The Wine Guide

By MacNeil, Karen | Sunset, May 1998 | Go to article overview

The Wine Guide


MacNeil, Karen, Sunset


Then as now: Born great in Napa Valley

Let's say someone gave you a million dollars and asked you to buy vineyards in the United States. But not just any vineyards-only those capable of producing legendary, world-class wine.

You could study the soils and climates of this place and that. You could taste wines from all over the country. And in the end, chances are you could find a magical piece of ground-now.

But what if the year were 1840? What if there were no other wineries? No wines to taste? What if no one had any idea where great grapes might grow?

In this realm of the unknown lies one of the biggest miracles of the U.S. wine industry. With virtually nothing to go on, a handful of early Californians just happened to plant vineyards in a place that would ultimately focus worldwide attention on U.S. wines.

Two places, really: the sleepy hamlets of Oakville and Rutherford in the heart of the Napa Valley. Today, they are not only the most richly historic wine regions in California but also where many of the most sensational new wines are made.

At first glance the scene from famous State Highway 29 is utterly serene-a soft green quilt of vines.

But the signposts tell a heady story. Strung together like jewels are some of America's most prestigious wineries: Far Niente, Opus One, Robert Mondavi, Heitz, Cakebread, Niebaum-Coppola (formerly Inglenook), Beaulieu, Franciscan, and Grgich Hills. Tucked in a little farther off the road are other famous names: Caymus, Groth, Flora Springs.

So why Oakville and Rutherford? The story is that of the meteoric rise of the Napa Valley itself. In 1836 the Mexican commander of California, General Mariano Vallejo, gave General George Yount almost 12,000 acres of land in the valley. (To put the enormity of that gift in perspective, consider that a single acre of Napa Valley land today sells for $35,000 to $55,000.)

Yount, in turn, gave his granddaughter Elizabeth and her husband, Thomas Rutherford, 1,040 acres as a wedding present. Rutherford followed in Yount's footsteps, growing more grapes and making wine. Ultimately, Rutherford's estate would become two parcels on which would be founded the most distinguished wineries of the 19th century: Inglenook and Beaulieu Vineyard.

Inglenook (Scottish for fireside corner) was the vision of Gustave Niebaum, a Finnish sea captain who'd made a fortune in fur trading and spent it building the majestic Gothic stone chateau. From the beginning, the wines were considered sensational (half a century later, Inglenook wines would inspire a young man named Robert Mondavi). Today the chateau and its vineyards are owned by film director Francis Ford Coppola and have been renamed Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery.

Meanwhile, pioneer H. W Crabb, who had planted 130 acres of grapes (400 varieties!), was making 50,000 gallons a year of highly praised wine from a vineyard he called To Kalon (Greek for most beautiful). Today the To Kalon vineyard is the backbone of several top Robert Mondavi wines. At the same time, Far Niente (Italian for without a care) was being built by the same architect who had designed Inglenook.

SOME OF THE BEST FROM OAKVILLE AND RUTHERFORD

Just because a winery is located in one appellation doesn't necessarily mean all of its wines are made with grapes grown in that appellation. For example, a winery could be in Rutherford but make, say, its Merlot from grapes grown someplace else. That said, all of the wines below come wholly or principally from Oakville or Rutherford vineyards. Alas, since these wines are all highly acclaimed and most are made in small amounts, they are expensive (some are super-expensive)-special treats. …

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