Debuting on CBS as a five-part miniseries with little fanfare in 1978, “Dallas” became the top television program in America within just three years. An evening soap opera about feuding Texas oil barons, other networks and producers quickly scrambled to offer programs of a similar ilk. There was a spin-off, “Knots Landing,” about well-to-do married couples in a scandalous Los Angeles suburb. ABC presented a competitor in “Dynasty,” Aaron Spelling’s soap about oil magnates from Denver.

And then there was “Falcon Crest,” a prime-time drama series centered on the wealthy family behind the fictional Falcon Crest Winery.

Premiering on Dec. 4, 1981, and set in the equally fictional Tuscany Valley, northeast of San Francisco, it was certainly an interesting time to place a network TV series in the world of California wine.

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“’Falcon Crest’ unapologetically piggybacked on America’s relatively newfound interest in fine wine,” says Tom Acitelli, author of “American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story.”

Though Charles Krug had established Napa Valley’s first commercial winery as early as 1861, it would really take until the Paris Tasting of 1976 to put the region on the map — both in its homeland and abroad. Just a few months before “Falcon Crest’s” premiere, in May of 1981, The New York Times offered a large piece explaining the burgeoning California wine industry, “a region spiritually dominated by a zestful preoccupation with satisfying man’s enjoyment of wine.” That same year saw the first ever Napa Valley Wine Auction, centering the world as a place of opulence and conflict.

“Falcon Crest” would do it even more so.

Vineyards Instead of Oil Rigs

If it was forward-thinking to focus a network drama around a California winery in 1981 — perhaps akin to debuting a CBS show about, say, a non-alcoholic RTD maven this year — little initial press seemed to focus on that point, as there was something even stranger to key on: Jane Wyman, the star and family matriarch of “Falcon Crest,” was recently elected president Ronald Reagan’s ex-wife.

“The woman who today would have been First Lady begins her new TV series tonight,” read a wire report on the night of the show’s premiere, which had been moved into the 10 p.m. time slot, right behind “Dallas.”

“Basically ‘Dallas’ in the Napa Valley, with a female tyrant, Angela Channing (Jane Wyman), vineyards instead of oil rigs, a six-month coma, and a plot to take over the world.”

In reality, the premiere was actually a retooled pilot episode. Series creator Earl Hamner Jr., who had also created the schmaltzy Depression-era drama “The Waltons,” wanted to offer a similarly cheerful series about the wine industry, filmed entirely on location in Napa Valley. Hamner had wine in his blood, he often claimed; his family first came to America, from Italy, because Thomas Jefferson was trying to start a wine industry in Virginia. Hamner had recently purchased his own vineyard in Sacramento as well.

“I thought I could write a series using the wine industry as my setting,” he recalled for The Blue Ridge Chronicles. Though, after viewing his first run at a pilot, CBS asked that he scrap the idea, called “The Vintage Years,” and make it a little darker like their biggest hit.

Hamner delivered, creating a show that, by 2004, Newsweek would remember as: “Basically Dallas in the Napa Valley, with a female tyrant, Angela Channing (Jane Wyman), vineyards instead of oil rigs, a six-month coma, and a plot to take over the world.”

Carbonic Maceration

That’s not to say the show was devoid of wine content, however. It was just now presented in a fairly surface way.

The credit sequence, featuring Bill Conti’s iconic theme song, starts with a Rolls Royce heading north on the Golden Gate Bridge before soaring to wine country, with overhead shots of vineyards as far as the eye can see, and a long picturesque driveway, stately trees on either side of it, actually owned by Stag’s Leap Manor winery.

The setting of “Falcon Crest,” though, was that of Spring Mountain Vineyards, an upstart winery in the Mayacamas mountain range that was opened by real estate hot shot Michael Robbins in 1974. Establishing shots used the actual property’s Victorian chateau, Villa Miravalle, built in 1885, as the home of Wyman’s Angela Channing. Robbins rented the vineyard to the show’s producer for one week per year and was initially listed as a technical advisor in the closing credits, despite his claims that he never advised them on anything.

