Wine 101: Napa Deep Dive

This episode of Wine 101 is sponsored by Louis M. Martini Winery, where an 85-year legacy of making Cabernet Sauvignon is still going strong. Everything Cabernet Sauvignon is celebrated at Martini: the history, the winemaking, the wine! Visit the Martini tasting room and sip Cab inside, outside in a cabana, or underground in a cellar. Or, try a full culinary exploration from the in-house chef. The people at Louis M. Martini Winery are serious about Cab. Taste it, and you’ll know why Cab is king.

On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers dives into everything that Napa, Calif., has to offer. A short drive from Sonoma, Napa is rich with history and famous for being the country’s premier fine wine region. Beavers shares county’s best wineries, restaurants, and views. Tune in to learn more.


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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers. Look, I know that history repeats itself and that fashion comes back. But why are we doing ’90s?

What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. What is happening? OK, so we tackled Sonoma and went into a deep dive. It’s time to talk about Napa.

We talked about Napa Valley and the AVA in a previous episode. And if you haven’t, go ahead and check that out. It’ll give you a nice map of the wine country of Napa. In this episode, just like with the Sonoma episode, I want to get you a little bit more comfortable with Napa. Sonoma and Napa are neighbors, but they are so different from each other. Adam and I actually went from Sonoma to Napa, which is only about a 25-minute drive. It’s kind of cool. It’s also a beautiful drive because, you know, it’s California. But if you’re flying into San Francisco, it’s just as easy to get to Napa as it is to Sonoma. It’s actually a shorter drive, whereas the Sonoma drive is about an hour and 45 minutes. Going to Napa is only about an hour, maybe a little bit over an hour.

You basically take the 101 to Interstate 80 to California 29, and California 29 is what gets you into Napa. That Route 29 is where most of the famous wineries are on. We’ll get to that in a second. You take exit 18A onto First Street, and here you are basically in the main artery of downtown Napa. First Street will take you right through the center of downtown towards the Napa River. If you go over the Napa River, there’s actually a very famous indoor market called the Oxbow Market. It’s, again, amazing. This is California, it’s all local foods, local fare. It’s a beautiful indoor market.

What really fascinates me about downtown Napa, and you know how much I love history, I’ve always wanted to know where this town started. The reason why I took you to the Oxbow Market is if you were to turn back around and go back into Napa, the town, you would be on First Street. You cross over the river and your first light is Main Street. Then, you take a left on Main Street and you go down to Third Street. So you’re on Main Street and Third, and right there on the corner of Main Street and Third, the first building in Napa was built and it was a saloon. I just think it’s so cool. You’re looking around this beautiful downtown area with fine dining and all these nice restaurants, but if you go to that little corner, it’s where it all began. The saloon is not there anymore, I think it’s a government building or something like that. And if you’re on Main and the corner of Third Street and you take a right on Third, you’re going back into the city and the first street you cross is Brown Street. Brown Street is where it all began.

If you listen to the American Wine History series that I did, you’ll notice that a lot of these settlers acquired these land grants from Mexican officials during that time when California was Mexico. Specifically George C. Yount, and then, of course, Yount became Yountville. Well, a guy by the name of Nathan Coombs in 1847 was granted Rancho Entre Napa, which was basically from Brown Street, which I was just talking about, to the river. So if you take that left and you go down to Main Street and Third and you take a right on Third Street to Brown, right there is where it all began, from Brown Street to the river. And he chose this area specifically because this part of the river is the highest point of the river. It was a good docking area for steamboats. It’s 600 yards from Brown Street to the river. Napa began as a 600-yard little area.

By 1859, when John Pratchett was the first person in Napa to open a commercial winery, Napa the city was a thriving boomtown of all kinds of business. It had one of the largest tanneries in the United States. It was the hub for the lumber industry. There were sawmills all around Napa. There was actually a Silver Rush in 1858, which brought a lot of people to this area as well, because that’s where the silver was. As Napa developed, it became a significant hub of this part of California. It was the banking center for all the businesses in the surrounding area. It was the economic center for everything. As that wine country north of Napa began to grow, so too did Napa, tremendously. But the thing was, Napa was not only a place for agriculture and farming and all that, even though the wine industry was building. It was also a destination for the wealthy of San Francisco and the surrounding area to come and enjoy themselves.

In the 1860s, a man by the name of Sam Brannan literally bought the entire upper part of Napa Valley because of these hot springs. He wanted to create a resort up there, and he did. It’s now called Indian Springs, but it’s had a couple of names throughout the years. To get people up to this place, and we’ll talk about where that is because that’s along Route 29, he advocated for a train to be built from downtown Napa to the Springs to help his business. And that train is still there today. It doesn’t go all the way to Calistoga anymore. It goes from downtown Napa to, I think, St. Helena, which is almost Calistoga. It’s kind of neat now. You can look at this train as being a little bit cheesy. You’re on this train. You’re going up and down Route 29. You’re seeing all the famous wineries. You can dine in the car. I think it’s only two stops in the entire train line. But it’s kind of a neat thing to do. It’s very historical.You go on this train and you’re back in time when Napa was developing. I think it’s kind of great. But the fact that it still exists and that this city, to me, felt like it will do anything it can to accommodate a visitor. It’s a visitor-centric place.

