Grapevine: Napa Valley From Vineyard Reality to Virtual Reality

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Nick Antonaccio
Nick Antonaccio

There are a record number of wineries in the United States today – 9,000 plus. Over 40% are in California, accounting for 90% of all domestic wine production. Yet, fewer than 2% of all wineries in the United States – less than 200 – account for 84% of all wine production.

This was the introduction to last week’s column. It was intended to place a perspective on the American wine industry, while at the same time, to focus on the background of the tumultuous history of Napa Valley winemakers.

I categorize this history in four distinct periods.

Pre-Prohibition marked the infancy and initial rise of Napa Valley. Western European immigrants, many Italians, settled in California and Napa Valley and plied their trade in the local markets. Prohibition decimated the industry from 1920-1933.

Next, the post-Prohibition era. It created a number of powerhouses, most closely held. These included Peter and Robert Mondavi, Ernest and Julio Gallo and several other notable families, which flourished and continue to exert their influence in today’s market. They include Jacob and Frederick Beringer, Mike Grgich and Joseph Heitz.

The third period is the early 1970s. This wave of new wineries stood out for their ability to lever off the inroads made by their predecessors. Many were progenies of the 1960s movement of being one with nature, without the trappings of ordered society. While many languished in anonymity, others successfully branded themselves as American icons.

These included the winemakers who participated in the Judgment of Paris in 1976, a tasting competition between upstart California wineries and elite French wines from the Bordeaux and Burgundy regions. Much to the chagrin of the French and the surprise of wine cognoscenti across the globe, American wines were ranked first in the tasting (the movie “Bottleshock” focused on the backdrop of the event).

These Napa Valley wineries, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Chateau Montelena remain highly regarded to this day, along with others that competed. This single event was the impetus that catapulted California to becoming the highly regarded wine region of today.

The fourth period in the history of California and the Napa Valley takes a different route to fame and fortune. In the last 30 years or so, the winemaking industry has been turned upside down, through 1) modern technology and 2) modern-day entrepreneurs.

And the profile of winemakers has been evolving. Still dominant are the traditional winemakers who grow their own grapes and produce their own wines. Others have not been as adventurous or as capital-rich, instead opting to buy grapes and process them in their wineries. Still others have gone the investment banking route: invest other people’s money. The emergence of these trend-setting winemakers who own no land, no winery and no storage facilities continues to escalate.

Nouveau wealthy entrepreneurs own many of these virtual wineries. They amassed fortunes during the last fifteen years, most notably during the last two technology booms and the financial run-up prior to the Great Recession. “Gentlemen winemakers” is a term I’ve been using to describe these entrepreneurs, who became aware of the finer luxuries of the good life and then invested in those industries that piqued their interests.

Napa Valley is dotted with the likes of these wine lovers turned winemakers. A number have grape-stained hands from crafting their own wines while others have ink-stained hands from writing checks to purchase wineries and hire talented winemakers who are imbued with their employers’ passion for a particular style of wine from a particular grape of plot of land.

Today’s wine market enjoys the fruits of Napa Valley entrepreneurs. Excellent wines are available – at broad price points – to satiate the palate and wallet of discerning wine consumers. And these winemakers mirror the American social model. They are a mosaic of multi-cultural, financially divergent individuals and corporations seeking the American dream: following one’s passion, earning the accolades of fellow citizens and achieving the financial rewards of their sweat and dedication.

Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 20 years he has conducted numerous wine tastings and lectures. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine





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