The opening scene of the new pilot begins with Channing’s daughter Emma (Margaret Ladd) having a secret tryst with field hand Turner Bates (Robert F. Lyons) between a vine row — Spring Mountain’s actual — before they scurry off to the cellar room — actually that of a Cucamonga winery. It is there that Falcon Crest’s co-owner, Emma’s uncle Jason Gioberti (Harry Townes), discovers the two, accidentally leading to him drunkenly tumble to his death. That incident, however, serves as the perfect opportunity for Channing to try and fully take over Falcon Crest and run it with an iron fist.

“My brother was a man of the soil, and we return him to the earth,” she says at Gioberti’s funeral.

In “Falcon Crest,” wine is merely the MacGuffin for this nighttime soap opera of scandal and intrigue.

Despite the incredible scenery, soaring shots of grape fields, and a 19th-century chateau with a grand tower, gables, and a wrap-around veranda, wine scarcely appears in the pilot. You never see a grape picked, nor any wine made; heck, there’s not even a single glass of wine drunk in this first episode. (A few empty bottles are found when Gioberti’s house is searched after his death.) The Channings could just have easily owned, well, a Dallas oil company.

Nearly 34 minutes into the pilot episode, however, there is finally some wine talk. Walking through their cellar among the barrels, Angela tests her sycophantic adult grandson Lance (Lorenzo Lamas) on the process for making the “profitable” Gamay Beaujolais.

“Carbonic maceration,” he astutely replies, noting that “the grapes are crushed by their own weight, fermentation occurring as the carbon dioxide blanket prevents oxygen from reaching the fruit.”

But scenes like this are short and rare in the series, one that hardly glamorizes or fetishes wine like other notable on-screen depictions, such as “Sideways.” There’s no oenological passion in the show, no beautiful visuals of ruby red Pinot Noir being poured into a glass, no close-ups of characters closing their eyes in ecstasy as they sniff and then sip with a “soupçon” of asparagus, there’s not even such transgressive flexes like that of Miles (Paul Giamitti) drinking a sublime 1961 Cheval Blanc from a styrofoam cup while chowing down on a fast-food burger and onion rings. In “Falcon Crest,” wine is merely the MacGuffin for this nighttime soap opera of scandal and intrigue.

And yet, amidst the familial back-stabbing and Machiavellian machinations, Napa Valley wine was somehow still an inspiration and aspiration for many viewers.


Recall, many Americans of the time were not yet wine drinkers, certainly not wine connoisseurs, and hardly aware of what California wine had to offer. In 1981, when Napa Valley received the state’s first AVA, there were around 100 wineries in Napa Valley; today there are over 1,700. In 1979, all wine sold in America formed a $4 billion industry; today, Napa Valley wineries alone account for a $34 billion economy. This was the ’80s, man, and people were drinking vodka and peach schnapps. That same year as the premiere, in fact, Taylor California Cellars — owned by Coca-Cola, no less — had just launched a Light Chablis for the health-conscious youth market.

No matter, though. On the heels of “Dallas,” “Falcon Crest” quickly soared into the top 20 of the Nielsen Ratings, with some 17 million viewers per week. (For comparison, a buzzy show like “Succession” is watched by around 2 million viewers these days.)

And, despite the lack of serious wine discussion, “Falcon Crest” would spawn a legion of fans suddenly interested in Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir — and suddenly descending on Napa Valley, which, though popular among California sightseers, was not yet the international tourist mecca it is today. In fact, by 1984  The New York Times reported that “Falcon Crest” fans were “threatening to disrupt the area’s small-town way of life.” By certain estimations, 80 percent of the weekend traffic and gridlock was created by fans of the show.