If you think of the history of Napa, again, from my American Wine History series, this is what they were trying to create: a fine wine region that was a business. They were asking people from San Francisco to come up to Napa to experience this thing. What we see today is literally the culmination of the idea that was formed back in the 1940s when they wanted to do what they wanted to do with Napa. Napa’s transportation system is the Valley Intercity Neighborhood Express. You get that acronym? “V-I-N-E.” But Napa is how America does a fine wine region.

Adam and I got into Napa right there on First Street. There’s a hotel called the Andaz Hotel. It’s a very nice hotel. Then, we check our bags. We go to another hotel just a couple of blocks down called the Archer Hotel, and they have a rooftop bar restaurant. When you’re sitting there on that rooftop bar restaurant at the Archer Hotel, which is another beautiful hotel, you’re looking at Napa Valley, you have a mountain range to your right, a mountain range to your left, and then just wine. You can see all of it. And it’s kind of amazing because if you’re going to Napa, that’s where you’re going to go. To sit there on a rooftop restaurant in Napa looking into the valley is pretty amazing, especially when the sun sets.

On the way back to the hotel, before we go to dinner, we stop by Gallo’s Brandy Library. What’s really great about this, is this is another awesome historical moment in this part of California. Ernest and Julio Gallo, who came to this area from Modesto, fell in love with the idea of brandy. And Julio Gallo was pretty obsessed with making brandy. What’s amazing about this is you go to this place and you’re sitting down, you have a flight of these brandies from Gallo, and you get the entire history while you’re tasting that moment in time. It’s still going today. The obsession with brandy and Julio Gallo is amazing, because what he did was create a brandy that was specifically American in that the grapes that are used to make the brandy are varieties grown in Napa and Sonoma. This is a man making brandy from grapes like Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, and other wild, lesser-known grapes like Counoise and Syrah. This wasn’t done before, and he created something beautiful out of it. If you get a chance and if you’re in Napa, you should definitely go to the Brandy Library and get a whole historical lesson while drinking awesome brandies from the Gallo family. You’re kind of getting the sense of that fine-wine region vibe, right?

Then, of course, Adam and I go to dinner that night and we go to a restaurant called Charter Oak. This is a beautiful sort of stone house restaurant up Route 29. It’s fine dining: beautiful food and a wonderful wine list. It’s a fine-dining restaurant in a fine-wine region. We just had to check it out to see what it was like to eat like that in Napa because it is a fine-wine region. What’s really cool about these restaurants is, yeah, they’re expensive and they’re wonderful and beautiful, but they still adhere to a farm-to-table vibe even. Being so close to Sonoma, why wouldn’t you? So if we’re ordering food on the menu and it’s 9 p.m. or 8 p.m., they may already be out of some of the stuff because of supply from local farms. It’s just wild that it’s a fine-dining region; it’s a fine wine region, but it’s still farm-to-table. That’s wonderful.

The next day, Adam and I ended up at Louis M. Martini Winery, and I have an interview next week with the winemaker of this winery, and it’s awesome. Just like in Sonoma when we were talking to Brenae, we’re kind of seeing the future of Sonoma. Talking to Michael Eddy from Louis M. Martini, we’re starting to see the future of Napa. I’m going to get into all of that next week. But the reason why I say this is that the next day we’re heading up. We’re in downtown Napa. We take First Street all the way to 29 and we start heading 29 North.

Now, wine lovers, we hear a lot about Napa. You hear about Mondavi and Sequoia Grove. These are names of wineries that are just absolutely famous and a testament to Napa Valley and what it’s accomplished. You have Louis M. Martini, which we were headed to, that’s been around since the 1930s. And then you have Mondavi and you have Sequoia Grove and all these guys. It’s almost like a chronological map of Napa’s development, because there’s also a bunch of new stuff out there. There’s a winemaker called Ashes & Diamonds, and their wine tasting facility is on Route 29, and it just looks a little bit more modern. But you’re driving up Route 29, and it’s one winery after another. If you listen to my Napa episode, I talk about all the AVAs in Napa. And if you’re going up Route 29, you’re literally heading to almost every single one in the valley, until you get to the most northern AVA, Calistoga. It’s the most northern area in the valley because you still have AVAs up in those mountains.

