The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1997, Volume 43, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Napa Winemaking from Prohibition to the Modern Era


Bottled Poetry: Napa Winemaking from Prohibition to the Modern Era.

By James T. Lapsley. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. Photographs. Map. Illustrations. Index. Notes. Bibliography. 296+ xvi pages. $29.95 cloth.

Reviewed by Stanley Pincetl, Professor emeritus, Department of History, San Diego State University and wine aficionado.

Recently, books on wine seem to be challenging cook books in variety if not in numbers. Many of them are superficial and full of jargon about nose, flower or plant smells and impossible to recognize characteristics. Knowledgeable studies on wine are rare and certainly Bottled Poetry is one of them. James T. Lapsley has concentrated on the manner in which the premier California wines in Napa Valley evolved in a few short years compared to the 2,000 or more years wine has been known to civilized man. Napa wines are recognized as equal or superior to the great wines of France, or indeed anywhere.

Originally a dissertation, Bottled Poetry is based on years of painstaking research at the University of California at Davis. What Lapsley gives us is a careful analysis of California wine making from its beginning in the 1850s through prohibition to the present. One of the most interesting revelations is that originally almost all California wines were bulk wines made from virtually any kind of grape stock and the majority went into cheap fortified wines until the mid-1930s. After prohibition, Napa Valley winemakers began to work on new varietal grapes for premium wines and, at the same time developed new scientific techniques to improve wine quality.

In a chapter entitled “The Transformation: Enology and Viticulture in the Napa Valley,” the author explains why California wines have become some of the best in the world. Vintners, many trained at the University of California, Davis, “adopted new technology, including cold fermentation; inert storage containers of glass or stainless steel; blanketing of wines with carbon dioxide or nitrogenÉ and early bottling employing sterile filtration and new low-oxygen-pickup bottling systems” (p. 161). Technology had a dramatic effect on the improvement of California wines. For example, glass and stainless steel containers could be easily cleaned, thus eliminating off-odors and contaminants from bacteria growing inside wooden vats. This opened up a market for comparatively new varietals such as Rieslings, Chenin blancs, and Napa Gamay roses that had distinct fruit aromas often ruined by bacteria. Winemakers also developed new techniques to identify bacteria that caused cloudiness and off-odors in white wines and the use of better strains of yeast for fermentation improved taste and quality of Napa Valley wines. By the 1950s and 1960s, these new wine making methods allowed California vintners to dramatically improve the quality of California wines. During the 1960s “over a hundred wine tastings” comparing European with California wines were held across the U.S. “A typical tasting resulted in an almost 50/50 split in preference” (p. 152-53). Napa Valley premium wines had passed the taste test with flying colors.

Of interest to many readers, Lapsley’s study of the major families and personalities who developed world class reds and whites probably cannot be found elsewhere. Scientific method was introduced through the leadership of the enologists at the University of California at Davis as well as clever individuals who produced the wines. Enologists and wine promoters such as Andre Tchelistcheff, Robert Mondavi, Louis M. Martini, Lou Gomberg, Georges de Latour, Maynard Amerine, and A. J. Winkler led the way in Napa Valley. The major name wineries such as Georges de la Tour (Beaulieu), Beringer, Mondavi (Charles Krug), and Christian Brothers, well-known in the 1930s and 1940s, still survive. Louis Martini is the last remaining family winery still in existence. What is surprising is that while many of the original families no longer own these labels, corporations, even large ones, have maintained the viticultural tradition in Napa Valley and they have also improved the varietals which were the basic stock of their superb wines.

Since the glorious years of the Napa innovators, many talented and moneyed individuals have been attracted to the wine making possibilities along the west coastÑfrom the Washington state whites and reds to the Oregon Pinots and down the coast to the border of Mexico. Aside from the vast Gallo Winery, some wineries of central California (Gallo has moved into the Napa Valley and is producing some prize winning wines), now offer wines of high quality produced in the diverse soils and climates of California. Many of these wines are of limited quantity and mostly expensive, and are sometimes pejoratively referred to as “boutique” wines. Of course, a discussion of this development is beyond the scope of this book, as are the fine wines from Australia and elsewhere. However, all of these wines, including those of France, owe a great debt to what transpired in Napa Valley in the 1930s and 1940s and this book has added greatly to our knowledge of how it all began.

Since there are local wineries in Escondido (Ferrara and Bernardo) and Temecula (Callaway, Cilurzo, Hart, Mesa Verde, Mt. Palomar, and Filsinger) most San Diegans are well aware of the technology that has changed the wine industry. For those readers who are unaware of these local wineries, a wine tour is highly recommended.

Lapsley has made a valuable contribution indeed to what Robert Louis Stevenson called Bottled Poetry in nineteenth century Europe which have been far surpassed by twentieth century Napa Valley wines. Of the four thousand wines available in the United States from all over the world, Napa wines stand at the pinnacle.