Wine Ink: The Napa Valley Vintners turns 75
Name certain places and that for which they are best known instantly comes to mind. Mention “Malibu” and people immediately think surfing. Utter “Green Bay” and images of the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field are indelible in the mind’s eye. And if you say “Aspen” … well, you get the picture.
Another of those names is Napa. Yes, I know, as soon as you saw it here in print, visions of vineyards popped into your head. Really no surprise since the Napa Valley is the most iconic wine region in America and certainly one of, if not the, most prestigious destinations for wine tourism on the planet. In fact, it is so iconic that it is hard to believe it’s still, at least in wine terms, so young.
While wines have been consumed by man for over 8,000 years, 2019 marks just the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Napa Valley Vintners. It was this group of winemakers that took it upon itself to promote Napa to the world as an important player on the global wine stage, even if it was, at the time, little more than a backwater Northern California farming valley. In just 75 years the organization created an aura and identity for the place so successful that the mere mention of Napa makes the mouths of wine lovers water.
Of course, the history of wine production in the Napa Valley precedes California’s statehood. It entered the union in 1850 as the 31st state. George Yount (you may have heard of Yountville, now home to Thomas Keller’s famed French Laundry temple of fine dining) is credited as the first to plant grapes in the valley. And in 1861 Charles Krug opened the first winery, which is still producing. But for the first 80 years, wine business in Napa faced tough times. Recessions, phylloxera, and ultimately Prohibition stifled the growth of a region that had become a mecca for immigrants, many of Italian and French descent.
Then, in 1944, just as the Second World War was coming to its end, a collection of seven vintners, with names like Mondavi, Martini, La Tour and Forni, gathered to talk shop. Over more than a few meals and many, many bottles of wine, the group decided to form the NVV, as it is called, to work with the vintners in the region, promoting tourism and dealing with valleywide issues.
Today the organization represents over 500 wineries and growers, about 99% of all those in the industry in Napa. It has become the paradigm for groups of its kind, an important player in local charities and a loud voice on the global stage on environmental issues.
Perhaps the most visible fundraising event in wine is the annual Auction Napa Valley, which was founded in 1981. As the premier fundraiser for the NVV, over $190 million has been raised and donated to community nonprofits, including health care for valley wine workers. Taking place early each summer, the event is a must-do on the list of wine collectors who flood the valley to see and be seen and to bid on the best wines.
Perhaps the NVV’s most important role has been in the establishment of standards for the preservation of land and the responsible stewardship of the vineyards in the Napa Valley. In 1968, the NVV was instrumental in creating the nation’s first Agricultural Preserve, designating 23,000 acres of land for strictly agricultural use. That created the template for how the valley has and will grow into the future. The Napa Green certification program was launched in 2004 after a four-year study that investigated ways to ensure that farming could be sustainable. Currently, over 50% of all vineyards in the valley and over 80 wineries have been certified.
And this July, the Napa Valley Vintners became the first North American wine association to become signatories of the Porto Protocol, a pledge created in 2018 by Adrian Bridge of Taylor’s Port, that commits members to engage in best practices in the mitigation of climate change.
This year, NVV President Linda Reiff was named the 2019 Person of the Year by Wine Enthusiast Magazine for her 25 years helming the Napa Valley Vintners. She has been the face and the leader of the organization for a third of its existence. It is a well-timed honor.
To help mark the 75-year anniversary, the NVV launched an innovative oral history collaboration with the University of California’s Bancroft Library. It includes a dozen recordings with significant figures in Napa wine, including Robert Mondavi, Louis Martini, Dan Duckhorn and John Shafer, all of eponymous vineyards. The collection is a fitting tribute to a place that they all had a hand in making ubiquitous: Napa.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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