Skip to main content
Change Agents

From Hippies to Wine Kings — The Rise of Napa Valley

America’s premier wine region has been shaped by ambition, terroir, and money

Betsy Andrews By June 8, 2022
facade of Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley
Front facade of Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley. Photo courtesy of Chateau Montelena.

You’d think that the 50th anniversary of a venerable estate in the nation’s premier grape-growing region would occasion an upscale but stiff affair. Instead, 700 invitees in outfits including pirate garb and ABBA-style jumpsuits, all in party-theme gold, demolished library bottles of astoundingly fresh 1975 Chardonnay, sashayed to the DJ along with semi-clad paid dancers, and thrilled to the light show beamed against the 19th-century castle that serves as the winery. The host, who addressed the crowd from the balcony like a royal, wore a gold tux jacket and matching cowboy boots. His wife, a famous winemaker herself, sported a light-up bat cape. 

Thus was the zany fête at Chateau Montelena. It was a reminder that, in 1972, many folks who make Napa’s lauded wines now were just-out-of-high-school hippies. “A friend said, ‘I’m driving to California to see what San Francisco is about,’” recalls Daniel Baron. It was 1968. He was 19. “We fell in with pot-dealing hippies in the Sunset District. Then Canned Heat came out with ‘Going Up to the Country,’ and we said, ‘That’s why we’re so messed up. It’s not because we’re neurotic teenagers. We just need to get out of the city.’”

Baron ended up in Calistoga, a vineyard worker at Chateau Montelena. Today a consultant with his own label, Complant Wine, and two for Naked Wines, Baron has a resume that includes a dozen years as manager of Dominus Estate and 22 years as winemaker at Silver Oak. That’s a half-century of Napa in a nutshell: A wayward kid stumbles into grapes and ends up the talent behind $140 Cabernet. How does that happen? 

“What happened was the money came here,” says Bo Barrett. Owner of Chateau Montelena and host of its recent party, Barrett was 18 in 1972, another young hand at the winery his father, Los Angeles attorney Jim Barrett, bought. A look back with Baron, Barrett, and other long-timers shows the interplay between ambition, economics, and terroir that has shaped Napa over the past five decades.

Learning and unlearning

“When I moved here in 1975, Napa Valley was poor,” says Cathy Corison, who was winemaker at Chappellet for a decade before launching Corison Winery. “It was scratching its way out of Prohibition, the Depression, and two world wars.” Cattle grazed where vines are now. Walnuts and prunes were the big crops. 

Incentivized by a Nixon-era tax credit for new agriculture, Jim Barrett bought an abandoned castle surrounded by Prohibition-era vines — Palomino, Sauvignon Vert — that Baron and the younger Barrett helped rip out. That same year, Jack Cakebread spent $2,500 on the 22 acres that became his eponymous estate. The Novaks bought Spottswoode. Caymus, Silver Oak, Diamond Creek, Clos du Val, Burgess Cellars, Rutherford Hill Winery, and Sullivan Rutherford Estate all launched, joining Napa booster Robert Mondavi and legacy wineries like Beaulieu Vineyards. One year later, grapes surpassed cattle as the foremost agricultural product. At Chateau Montelena, they replaced old vines with Cabernet Sauvignon. “Everybody had a good feeling about Cabernet,” says Barrett.

grapes being harvested and loaded into bin

Grapes are harvested and loaded into bins to begin the vinification process, in Napa Valley. Photo courtesy of Cathy Corison.

Still, the variety’s dominance took a while. “One idea then was a winery had to have a full range of products,” Baron explains. Two whites, Pinot, Cab, Zinfandel, a sparkling wine, dessert wine. “You were doing that all on one property, so something wasn’t planted in the right place.” Napanook, which Baron helped turn into Dominus in 1982, “had Riesling planted on some of the best Cabernet ground. When Silver Oak said they were only doing Cabernet, that was radical.”

“The only way to learn was to plant the wrong thing in the wrong place,” says Corison. The know-how of the 19th century, when Napa’s Cabernet-based wines won medals in Europe, had drained away during Prohibition. When Corison enrolled in the enology department at the University of California, Davis, it was separate from viticulture. “I got a master’s in winemaking and wasn’t required to take viticulture classes. I was taught that terroir meant nothing. It’s one of many things we’ve had to unlearn.”

There was lots to unlearn in the cellars, too. “We used incredible amounts of sulfur,” says Barrett. “We gassed wine coming off the press, so it was really reductive. The fruit was warm because we picked it during the day. There was no sorting. There were leaves in the loads.” Barrett’s destemmer was as gentle as a Cuisinart. No wonder there wasn’t a national thirst for Napa. “No wholesalers wanted our podunk brands.” 

Still, Napa terroir produced great wine. In 1976, California wines trounced their French counterparts at the fabled tasting, the Judgment of Paris. Stag’s Leap Cabernet won for reds, and Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay took the top white slot. “Suddenly,” says Barrett, “California brands could sell in New York.”

