The Flame Out of Napa Valley’s Iconic Wine Country
Beset by climate change and billionaire carpetbaggers, Napa Valley, California’s legendary wine-making eden, braces for an uncertain future
Framed by the Vaca and Mayacamas mountains—30 miles long and five miles across at its widest point—Napa Valley is a place of uncommon beauty: Wooded knolls and forested mountain slopes contrast with tracts of vines sprawling across the valley floor and flowing up the hillsides. The vineyards glow sun-bright with mustard flowers in springtime, turn lush green in summer, blaze yellow and red in autumn as the leaves turn and the promising perfume of fermentation fills the air.
That perfume is also the scent of international acclaim—of legendary status, Olympian prestige. Wine is made in all 50 states and wine grapes are grown in 49 of California’s 58 counties, but Napa Valley is heraldic, not just a wine region but an icon, one of America’s most valuable and illustrious brands. It’s also a kind of paradise, bucolic but sophisticated, bathed in a golden light both atmospheric and metaphorical.
If Napa Valley is a paradise, though, it’s also a troubled one.
Climate change has been cruel to Napa. (Napa is just one town in the valley, but everybody uses the term “Napa” as a metonym for the entire area.) Wildfires—once an occasional threat—have ravaged the region in recent years, destroying homes and wineries, and leaving their mark long afterward in the ashtray flavor of wines made from smoke-tainted grapes.
Even when the valley isn’t literally aflame, dramatic heat spikes of late wreak havoc: Grapes ripen too fast, yielding wines too high in alcohol and too low in essential acidity. “We used to have one day over 100 degrees every few years,” says L.A. native Rob Sinskey, who runs Robert Sinskey Vineyards. “Now we have them back-to-back.”
Sinskey recently ripped out Pinot Noir vines from one of his vineyards in Carneros, one of Napa’s cooler regions, and replanted with heat-friendly Zinfandel and Primitivo. Steve Matthiasson of Matthiasson Wines is experimenting with the hot-climate Italian varieties Sagrantino and Aglianico. Some experts question whether even Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa’s emblematic grape, will remain viable in the coming decades.
As elsewhere in California, drought plagues the valley, and even when reservoirs are full and groundwater abundant, there isn’t enough to go around. There are too many wineries competing for it, and, increasingly, too many houses and resort developments.
At the same time, many of those wineries, often founded as small-scale family operations, are being taken over by conglomerates or superrich carpetbaggers from other fields of endeavor, which some locals feel is robbing the valley of its personality.
When I first visited Napa almost 50 years ago, it was a very different place. There were maybe 40 wineries, many run by refugees from urban stress who just wanted to make decent wine and live a semi-rural life. Some wineries gave tours, with the expectation that you’d buy a few bottles at the end, but nobody charged admittance. Bruce Neyers, onetime general manager of Joseph Phelps Vineyards and now proprietor of his own Neyers Vineyards told me that he used to like meeting friends at Louis M. Martini Winery “because you could stay there and taste free wine all day.”
Restaurants were few and mostly pedestrian. The only convenient place to stay was a small motel—still in operation and much expanded—with the precociously gender-fluid name of El Bonita. “When I moved here in 1979,” recalls Cindy Pawlcyn, whose Mustards Grill has been an unofficial clubhouse for winemakers since opening in 1983, “there were still cattle ranches, dairy farms, walnut groves, prune-plum orchards. All that is gone now.” Two things changed the game for Napa: a wine tasting in Paris and a hit American TV series.
People talk about the Hamptonization of Napa. That’s not inaccurate.
The tasting, later dubbed the “Judgment of Paris,” was organized in May 1976 by Paris-based British wine merchant Steven Spurrier. Nine French judges tasted 20 wines blind—four French whites and four reds against six of their California counterparts in each category. To everyone’s shock, two Napa Valley wines took first place: Chateau Montelena Chardonnay overcame four famous white Burgundies, and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon bested such blue-chip competitors as Château Mouton Rothschild and Château Haut-Brion. The effect was electric, catapulting California wine onto the world stage and conferring instant credibility on Napa’s boutique wineries. Warren Winiarski, who made that winning Cabernet, called the event California’s “Copernican revolution.”
Five-and-a-half years later, CBS debuted Falcon Crest, a prime-time soap opera set in the fictional Tuscany Valley but shot in Napa, featuring gorgeous exteriors filmed at Spring Mountain Vineyard and Stags’ Leap Winery. Unsurprisingly, it brought a flood of tourists. Joseph Phelps, then president of Napa Valley Vintners, told the New York Times that the crowds jamming Napa’s two main roads—Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail—would self-regulate. “You sit in traffic like this,” he said, “and you’re not likely to come as often.” If he’d only known.
By 1985, the valley was logging about two million visitors a year; today, it’s almost four million. “It’s become like an adult Disneyland,” says Sinskey. Sometimes, he says, “I find it almost easier to go to San Francisco than to St. Helena.” (San Francisco is 60 miles away; St. Helena is ten.)
Today, there are about 1,700 wineries in Napa, 500 with tasting rooms, and tours and tastings are no longer free. Louis M. Martini’s “experiences” cost anywhere from $55 (wine only) to $325 (wine and food). At Beaulieu Vineyard, the tariff ranges from $55 to $130; at Heitz Cellar, it’s $125—or $150 if you want cheese and charcuterie with your Cabernet. The newer wineries are often attractions in themselves. There’s one designed by superstar architect Michael Graves (Clos Pegase), and another by the eccentric Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser (Quixote). There’s a Foucault pendulum at Stag’s Leap, a contemporary art collection at Hess Persson Estates, a mock-Venetian piazza at Del Dotto (given the imprimatur of a guest shot on Keeping Up with the Kardashians).
