Visiting Napa Valley for the First Time

Decades ago we visited Napa Valley for the first time.  It was a life-altering experience…well, vacation altering, at any rate.  Traveling to winemaking areas for the purpose of visiting wineries and tasting their products is an experience we have relived many times since.  Napa Valley was not only our first destination but also the one we have returned to the most often over the years.

The iconic Stag’s Leap winery in the 1970’s.  Photo courtesy of The Rainbow Times.

It is a very different experience today than it was then.  In those days, wine tasting was much more casual.  The founders of many namesake wineries were alive and pouring tastes for visitors.  The servers – owners and workers, generally – stood behind a plank stretched between two barrels and poured a few thimblefuls of wine into tiny glasses that we were urged to take home with us.  No one thought of charging for a tasting.

As first-timers, we were in awe. There were rows and rows of vines stretching, so it seemed, in all directions as far as the eye could see.  There were no Napa palaces at that time.  All the wineries were combinations of factories, warehouses and working farms, much as can be seen in less-discovered parts of the world these days.

The wines that were available for sale were a great deal less expensive.  The best in the house could be bought for ten dollars or less.  (To be fair, $10 sounded like a lot more money in the 1970’s and ‘80’s.)  Some of the wines that we bought then are still among our favorites, such as Robert Mondavi or Louis M. Martini.  (Although we never had the pleasure to meet Mr. Mondavi, Mr. Martini once served us wine.)  The cost of their top wines are now counted in the hundreds of dollars.

Stag’s Leap winery today.

We try, with some difficulty, to imagine what the experience of a first-time visitor (and novice taster) must be like today.  Almost all the founders have passed away.  Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap and Mike Grgich of Grgich Hills are approaching the century mark, but they are virtually the only ones left.  Most of the major wineries are the property of multinational corporations.  The vines are still there but the tasting facilities are in many cases “visitors centers” architected to impress.  Impressive they are, but visitors’ encounters are starkly different than ours was.

Even before the pandemic, the cost of a tasting had become rather steep in many wineries, enough to be prohibitive for tasters as young today as we were then.  Of course, the price for a glass of wine in a restaurant or bar has also increased, so wine tasting is not that out of line in dollar terms.  Since the pandemic, almost all Napa wineries are available for tasting by appointment only and the price for tasting has increased tremendously.  That prohibition was once a ruse to keep rowdy crowds away; today the tastings are seated and the limitation is for real.

We still have a sense of wonder when we visit sectors of Wine Country we’ve never encountered before.  And we still have a great time in Napa.  But it will never be our first time again.

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