The Napa Valley’s history is relatively short, at least as far as the modern wine industry is concerned. Few outside of California paid much attention to the region’s wines until the late ‘70s, when its popularity exploded thanks to Robert Mondavi’s charismatic leadership, the shocking outcome of the Judgment of Paris and a 1991 story on 60 Minutes about the French Paradox that reassured Americans it was perfectly healthy to drink red wine.
Napa’s quick rise to world prominence made (and still makes) for compelling stories populated with a wide assortment of colorful characters. You don’t have to go all that far back to see the inspiration, courage and occasional craziness it took to turn a region devastated by Prohibition (when it turned into one big prune orchard) to survive into a world-class place for wine.
Of the many worthwhile books written about Napa Valley, here are 10 you shouldn’t miss:
A Vineyard in Napa
Doug Shafer, of world-renowned Shafer Vineyards, offers a fascinating account of the vision and fortitude his Chicago-raised father, John, possessed in buying a vineyard in 1972, despite knowing little about wine and nothing about winemaking. With detailed stories about the characters the Shafers met along the way to become one of the world’s most respected and successful wineries in California, the book captures the spirit of the region’s early days with great skill and perspective. Shafer thoughtfully gives much credit where it’s due: to winemaker Elias Fernandez, the son of Napa Valley farmworkers, who has worked with the family since 1984 and played a vital role in the winery’s success.
The Best We Can Be: The Life and Wisdom of Joseph Phelps
A beautiful book both to look at and read, this tells the tale of the man behind the famous winery name. Joseph Phelps was a midwestern contractor with a vision, who came to the Napa Valley in the 1960s after falling in love with wine during World War II. A builder at heart, Phelps not only turned his winery into a powerhouse, he developed the idea for its singular wine, Insignia, created Oakville Grocery, one of the first gourmet delis and specialty grocery stores in the valley, constructed farmworker housing and opened health care centers for women across the region.
Great Winemakers of California: Conversations with Robert A. Benson
Now nearly 50 years old, this book of conversations with winemaking pioneers during the infancy of the modern wine industry remains a fascinating read. The Napa Valley interviewees include the great André Tchelistcheff (“the winemaker’s winemaker”) and eventual household names like Robert Mondavi, Warren Winiarski, Joseph Heitz, Louis Martini and more. It’s a meaty technical and philosophical snapshot of a time, a place and the people who made it legendary.
Harvests of Joy: How the Good Life Became Great Business
No one was a bigger advocate for the Napa Valley than the visionary Robert Mondavi, and few were as good at telling stories. This book is an honest, rich and layered history of the Mondavi family’s long roots in California, but shines brightest in its detailed recounting of the Napa Valley’s rise. Mondavi, deeply acquainted with Napa’s many characters and seemingly always in the room where it happened, brings the reader right along with him.
The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty
Despite his gift for gab, there’s more to the story than Robert Mondavi revealed—particularly in the 10 important years that passed between his book and this one. An instant sensation when it was published in 2008, this New York Times bestseller goes deep into the weeds of the Mondavi family and its complicated father-son, brother-brother and scandalously philandering relationships. Saving the book from becoming overly salacious is Siler, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, who is meticulous in her research. Her business reporting is impressive and intricate, and carefully shows how tricky family dynamics combined with the pressures of running a publicly-traded company can result in, well, complications.
Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine
Much ink has been spilled about the seminal event that heralded California wine’s arrival on the world wine stage. This account is from the one American—and only reporter—actually there when it happened. Taber, at the time a correspondent for Time, wisely gives this story the longer-eyed perspective and context it deserves, providing both a riveting blow-by-blow account of the events as they unfolded and important analysis of the backdrop against which the Judgment of Paris took place. He also provides an important historical perspective on its aftereffects, which upended the wine world’s previously impenetrable hierarchies and rigid adherence to tradition.
Margrit Mondavi’s Sketchbook: Reflections on Wine, Food, Art, Family, Romance, and Life
Swiss-born Margrit Biever married the force that was Robert Mondavi and then, famously, became a force of her own. Margrit brought her passions for fine wine, fine art and cuisine with her to the Napa Valley, which had existed for much of its history as a quiet backwater, mostly aloof from the swirl of transatlantic sophistication. Her sketchbook contains artwork of her own, as well as historic photos, menus and detailed reminiscences of a life well-lived.
Napa Valley Then & Now
White, a former sommelier at Napa Valley institution PRESS Restaurant, and currently the Education Director for the Wine Center at Meadowood Resort, goes deep in this weighty tome, much of which is dedicated to covering hundreds of the most important Napa Valley producers of all time–each of which receives its own two-page spread. With well-written winery profiles, detailed tasting notes and helpful sections of each of the Valley’s appellations, this is a monumental and essential resource for anyone who cares about Napa Valley wines.
Reflections of a Vintner: Stories and Seasonal Wisdom from a Lifetime in Napa Valley
A more recent look at Napa Valley history from the creator of TOR Cellars, Kenward came to the Valley in the 1970s to run Beringer Vineyards. The respected vintner spends much of this coming-of-age story focused on wine in relation to food, drawing on the relationships he cultivated with many of the great chefs who discovered Napa Valley wines, from Julia Child to Thomas Keller. [Note to the reader: I provided a promotional quote for this book when it was published.]
The Winemaker’s Dance: Exploring Terroir in the Napa Valley
All about the dirt beneath the vines, this widely-respected book dives deep into the notion of terroir in all its glory, explaining, among other things, why the Napa Valley is particularly perfect for wine grapes, especially Cabernet Sauvignon. With detailed photos and geological survey maps, Swinchatt and Howell’s book will appeal most to those fascinated by fault lines, bedrock units and alluvial fans. But it’s also a pleasure to read for anyone wishing to understand in layman’s terms why, for example, a world-famous vineyard like To Kalon is so special (and so expensive).