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A liquid (and print) tour of Napa’s winemaking history

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A Book Review of Kelli A. White’s Napa Valley Then & Now

Given Napa Valley’s reputation as North America’s most established wine growing region, it’s no wonder that some outsiders prejudicially view it as stodgy, stuffy, and staid. I made that mistake before moving to Napa three years ago. But as I quickly found, if you’re willing to scratch the surface, you’ll discover a local wine community in a state of constant evolution.  One of the key drivers of the region’s ongoing development is its ability to consistently attract newcomers — Andre Tchelistcheff in the 1930, Warren Winiarski in the 1960s, and John Williams in the 1970s —  who contribute to Napa’s growth and success by fostering a willingness to explore and learn.

There is no doubt that Kelli White’s move from New York to Napa has had a positive impact on Napa’s wine community.  White is part of the team that establish the extensive Napa-focused library wine program at Press Restaurant in St. Helena.  The place has become a classroom of sorts for local winemakers and cellar rats, allowing them to taste wines from various decades, providing what Food & Wine magazine called “a liquid trip through Napa’s winemaking history.”

White has poured all that she learned from meeting with producers, tasting wines, and compiling the Press cellar into a new book, Napa Valley Then & Now.

Napa then and nowIt’s a massive and hefty tome totaling 1250 pages, and primarily serves as a compendium of producer profiles, organized in alphabetical order, each based on interviews and information collected by White over the past five years.  In addition to the standard overview of each winery’s history, White delves into vineyard and cellar practices, provides an overview of the winery’s different winemakers over time,  and includes tasting notes of decades-worth of vintages. Although the book includes a short overview of Napa’s history in the introductory sections, this book is not a narrative, chronological history of Napa. It does serve, however, as a great encyclopedic reference for those wishing to learn about Napa through the region’s brands and bottles.

The breadth of producers selected – old and new, cult and classic – is itself a demonstration of the diversity in Napa Valley. Massican and Matthiasson are sandwiched between Louis Martini and Mayacamas; Scholium Project is placed just after Scarecrow.  As White notes, the selection of producers is not meant to be a “best of” list, but is instead an attempt “to portray the full range of Napa’s potential, from the utilitarian up to the ultra-elite, from full-throttle to restrained, and from the broad-market to the extremely rare.”  The beauty of this is that White, in her selection process, draws attention to the continuing evolution of the region, the ongoing discovery process that continues to make Napa vibrant and exciting.

The book is ideal for folks that have, or intend to build, a wine library.  The extensive tasting notes and the vintage guides have been useful to me as I scour online wine shops and auctions for Napa wines with a few years in the cellar.  It would also be a useful gift for that person who has fallen in love with Napa wines, but needs some help in expanding their knowledge of the breadth of producers in the region.

The only criticism I have is that the short but well written introduction leaves me wishing to see more of White’s opinion and insight.  Instead, the book is written from a “just the facts” approach (tasting notes aside). There is an ongoing debate on how Napa Valley and the local wine industry will grow over the next few years and decades, and some have argued that the dream of the small producer and of innovation in Napa is dead.  White knows better, and her opinion is needed to help inform this discussion.  “Napa Valley is an incredibly dynamic, unique place full of some of the brightest minds in the wine industry,” she writes.  “It’s history is dramatic, exciting — imbued with the thrill of discovery and the honest pursuit of excellence — themes that continue to resonate today.”

White’s selection at Press and her new book will contribute to the overall understanding of Napa’s winemaking history and help cement Napa not just as one of the world’s leading and established wine growing regions, but one whose future is still being shaped.

Disclaimer: I received a free print and electronic copy of the book from the author for review purposes.  I was not required to write a positive review, and the opinions I have expressed are my own. I am providing this disclosure in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s guidelines.  

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