We stop at Louis M. Martini and talk to Michael Eddy. Again, great episode next week; you’re going to love this interview. But this is Napa. So we also decided that while we’re at Louis M. Martini, we wanted to try their heritage tasting, which is hosted in this huge dining room in the guest facility of the winery. It’s the visiting tasting room/facility of the winery, which is fairly new. It’s just huge, and it’s beautiful. You sit at these beautiful tables and you have a selection of their small lot wines and they pair each wine with a course. It’s not a lot of food, but it’s enough to get a sense of the pairing. There’s also a bar up front, right when you walk in that you can taste and stuff like that. It was an awesome tour of the facility and next week is going to be an awesome episode. Oh, there’s also a bunch of really cool historical documents in the tasting room to show more of Napa history. Can you tell I’m obsessed with history? After Louis M. Martini, we stayed on Route 29. We went to a winery called Long Meadow Ranch. Guys, if you ever get a chance to try Long Meadow Ranch, the wines are really awesome. We weren’t there for the winery. They actually have a restaurant on their property called Farmstead. It’s one of the best lunches I’ve ever had. It’s an amazing place. Again, it’s farm-to-table right there on Route 29.

Then we did something that I’ve really always wanted to do and never had a chance to do, and you guys should probably do it. It’s really awesome. We literally drive the perimeter of the valley, so we drove up Route 29. When we got to Calistoga, we took a right. And when you take a right at Calistoga, you get onto what’s called the Silverado Trail. That’s that famous road that everyone talks about. This is a much smaller, much more quaint, quieter, more winding road with, yet again, amazing wineries lining the Silverado Trail. It’s on Route 29 that you see all the most famous wineries you hear about. It’s on the Silverado Trail that you see the signs for all the wineries that you hear about, because they’re not all there. You can’t see them all. But it was just amazing to take in the entirety of the valley, driving from Napa downtown all the way up to Calistoga, then east and then south down the Silverado Trail back to Napa. It’s pretty awesome.

Listening to what I’ve been talking about with Napa, you really get a sense of how these neighbors — Sonoma and Napa — are absolutely, completely different. Now in Napa, when you’re up in the mountains, you’re in the Mayacamas or the Vacas. You’re not in the business of Sonoma. It’s the valley that has just a lot of activity going on. But the thing about Napa is, because it’s our fine-wine region, you can just be in Napa and you see all the changes throughout the generations right in front of you. You see all the tasting rooms and all of the wineries from back in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, and even the ones that are brand new just along Route 29.

Napa is a curated experience for you as a wine lover to go and visit. This has been the plan for Napa since the Napa Valley Vintners Association formed in the 1940s, when they started attracting people from San Francisco to come up and see what was going on. That business plan, that motto, that mission statement is still true today. There’s beauty there. We have our own fine-wine region with amazing hotels and restaurants and fine dining and Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s all there for you to enjoy. It’s very easy. Whereas in Sonoma, it’s a little bit different, it’s a little more geographically diverse. You had to go and find places. But there’s beauty in both of these things. Where Sonoma was the beginning of it all, Napa is almost the culmination of it. Just like I saw change happening in Sonoma, I’m seeing change happen in Napa as well.

For example, next week, we’re hearing this interview with Michael Eddy, the winemaker at Louis M. Martini. Louis M. Martini has been in Napa since 1933. Michael Eddy is the first winemaker of this winery that is not a member of the family. So there’s change happening in Napa as well. Just like in Sonoma, we have young winemakers in Napa who are either taking over a family business or are starting their own wineries and trying to make change happen in Napa as well. You see that a lot in downtown, because even though there are the hotels and the regular stuff you would imagine would be there, there are new kinds of restaurants and wine bars opening up.

The last night that Adam and I were in Napa, we went to a wine bar/wine shop called Compline. When you’re having dinner at Compline in downtown Napa, the wine list doesn’t have a bunch of Cabernet Sauvignon on it. It has other wines from around Napa. There is this new vibe that is working in tandem with the classical vibe of Napa. You have the Cabernet Sauvignon, you have that old-school vibe that continues to evolve. Now you have this new energy with new stuff happening. I don’t know if you remember the interview with Brenae Royal, but there was a point in the interview where she said she’s tasting really cool stuff from Napa. She said it was “oddball stuff.” What that says is, even though Cabernet Sauvignon rules the land of Napa, it’s not the only thing happening out there. There’s so much more that Napa can give, and I think this is a new generation of winemakers that are doing that. But in the Cabernet Sauvignon realm, there are new winemakers giving new life into Cabernet Sauvignon as well, which we’ll hear next week.

So that’s my Napa deep dive, kind of giving you guys a sense of what it’s like to be there. If you ever go, you don’t have to feel intimidated. It’s a wine region. I know that I probably said the term “fine-wine region” more in this episode than I have in any other episode. You’re going to go there, it’s a little expensive, but it’s awesome. It’s so great to be in this part of history. If you love wine in the U.S., I mean, just being in Napa and seeing the history there is pretty amazing stuff.

OK. So next week, we’re to have an interview with Michael Eddy, the head winemaker at Louis M. Martini, and get a really cool sense of even more Napa history and what the future looks like. I’ll see you next week.

@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.

And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.