This is the first in a series of articles about the people, places and events that helped shape Napa and Sonoma as we know them today.
After watching the atmospheric rise of popularity and quality in California wines over the past thirty-odd years, it is not a stretch to assume that Napa Valley as a tourist destination is a relatively new phenomenon.
The presence of modern Zagat rated restaurants, high end shops and hotels certainly support that view. Meanwhile, celebrity influence in the wine industry can be seen everywhere, from labels with names like Montagia and Santana DVX, to wineries owned by a number of entertainment legends.
One has to reach back several generations though to read the details of Robert Louis Stevenson’s wine-filled honeymoon through Napa wine country. The year was 1880, just a few years before his first major success “Treasure Island”, and Stevenson, who suffered from ongoing health issues stemming from fibronous bronchitis, was seeking the solace and temperate environment Calistoga and its surroundings could provide.
Ostensibly this was as much a practical endeavor as it was romantic, but in fact the notion of flowing wine was no afterthought in the choice of location. Stevenson was curious to sample and assess American wines qualitatively against their European counterparts, nearly a full century prior to the famed “Judgment of Paris” tasting in which American wines had improved to the point of meeting and exceeding that challenge.
By the time Stevenson and his family took up temporary residence in Calistoga at the Hot Springs Hotel and later in a cabin on the side of Mt. St. Helena near the defunct Silverado mine, Napa was already established as a fledgling wine-growing region.
Names that are now synonymous with wine – Jacob and Frederick Beringer, Charles Krug, Agaston Haraszthy (Buena Vista), Jacob Schram (Schramsberg), George Yount (Yountville), and Gustav Niebaum (Inglenook) had already propelled the area economy away from its now stripped gold-mines to a new more enduring source of prosperity. The ‘49ers had moved on and left a ghost-town with plentiful viniferous land for the taking.
Stevenson and his wife visited several wineries during their stay, and he wrote at some length about his visits to the now defunct McEachern (Stevenson calls this M’Eckron’s in his writing) and the still flourishing Schramsberg wineries in an entry he called “Napa Wine,” published as part of a larger series of articles.
In his writing, Stevenson points out that Napa wines in those days were good but not spectacular, relaying that he finds most “better than a good Beaujolais” – not so much a left-handed compliment as a statement about the lack of aged California wine for him to sample. Until 1970, a vintner’s inventory was taxed yearly, so it was economically unfeasible for a winery to create “library” collections or to bottle wines intended for long-term aging.
The author attributes some of the mixed quality to the youthful vines and frequent re-planting of different varietals – “One corner of land after another is tried with one kind of grape after another. This is a failure; that is better; a third best.” There was no consensus yet of which grapes would work best in the terrain, so many of the varietals grown at the time would not be recognizable to a casual wine drinker today.
Stevenson though clearly understood that he was witnessing the early stages of a region that had discovered its true identity and held great promise for the future. Prophetically, he stated that “…a nice point in human history falls to be decided by Californian and Australian wines… the wine is bottled poetry; these still lie undiscovered… they bide their time, awaiting their Columbus; and nature nurtures and prepares them. The smack of Californian earth shall linger on the palate of your grandson.”
Stevenson also recognized and drew inspiration from by the stubborn self-reliance of Napa’s first vintners, primarily doggedly independent European immigrants, making special note of winery locations. “It did not here begin, as it does too often, in the low valley lands along the river, but took at once to the rough foothills, where alone it can be expected to prosper.”
Those words, written so long ago, evoke some of the same inspired and hopeful thought as a drive through the area today. Robert Louis Stevenson State Park still marks the location of his family’s cabin from his 1880 visit, while the Silverado Museum dedicated in his name holds a great deal of “Stevensonian” memorabilia.
Stevenson’s legacy as one of the first influential wine critics and Napa tourists is secure.
Note: information for this article was obtained from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Napa Wine” written in 1880 and first published in 1883 as a chapter from a series of journal entries titled “Silverado Squatters”. Peripheral notes regarding Stevenson’s visit obtained from Brian McGinty’s detailed introduction to the 1974 publishing of “Napa Wine” by Westwinds Books, San Francisco.
For more information regarding Robert Louis Stevenson State Park and the Silverado Museum, visit http://www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=472 and http://www.silveradomuseum.org