Napa Valley produces some world-class wines but it hasn't all been plain sailing, writes Christine Austin

While all vineyards need a good climate, good soil and enough water, one of the key influencing factors for making wine is legislation.  In 1920, when Prohibition was introduced in the USA it had the most dramatic effect on the Californian wine industry, driving most of the existing 880 wineries out of business.  By the time Prohibition had been repealed just 13 years later, grape production, investment in vineyards and the wine market had dropped by 95%.

In many ways this was a blessing as well as a tragedy.  Many old vineyards, planted with the useful, but not top-quality, Mission grape were ripped out, and it was the mid 1960’s before the region had recovered from the combined effects of war, depression and changes in taste.

That was when another key piece of legislation was passed – the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve, which effectively protected the agricultural nature of the Napa Valley.  It means there are no massive highways, no huge shopping malls and the beauty of the region, its valley floor and hillsides are the same as they were decades ago.  This region is well worth a visit.

It was around that time that Eugene Trefethen and his wife Catherine decided to retire to Napa.  He had been an executive for a major engineering company, responsible for building the Hoover dam and other projects.  In 1968 he bought a farm including a historic redwood winery and then bought the neighbouring farms too, to create a 600-acre estate. Most of the other wine farms in Napa were still suffering from the major downturn in wine consumption, so Trefethen was able to build up a substantial land holding at a price that would not be possible today.

Just south of San Francisco, Silicon Valley had just started and within a few years those massive salaries and tendency for tech executives to buy land and vineyards propelled Napa to be one of the most expensive wine regions of the world.  So purely by luck Trefethen had bought into the region at just the right time, acquiring a massive vineyard holding, and this company, still family owned is proud that they have never bought a single grape from anyone else, although they do sell some of their excess grapes to other wineries.

Napa is California’s premier wine growing region. The name means ‘plenty’ and while it actually refers to the bountiful earth, it could equally apply to the wealthy population and their elegant homes.  It is a long thin, flat valley, hemmed in by hills, running about 40 km northwest from the small town of Napa.  The valley floor is planted edge to edge with vineyards, and they climb the slopes too, creating discreet patches of green, in the folds of the surrounding hills.

The climate here is perfect for grapes with a good balance of sunshine and rain, but fog is the essential quality factor.  If you have ever been to San Francisco and seen the banks of fog roll in across the Bay, blocking out the sun and making the day cold and clammy then you have seen the effect it has. It happens because warm waters travelling up the Pacific meet the cold waters close to the shore. Then high daytime temperatures inland pull sea air in, sucking the fog into valleys, sometimes more than 75 miles from the ocean. These fogs can only penetrate through gaps in the coastal mountain range, so they have a regional effect in keeping temperatures down, shading the grapes and helping to produce brighter flavours.

The other important factor is soil. California is on one of the world’s most active fault lines and the movement of the earth’s tectonic plates has exposed a range of soil types, allowing California’s vineyards to grow a wide selection of grape varieties.

Two generations on, the Napa legacy that was handed on by Eugene and Catherine is still family run. Hailey Trefethen showed me around the estate and the old redwood winery is still standing although no longer used to make wine.

‘It suffered tremendous damage in the 2014 earthquake but essentially the structure is still sound’, she said.  Now strengthened and restored, the old winery has been transformed into the visitor centre and tasting room, with centuries-old vats still on show.

Phylloxera, that devastating louse that can wipe out vineyards came back to Napa in the 1980’s but again the wine industry turned a possible disaster into a benefit.  Trefethen’s vineyards were re-mapped and replanted taking advantage of particular soils and microclimates to match each grape variety to the best site.

Napa wines will never be cheap.  There is just too much demand and land costs are just too high, but because of their long history and extensive vineyards, Trefethen manage to strike a balance between price and quality. Many of their wines are available in Yorkshire and they are well worth trying.

 

Trefethen Dry Riesling 2017, Latitude in Leeds and Martinez Wines, £27.99

Bright and fresh with lime and honeysuckle notes.  Dry and minerally.  Try alongside grilled fish or a summer salad.

Trefethen Chardonnay 2016, Waitrose, £32.99

Crisp and elegant with peach and pear fruit and Granny Smith crunchiness.  Despite 70% oak aging, this is fruit forward with just a hint of oak spice underpinning the flavours.  2017 also tasted – fresh and delightful, still needing a little more time in bottle.

Trefethen Merlot 2016, Latitude in Leeds and Martinez Wines, £36.99

Merlot does well in Napa Valley and this is no exception.  With a splash of Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec in the mix this has dark cherry and blackberry fruit with just a hint of baking spice. Delicious but still with the potential to age.

Trefethen Dragon’s Tooth 2016, Martinez Wines, £48.99

To acknowledge the Welsh heritage of Catherine Trefethen this wine has a red dragon on the label. It is a blend of Malbec, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and is produced in small quantities, hence the price.  Deep and concentrated with bramble and mulberry fruit, cracked black pepper and spice. Robust in structure it has freshness and a food-friendly style.  Definitely one to pour alongside beef.

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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