These were hardly sophisticated oenophiles or pop culture buffs, however. Many were interlopers merely searching for “Falcon Crest” stars’ homes — non-existent, of course; these were actors living in Los Angeles — while invading Spring Mountain Vineyards, raising the ire of Robbins, who didn’t offer public tours.

“And now we’re hiding out from the ‘Falcon Crest’ groupies,”’ Robbins claimed, though he was hardly one to talk about pop culture’s effect on the wine industry. He had been inspired to get into the business after seeing the 1959 Rock Hudson film “This Earth is Mine” about a California winemaking family trying to survive Prohibition.

Not everyone in Napa Valley was unhappy about the groupies, of course. Many wineries actually courted them, cutting prices and selling wine paraphernalia in gift shops. But most of these “Falcon Crest” nuts weren’t treating, say, Stag’s Leap or Chateau Montelena like they were treating Spring Mountain, with the more aggressive fans peering through the windows of Robbins’ family home, leaving fingerprints on everything, and sometimes even walking into his house to rifle through the bookshelves and fine china.

“They’re not looking to steal anything. They just want the thrill,” Robbins said.

At a certain point, he figured, if he couldn’t stop the “Falcon Crest” fans, he might as well capitalize on them.

Clearly Inferior

By 1982, many of the dozens of small wineries that had sprung up post-1976 were now facing financial hardship. California wine was no longer as fashionable as it had been just a few years earlier. But “Falcon Crest” certainly was, now in the top 10 of the Nielsens.

“The [Spring Mountain] wines went from strength to weakness.”

That year, Spring Mountain Vineyard began to cash in on this bear market, by buying excess wine from tanking outfits. It used it to introduce a line of Falcon Crest wines, authorized by the show, including a Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. (Three other Napa Valley wineries had tried, but failed, to legally introduce their own Falcon Crest labels.) Remember, Spring Mountain was a winery so acclaimed its Chardonnay had once been selected to compete in the Judgment of Paris.

However, almost immediately, the “clearly inferior” Falcon Crest wine was outselling Spring Mountain’s own fine wines. By 1987 it was a best-selling item at an emerging California grocery store chain known as Trader Joe’s, selling for just $3.95 a bottle.

“The [Spring Mountain] wines went from strength to weakness,” wrote San Francisco Chronicle wine columnist Matt Kramer. Just like wine never really mattered on “Falcon Crest” — the series ended in 1990 — the actual wine had begun to not to matter in Napa Valley, either.

Eventually, to make money, Robbins had no choice but to offer a “Falcon Crest” tour and to open a tasting room, complete with hourly “Falcon Crest” trivia. He then put the winery up for sale, at an asking price of $20 million. By 1992 Robbins had filed for bankruptcy, “a high-profile symbol of the wine industry’s deepening troubles,” and, that same year, a mysterious Swiss billionaire, Jacqui Safra, bought Spring Mountain for just $5.5 million.

Under Safra, who also funded (and acted pseudonymously in) films for Woody Allen, Spring Mountain staged a bit of a comeback, ushered along as Napa Valley, too, experienced a resurgence. The winery had managed to shake the stench of “Falcon Crest” off its wine, which by 2019 was even being served at the White House.

But then a series of “Falcon Crest”-like scandals and tragedies doomed the winery.

In 2020, the Glass Fire tore through the estate, destroying much of its infrastructure. Then it became the victim of a ransomware attack. The next year, Safra defaulted on repayments of a $185 million loan. Articles about all these failures couldn’t help but mention “Falcon Crest,” a show by then unknown by surely anyone under the age of 40, and forgotten by many older than that.

Yet, if “Falcon Crest” no longer matters in the annals of television history, it continues to loom large in Napa Valley. Even Robbins, who would die in 2013 at age 89, realized early on that the show would change the area for the worse, forevermore.

“It’s helped us [Spring Mountain],” he told the Napa Valley Register in 1983, “but it’s doubtful the program is good for the wine industry as a whole.”