Before he died in 2009, after a long battle with cancer, Jim Richards was known as a down to earth, call-it-like-you-see-it type guy. While living in Texas, he and his wife, Barbara, had caught the wine bug and decided to move to Napa Valley to follow their dreams. In 1983 they bought a choice, 20-acre property at the top of Spring Mountain, and planted 15 acres with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. What followed were some of the best Merlots California had to offer. Although Jim has since passed, the Richards still have a rabid following among those who prize sweetness of fruit, creamy texture and plenty of spicy oak. Sheldon, Jim's son, now works alongside his mom in the vines and in the cellar, carrying on the work, and good reputation of his dad's vineyard.
Napa Valley is the most famous wine-growing area in the U.S. It begins at the base of Mount St. Helena in the north and tapers off some 30 miles to the south into the floodplain where the Napa River enters San Francisco Bay. From Mount St. Helena to the city of Napa, the valley is defined by two north-south ridgelines of the Coast Range Mountains.
The bulk of grape growing for Napa wines takes place on the valley floor and on the gentle slopes adjoining the floor, the best-known example probably being the Oakville Grade. The floor ranges from less than a mile in width in the north to about 3 to 4 miles across in the south. The hills to the west of the valley floor are part of the Mayacamas Range; they contain key appellations such as Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain, and Diamond Mountain District. With the exception of Howell Mountain, the hills on the eastern side of the valley are not nearly as important or as well known.
From its earliest days, Napa Valley has been the home of some of California's most famous wine estates. Today, the valley boasts upward of 36,000 acres planted to Napa wine grapes and some 250 wineries, most of which offer high-caliber, often expensive Napa Valley wines. With some notable exceptions, the best California Chardonnays, Cabernets, and Merlots come from Napa; these varieties make up two-thirds of the vines in the region.
Because of its huge size, Napa Valley is home to varied microclimates that support many different kinds of wine grapes. For example, the cool Carneros region by San Francisco Bay yields good Chardonnay and Pinot Noir; and at the other end of the valley, the warmer Calistoga area can produce perfectly ripe Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and monster Cabernets, but it usually overcooks Pinot Noir and other heat-sensitive varieties. On wine labels, the term ""Napa Valley"" has included all but the most outlying and inhospitable lands of Napa County.
It is remarkable that an industry essentially less than a half-century old could capture the attention of the American wine-buying public to the degree that California has. Powerful consumer interest in California wine is driven by two major factors. The more obvious reason is that California's best wines, which come from grapes grown in a benign climate featuring endless sunshine, very warm summer days, and generally dry harvests, and wonderfully fruity, full, and satisfying, and rarely too austere or tannic to be enjoyed from day one.
California is blessed with an extraordinary range of soils and microclimates, allowing for the successful cultivation of many varieties. In at least three out of four years, the best sites produce healthy, ripe fruits that are the envy of European producers in more marginal climates. The other reason Americans buy so much California wine is that California is the home team. Clearly, a high percentage of domestic wine drinkers are more comfortable buying American wines (and not just wines of California) than imports. Then, too, foreign bottles are generally identified by place name, rather than by the more familiar varieties that American wine drinkers have come to know and enjoy.
Moreover, in much of North America, outside the top 15 or 20 largest metropolitan markets, consumers have limited access to imported wines even if they wanted to buy them.
For many, Napa Valley is California wine, and Cabernet is king in Napa Valley. Meanwhile, the Burgundy varieties Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have gravitated to cooler areas, generally closer to the Pacific, such as the western stretches of Sonoma County, the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, and the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez valleys within Santa Barbara County. Syrah vines have yielded interesting wines in a range of styles all over the state, in regions as disparate as Mendocino County, the Sonoma coast, Carneros, Paso Robles, and Santa Maria Valley. Very good Zinfandel similarly comes from multiple growing areas, although to date the age-of-vines variable has been almost as important as geography. Zinfandel, though its roots are in Europe, is a true California original and the only California wine imitated abroad. It's also a variety of which there are still significant plantings of very old vines, in some cases dating back to the end of the 19th century.