Napa Valley

Napa Valley AVA

Napa Valley is certainly the foremost name when it comes to American wine production, but many are surprised to learn that while grapes have been grown in the area since the mid 19th century, it wasn’t until the 1960’s that anyone thought to attempt to make fine table wine in Napa Valley. The results were both immediate and awe inspiring, with Napa Valley defeating its French counterparts at the Paris wine tasting of 1976.

Now there are 15 smaller AVA’s within Napa Valley and the absolute top wines in the United States almost always come from within its borders.


Napa Valley and the Environment

Beginnings of the Ag Preserve:

Napa Valley has been home to environmental management concerns and innovation literally since its inception.  Wine, unlike other food products can’t simply be made elsewhere if you ruin the land, so growers have long understood that their interests, might not align perfectly with those making the wine, let alone those selling the wine.

Napa’s first move into major environmental management came with the establishment of the ag preserve in 1968. The ag preserve has been contentious from day one, but has both a noteworthy and a worthy goal: the preservation of agricultural space in Napa Valley. At it’s core, Napa Valley is famous the world over because its vineyards produce world class wine: yet the production of that wine and the tourists and developments that it continually brings, tends to put pressure on that lifeline. Take an example from elsewhere in the Bay Area: Santa Clara County which is now at least partially known as Silicon Valley.  Back in the 40’s there were over 100,000 acres of land planted to nuts: now there’s about 4,000.  No one in Napa wanted to see the same thing happen.

The Napa Valley Ag Preserve when it was adopted in 1968 was the first of its kind in the United States. In essence the Ag Preserve said two things; first that the only allowable commercial activity was agricultural in nature and second, that there were minimum sizes for lots.  Those sizes have changed over the years as you might expect, but generally speaking you can’t buy a lot in Napa for commercial purposes that is less than 20 acres in the Ag Preserve, or 40 acres if the area is part of the watershed (much more information on water rights, usage etc coming in subsequent portions of this page).

Winery Definition Ordinance

So if you’re an environmentalist, or just thinking along here, you can pretty clearly see the issue that Napa Valley ran into in regard to the Ag Preserve.  Wineries are certainly both agricultural as well as commercial and as long as their founders could afford a large enough parcel, they’d be permitted without restriction.  That led to something most often simply called the WDO, or the Winery Definition Ordinance.

Basically, here’s what was happening.  People wanted to open a hotel, restaurant and gas station in Napa, but couldn’t unless they also had a winery on the premises.  But, the city and county of Napa were actively denying permits for individual hotels, restaurants and gas stations.  In essence, the super rich could open a series of new businesses on a property, but others could not.

The WDO basically said that to be an actual winery, you had to be fermenting grapes into wine and that your outside footprint.

THere’s of course another hole, after all the ordinances and more, a winery could buy cheap grapes from elsewhere, bring them to Napa, all the while using their Napa address to make sales a ton easier for the owners. Here’s where some real common sense went in, federal labeling laws require that for a wine to be labeled as Napa Valley that 75% of the grapes for that wine to have come from Napa.  The ordinance simply says that for a winery to exist in Napa, they have to have 75% of their grapes to come from the County.  Sensible according to reasonable people across the board, this is exactly, in my opinion, how environmental legislation should be done. Of course, existing production levels were grandfathered in…so there’s still complaints from newer wineries to this day.

Visits to Wineries:

The WDO also did one thing that’s the most divisive to this day: it limited the number of marketing activities available to wineries.  In fact, some new wineries were only able to accept visitors with a prior appointment (there’s a work around here, if you show up and tell them you do not have an appointment, often they can find one available in approximately 5 minutes).

Measure J & P:

Over the years, county board elections became incredibly contentious.  The board had the opportunity to change some rules and regulations and the amount of money coming into local elections was quite frankly getting out of control.  Measure J meant to rectify that by making sure that any future changes to the zoning laws in Napa Valley, needed to be approved by voters.  One thing about Napa Valley locals, they love wine, as well as, the history of Napa Valley.

Measure J was set to expire in 2030, until Measure P was passed and extended these protections through 2058.

Lastly: Recently & the Future

A number of towns in Napa, namely St. Helena and Calistoga have set up their own rules for wineries in accordance with the WDO. Napa has also been dealing with the harsh reality that it is a small valley and if you only allow 75% of production to come from that valley, eventually you’ll top out on production.  That’s happened and changes are afoot for the grandfathered wineries to take some of the maximum production levels off. The growers and vintners in Napa have argued about these statutes for well over 40 years and there will continue to be some significant back and forth.  A recent example: wineries are largely pushing the envelope when it comes to food and wine pairings.  My wife and I spent our anniversary overlooking Napa Valley from a winery on the Silverado Trail, eating a multi-course meal that was prepared by a chief on site, to pair perfectly with the wine made at the winery.  It was a pretty incredible experience and one that most visitors to Napa would love to have, it was done by appointment, days in advance, but it was also sigifnicantly outside what is allowed by the WDO that is in place.

Lastly, more and more growers feel better about selling $75+ Cabernet than selling their grapes for a few thousand dollars per acre, or per ton.  How those folks fit into the framework, is not yet clear.  When the Ag Preserve and WDO was crafted, grower first, winemaker second was not a category that existed in Napa Valley.  Sure, plenty of wineries owned vineyards, but they were making more wine than their vineyard produced.  Now the inverse is also true and Napa Valley is faced with yet another question for a new decade.