavily traveled route that gives the easiest access to wineries and accommodations, or on the Silverado Trail, which runs parallel along the eastern edge of the valley and is better known for its quieter, lovely vistas. You can also experience Napa and its products from the Napa Valley Wine Train and there are even wine-tasting tours by limousine.
It’s hard to believe that this area has quite the wild and wooly frontier past. Relatively speaking, it is a newcomer to the winemaking industry. Until 1823, its sole residents were the Wappo Indians. While the Catholic Church considered the area for a mission, they later chose instead to build in neighboring Sonoma Valley. One of the first explorers of note to arrive from the east and to consider settling in the Napa Valley area was George Yount (who, of course, Yountville was named for). He arrived in 1831 and, overlooking the valley from his horse for the first time, stated, “In such a place, I would like to clear the land and make my home. In such a place, I would like to live and die.” Mexico awarded a land grant to Yount and he built the first structure and planted the first grapes. Because most of the fertile land in the Napa Valley was tied up in Mexican land grants, the area languished for awhile until the California Gold Rush, when unsuccessful prospectors drifted into the valley and began to settle in more substantial numbers.
After the confrontations that led to freedom from Mexican rule and the establishment of California as an American state in 1850, settlement picked up even more. People with names that are still well-known in the world of wine—such as Krug, Beringer, and Schram—began to arrive and these pioneering vintners produced wines with a predominantly German flavor. Napa’s reputation for fine wines exploded in the 1880s and 1890s and the architecture of some of the venerable wineries built during that period to keep up with demand can still be appreciated today. The Greystone Cellars, completed in 1889, is an excellent example. The Cellars now house the renowned Culinary Institute of America.
Obviously, America’s Prohibition in the 1920s and the Depression of the 1930s put a damper on the region. And while World War II brought an influx of new residents—many of whom stayed on after the war—because of the activity at the Mare Island Naval shipyard in nearby Vallejo, the wine industry really wasn’t reborn until the 1950s. By 1975 more than 50 wineries were in operation in the Napa Valley and that number has more than quadrupled to date. While many of the big old favorites, such as Beringer and Beaulieu, continue to thrive there has been a trend in recent years toward smaller, more specialized wineries in response to the demands of an ever-more-sophisticated wine-drinking public.
Do keep in mind that the Napa Valley is not all about wine and wineries. In the tiny village of Calistoga alone, for example, you won’t want to miss the famous mud baths and mineral springs as well as the “Old Faithful Geyser.” This natural wonder is one of only three “Old Faithful” geysers in the world and quite spectacularly erupts about every 40 minutes.
Sonoma Valley, in the southeastern part of Sonoma County and Napa’s neighbor to the west, shares much of Napa’s history and, in fact, is the historical center of California’s wine industry because it was here that Colonel Agostin Haraszthy, considered the father of the industry, first started planting grapes. The town of Sonoma, on the south end of the 17-mile valley, has two of the oldest wineries in California. Vineyards and wineries of all sizes dot the landscape as you travel north through the charming towns of Glen Ellen and then Kenwood. Some of the family wineries are so small that you may be delighted to discover that the person behind the tasting-room counter is the winemaker himself. Like Napa, the Sonoma Valley also sparkles with boutiques, cafes, and picturesque inns and cottages for the visitor and breathtaking homes for the full or part-time resident.
The valley is home to the last of the 21 missions to be established in California. Mission San Francisco Solana de Sonoma, founded in 1823 and more commonly known as the Sonoma Mission, is open daily for touring at a nominal fee. Sonoma Valley is also famous as the site of the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846, when, for 25 boisterous days, Sonoma was capital of the independent Republic of California! Unhappy with the then Mexican government, a band of Americans calling themselves the “Osos,” Spanish for bears, seized control and hoisted their own hastily made flag, which featured a crude drawing of a grizzly bear. They held their ground until American naval forces claimed all of California from Mexico and the Osos agreed to join them in the conquest. The bear on today’s California state flag is the Osos’ legacy.
Later, Sonoma Valley gained fame as the home of the legendary author and adventurer Jack London. “When I first came here, tired of cities and people, I settled down…on some of the most beautiful, primitive land to be found in California,” London once said. The area so inspired him that he not only wrote a novel about it (The Valley of the Moon, in 1913), he also chose to spend his final years living on what he called his Beauty Ranch in the hills above Glen Ellen. The site is now an 800-acre state historic park and is well worth a visit.
Sonoma Plaza, the enormous, shaded town square, is another must-see, of course, because it features old adobe buildings and historic structures, including, on a large natural boulder, the bronze Bear Flag Monument on the site where the Bear Flag was originally raised. Dining and shopping are plentiful in the area, which is also the home to the Sonoma Mission. The latter is the kick-off point to what’s a relatively new but increasingly popular tradition: the Sonoma Valley Olive Festival, which celebrates the area’s other treasured agricultural crop, lovingly cultivated for more than 100 years.
With all of these riches, it is no wonder so many people choose to live in the Napa and Sonoma valleys. Just as in other areas of coastal California, home sales remain brisk and appreciation is still amazing. In the city of Napa, for example, the median home price in September was $504,500, a 17.5 percent increase over the same month in 2003. The median price for the same period in the city of Sonoma was $542,500, an 8.5 percent increase over 2003. These are median prices, of course—you can spend much more! One lavish dream home in the city of Sonoma, for example, sold for $3,665,000 in September.