Boom time

People started pouring into Napa. “Ski bums worked summer and fall before going to the mountains,” says Barrett. “Tons of Latino guys came, really good crews.” The latter were relegated to vineyards. “Workers inside the wineries thought they were better than us. They were like celebrities because they had better-paying jobs,” says Rolando Herrera, owner and winemaker at Mi Sueño Winery. When, at 18 years old, Herrera got hired at Stag’s Leap, he was the first Mexican worker in the cellar. It was 1985.

“Napa was starting to get recognition,” he says. “More tourists, more traffic”— more money. “I remember conversations in the cellar. Someone bought a vineyard for $20,000 an acre, and we were like, ‘That is so much! They’ll never make a profit.’ Before we knew it, land prices were $60,000 an acre.” Today, a prime Napa vineyard costs upward of $370,000 per acre.

With plantings maturing, the Class of ’72 wineries were now vinifying estate-grown grapes. “The fruit was taking a leap forward,” says Barrett. Along with establishing Cabernet’s hold, the Judgment “caused a massive Chardonnay boom.” But instead of mineral-driven wines like Chateau Montelena, producers like Kendall-Jackson, founded in 1982, “developed easy-to-drink Chardonnays for the American palate, which was catalytic. Things just gelled,” says Barrett. 

From 1973, when the Napa Valley Vintners Association boasted 30 members, the number of wineries expanded to 120. Then, in the late ’80s, phylloxera hit, destroying vines planted on AXR1, a UC Davis rootstock that was allegedly resistant. But, unlike a century earlier when the global wine industry was rocked by the plant louse, this time, given viticultural advances, phylloxera brought a silver lining. 

Golden years

“Phylloxera was so important to the transformation of Napa into a quality wine region,” Baron explains. “Vineyards stay in the ground for 25 to 40 years. So knowledge increased, but it wasn’t being applied to grape sourcing. Then phylloxera hit, and virused rootstock and wrong varieties got pulled out and replanted with virus-free, clonal material on varied rootstocks. Five to seven years later, you had a warm vintage like 1997, and people could ripen Cabernet to 30 Brix because it didn’t have viruses and was growing in the right places. Then you had this golden period of highly concentrated wines that pleased critics’ palates.”

On top of that, says Barrett, “The weather so good for those 10 years, everybody made good wines. We all started making money.” On the rise were the “small, cult wineries” — Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle — where his wife, Heidi Barrett, honed a style as a consulting winemaker that garnered 100-point reviews from the powerful critic, Robert Parker.  

“It wasn’t long after that what I describe as the ‘latest king of the Napa Valley syndrome’ started. People with fortunes had to have a winery with their name on it,” says Baron. Napa saw a decline in diversity of styles. “One thing we miss in the era of the wine critic is the ability to celebrate everything.” 

For Corison, the trend had serious consequences. Her vision for “powerful but elegant” wine with “good natural acidity” and “not too much alcohol” was out of step. “It was touch and go for quite a while,” she says. “My husband and I didn’t take salaries for 10 years.”

Generational shift

Today, though there’s still money in blockbuster Cabernet, the pendulum is swinging. Corison’s wines are now sought after. “There’s a digital world where just one or two critics don’t drive the truck,” she says. “And generations after us do not want to be told what to like.”

Baron credits “the advent of sommeliers, who are into the array of wine flavors and are pulling people toward things other than heavy wines.” He’s earning appreciation for the Cabernet he’s making with Complant. Naturally fermented at 13% alcohol, it shows the influence of his co-producer, his son Sam, whose day job is at Kivelstadt Cellars. “What Sam and I are doing, I think, is the future of Napa,” says Baron. “We’re not making a throwback ’70s wine. We’re applying 50 years of knowledge, selecting vineyards that give us ripe character but not being afraid of some herbaceousness, which is part of Cabernet’s signature.”

woman on a grape harvester machine

Woman operates Grape Harvester machine. Photo courtesy of Cathy Corison.

Rolando Herrera continues to make Napa Cabernet while expanding to Sonoma, where he’s planted a mixed vineyard like those from the past, growing Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Riesling, Albariño, and Viognier. As founding president of the Mexican American Vintners Association, he’s watched his community move into all levels of Napa winemaking. “I’m living what I thought was not possible in the ’80s. I thought I’ll never own a label or land. That’s why I chose the name Mi Sueño — My Dream — but I was wrong.”

At Chateau Montelena, Bo Barrett has been pushing generational change since 2000, when he was losing sales to “soft, country-club” Chardonnay. Micro-bins, a new press, replanted vineyards, a younger winemaker — “We made a huge investment to improve quality,” he says. “Now our wine is popular again. The next generation cares about how tasty it is rather than how sweet.” In 2010, he gutted his winery, chucking obsolete equipment from the early years. Now the estate is seeing its biggest replanting since 1972, under current winemaker, Matt Crafton. “Why not give the new generation room to perform?” says Barrett. “It’s almost like starting again.”

Betsy Andrews attended the party mentioned in this story courtesy of Chateau Montelena, who paid for her trip and accommodation.