Vintage Years in the Napa Valley


Rich soil, warm days, and cool nights have shaped the history of northern California’s Napa Valley. Thirty-five miles long and one to five miles wide, this fertile valley has successively lured Indians, Mexican rancheros, American pioneers, and vintners to settle here. Today it also attracts some two and a half million tourists a year. Recently I was one of them and discovered that the Napa Valley has more to offer visitors than tours and tastings at its renowned wineries.

When George Yount was given an 11,814-acre land grant in the Napa Valley by the Mexican government in 1836, he became the valley’s first permanent resident, lord of a rich country of redwood forest and fields tall with wild oat and golden mustard. He hunted abundant game and befriended the Caymus Indians. But Yount was a sociable man and, wanting for neighbors, he invited other Americans to join him on his land.

Settlers poured in, and towns sprang up. A succession of industries rose and fell; a mid-century boom in the hide and tallow trade was followed by an era in which Napa produced much of the wheat that fed the forty-niners. Modest mining booms occurred in Napa County itself, starting with an 1858 silver rush and ending with the closing of a long-producing cinnabar mine in 1903. Throughout that period hot-springs resorts flourished in the area, attracting wealthy San Franciscans to take the waters, as the Indians had before them.

In 1858 the first commercial wine crush was made in the valley, and Napa’s chief industry was born. It grew in fits and starts, profiting from France’s root louse infestation of the 1870s, slowed by the louse’s eventual arrival in America, and nearly finished off by Prohibition. Since the 1950s the number of wineries in Napa has multiplied many times over, making the name Napa Valley synonymous with wine.


In the nineteenth century goods and tourists traveled in and out of the valley by ferryboat on the Napa River, which provided a water route to San Francisco. Around the upriver landing sprouted the City of Napa, founded in 1848; a saloon was its first building. My tour of the valley began on Riverside Drive in Napa, where the black skeletal remains of old piers rise from the water below. This town has recently awakened to the value—aesthetic and commercial—of its past. Fine old Victorian dwellings near the river, once the homes of the city’s rich, are being restored, and architectural landmarks are popping up here and there. There’s also talk of converting the Hatt Building, formerly a seed mill on the river’s edge, into a mall, and of reviving ferry services.

The suddenness of all this preservation frenzy detracts not in the least from a stroll down Division, Oak, or Jefferson Street. With a free architectural walking-tour pamphlet in hand, I ogled shingle-style bungalows, elaborate Eastlake-style cottages, and more somber Greek Revival homes along the city’s streets. One pillared extravaganza, Churchill Manor, at 485 Brown Street, has become a fantasy bed-and-breakfast. Its gleaming redwood interior and antique furnishings make the price of a stay worthwhile.

The vestigial remains of Napa’s once-flourishing hide-and-tallow industry can be found at Sawyer of Napa’s Coombs Street plant. Founded in 1869 as a wool pullery, the Sawyer Tanning Company eventually made “NAPA Leathers” so famous that European competitors put the label on their products. Today Sawyer primarily makes sheepskin coats; visitors to the plant can watch craftsmen tooling skins and leather.

Six miles north of Napa on Route 29 lies quiet Yountville. Named after the hospitable Mr. Yount, the town is dominated by a sprawling complex of shops and restaurants now called Vintage 1870. Originally this structure was the Groezinger Winery. But this sort of metamorphosis is fairly common in the Napa Valley. I stayed in the Burgundy House, a bed-and-breakfast built as a brandy distillery in the 1870s out of raw fieldstone. The building reportedly went through incarnations as a bordello, and then an antiques store.

Four miles up the road is the Inglenook Napa Valley winery, one of the oldest wineries in the valley. Tours are given regularly of the old building, which is now a museum; it’s worth a stop, especially to examine the ponderous masonry and the original wine-tasting room, modeled after the quarters of a ship’s captain—the founder’s first profession.

A few miles north Route 29 becomes the main street of St. Helena, a town that sprang from the brow of the Englishman Henry Still. In 1853 he purchased one hundred acres from Edward Bale, an Englishman who had married into one of the original Mexican ranchero families. Still offered a free lot to anyone who would open a business. Before long he had a lively town.

Along Main Street today is a row of architectural delights—the Masonic Building, for example, built in 1892 and afroth with spindles, brackets, and latticework. The Odd Fellows Building across the street, built in 1885, is one of the largest stone structures in town and still houses the local lodge.