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Napa Valley: California's first wine country


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Napa Valley is the most famous wine region in California, the United States, and arguably in the New World. The region is known primarily for its cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, although virtually every major grape variety is grown here. There are more than 300 producers within the county, and more than a thousand vineyards. On average, Napa wines are the most expensive in California, reflecting their relatively limited quantity (average yield per acre in Napa is half that of the state average to maintain quality), their high prestige, and their exceptional quality.

The first wine was produced in Napa as far back as the 1850s, and there was burgeoning wine movement underway before a triad of catastrophic events nearly destroyed the industry. In the early part of the 20th century Napa was ravaged by the phyloxera mite, which ruined acres of vines, wine production was almost eliminated with the passage of national prohibition (although many of the original wineries survived by producing legal sacrament wine), and the Great Depression caused demand to plummet. The situation was dire when, in the late-1930s, new techniques such as the use of French oak barrels and malolactic fermentation arrived to usher in a new age of winemaking.

Beginning the 1960s Napa began attracting some of the top winemakers in the United States, and by the 1970s that had paid off, with Napa wines defeating French wines in 1976 at the blind Tasting of Paris. This had a transformative effect on the industry, as the world awakened to the incredible things going on in this tiny corner of the New World, and demand surged virtually overnight.

Napa County today is a very different place than it was forty years ago. Wineries use cutting-edge technology to get the most out of their world-class vineyards, winemakers come from around the world to be a part of famous brands, and the top wines of Napa command prices second only to a few Premiere Cru wineries in France. Cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay continue to dominate the valley, although sauvignon blanc, merlot, zinfandel, and syrah are all also major players.

Tasting in Napa County is an experience unlike any other. Castles dot the hillsides, with top wineries competing to create the most decadent experience for their visitors. Tasting fees can reach US$50, but this is generally for wineries with limited quantities of extremely highly-regarded wines. Those wineries with very small amounts of wine and the best reputations are referred to as 'cult' wineries, and finding these coveted bottles can be extremely difficult. A bottle of 2008 Screaming Eagle, for example, can be found at auction for no less than US$1600, and a bottle of their highly sought after 1992 vintage can cost upwards of US$7000.


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Visit California for the wine and the weather