Hotels are everywhere now—including a new Four Seasons where rates start at $960 a night—and there are world-class restaurants from one end of the valley to the other, including three with three Michelin stars apiece (one is temporarily closed after having been gutted by, yes, a wildfire). “People talk about the Hampton-ization of the valley,” says Janet Trefethen, who started Trefethen Family Vineyards with her husband, John, and sold their first wine in 1973, “and I think that’s probably not inaccurate. Napa Valley has just done too good a job of marketing itself.”
Tourists aren’t the only ones drawn to the valley. The newcomers in the ’70s were often city kids seduced by the magic of wine, willing to drive tractors and haul hoses at somebody else’s winery until they could start their own. “They thought the wine business was really sexy,” says Neyers, who was one of those idealistic immigrants, “then found out how sexy it was to stand outside a wholesaler’s office for three hours waiting for them to see you.”
By the 1980s and 90s, the newcomers were more likely to be retired CEOs, big-bucks entrepreneurs, and a few celebrities, inspired by the chimerical notion that they could quickly start producing wines to equal those of Burgundy and Bordeaux, and seeking not a simpler life but a grander one. Theirs was a seigneurial fantasy: they’d build themselves a showplace home and winery—the kind Sinskey calls a “Château Ego”—where they could luxuriate grandly in the knowledge that their $150 Cabernet got a 98 from critic Robert Parker and was on the wine list at the French Laundry (scene of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s much-mocked dinner party during the lockdown).
One outsider who proved to be serious about winemaking was Francis Ford Coppola. In 1975, with profits from The Godfather, he bought the nineteenth-century house built by the founder of the historic Inglenook Winery, along with 1,500 acres of adjacent vineyards, and today owns the original winery and Inglenook trademark. (Coppola’s Rubicon is considered one of the valley’s better Bordeaux-style blends.) Race car legend Mario Andretti and the Major League pitching ace Tom Seaver were among the other names lured into the Napa wine business over the years. Nancy and Paul Pelosi grow grapes here, too—as the nation was reminded when Paul was arrested for a DUI on Highway 29 in May (an event mostly greeted with yawns by locals).
But it’s the absentee billionaires and conglomerates buying their way into prominence that have lately changed the power structure of Napa. Constellation Brands (Corona beer, Svedka vodka) now owns the venerable Robert Mondavi and Mount Veeder wineries; luxury goods giant LVMH built a sparkling wine facility here in 1973, then bought a stake in Newton Vineyard, and paid a rumored $725 million to acquire Joseph Phelps; Australia’s Treasury Wine Estates has Beringer, Beaulieu, Sterling, and Stags’ Leap, and last year took over Frank Family Vineyards, founded by former Disney Studios president Richard H. Frank. HVAC mogul Gaylon Lawrence purchased Stony Hill, Heitz, and Burgess, three of the valley’s OG wineries, while L.A. Rams and Denver Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke now controls Screaming Eagle, whose Cabernet—the ultimate Napa trophy wine—sells for as much as $15,000 a bottle in older vintages.
The most controversial of Napa’s “lifestyle vintners,” as The Atlantic dubbed them, is Dallas developer Craig Hall, former co-owner of the Cowboys and now proprietor of Hall Wines. Hall has been locked in a battle with activists for almost 15 years over his plan to clear-cut thousands of trees on his property to plant new vineyards (and, some fear, develop luxury homes). Hall was in the news in 2019 when he hosted a fundraiser for then-presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, pouring $900-a-bottle Cabernet (according to Nancy Pelosi; Hall denies the price) in a tricked-out cavern illuminated by a chandelier hung with 1,500 Swarovski crystals. The event was surprisingly off-brand for Mayor Pete, prompting rival candidate Elizabeth Warren to grouse that “billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States.”
And in a new case being closely watched by locals, the owners of the little-known Green Island Vineyard in southern Napa are applying for permission to rip out their vines and build an industrial park, claiming that the salinity of the soil is killing the grapes anyway. If they succeed, it could have grave implications for the valley.
“What’s happening right now is almost hard to witness,” says Karen MacNeil, author of the best-selling The Wine Bible. “I moved here in 1994 because I loved the valley, but now I’m afraid that the Napa I fell in love with is changing irrevocably.”
The Napa I fell in love with is changing irrevocably.
The fires are certainly part of it. MacNeil has been evacuated three times in recent years. The local power company, PG&E, now turns off the grid on high-wind days to reduce the chance of sparking power lines. Ray Signorello, whose Signorello Estate winery was largely destroyed by the 2017 Atlas Fire, is rebuilding partly underground and surrounding his property with fire-suppression systems. That may be all that can be done.
Rising temperatures might be less of a problem. Andy Beckstoffer, who owns more than 1,000 acres of Napa vineyards, has faith in technology to develop grapes more resistant to drought and heat—and also maybe better. “Your grandchildren’s children will be drinking Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon,” he promises, “and it will taste much like it does today.”
As for the shift from family-owned to corporate-run wineries, it’s probably inevitable. In Europe, wineries are often passed down through many generations; here, few last past two. “That’s worrisome,” says MacNeil, “but you can forgive people who decide to sell out. They’ve seen how tough it is, and they can keep doing it or be rich the rest of their lives.”
Some of Napa’s old collegial feeling has undeniably been lost as the population of wineries—the population, period—grows. Pawlcyn fondly remembers the early days of Mustards, when “winemakers would come in wearing their work boots and bring sample bottles to taste with dinner. We’d have Phelps, Mondavi—everybody, really.” Now, she laments, “so many of those people have passed away. The corporate guys do eat here, and it’s great. But it’s not Bob Mondavi.”