The History and Development of the St. Helena Wine Region in Napa Valley
St. Helena was the focal point of early commercial wine production in the Napa Valley region. As a result of the production of wine in this region, the entire wine industry in California was shaped.
The town of St. Helena was established in 1855. Several years later, in 1861, the first winery was established in the Valley by a German immigrant. His name was Charles Krug. A number of other German immigrants soon followed in his steps, including the Schrams and the Beringers. Krug went on to become one of the first major vintners in Napa Valley. Born in 1825 in Prussia, Krug had been a political radical as a youth. Later he moved to Alto, California and became a neighbor of Agoston Haraszthy, who became Krug’s mentor regarding the production of grapes and wine. Before long, Krug began producing wine for others. One of his first clients was George Yount, of Yountville fame.
Krug established his first commercial winery at the age of 27. Quickly, he became well known for his use of a cider press in order to extract juice from his grapes. Krug also became associated with a number of other innovations for the production of white wine as well. These methods included aging as well as fermentation techniques. Considering the era, Krug was quite careful in his selection of varietals and root stocks.
Throughout the next thirty years, Krug continued the development of his winery and vineyards. He was not able to escape the ravages of the pest phylloxera; however, and he was eventually forced to declare bankruptcy as a result. Krug died in 1892 and the following year his winery was purchased by James Moffitt. In 1943, the winery was sold once again; this time to Cesare Mondavi.
Without any hesitation, Mondavi began to renovate the vineyards as well as the production facilities. Mondavi was assisted by his sons, Peter and Robert, in the operation of the winery. The Mondavi family continues to operate the winery.
Beringer Vineyards has also earned quite a reputation. The vineyard was established in 1876 by Frederick and Jacob Beringer. That same year local vintners established the St. Helena Viticultural Club. The Beringer brothers had been attracted to the region because the growing conditions were quite similar to that of their home region in the Rhine Valley of France. At the time, the task of developing the vineyard was arduous due to the fact that brothers had to literally carve caves into the hills that were situated directly behind their winery. The work was completed by Chinese laborers and upon completion the caves proved to be the ideal place for the aging of Beringer wines. Today, those same caves are still in use.
Beringer Vineyards produces a number of different wines; many of which are produced with grapes that are actually sourced from different regions. Although other vineyards in St. Helena are just as well known as Beringer, Beringer Vineyards has the sole claim to being the oldest winery in Napa Valley that has been continuously operated.
The flagship wine of the winery is the Beringer 1999 Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Only the best fruit from numerous AVAs in Napa Valley are used in the production of the wine. They are all aged separately, using French Oak, and then blended together later. This extremely complex wine is considered a premier wine of the region.
The development of the St. Helena wine region has certainly been greatly assisted by the Krug and Beringer wineries; however, they are certainly not the only wineries in the region. As early as the 1880s there were nearly 3,000 acres of vineyards planted in St. Helena and more than a dozen wineries in operation. Unfortunately; however, the combination of Prohibition and phylloxera almost completely decimated the region.
Even some of the oldest wineries in St. Helena eventually went out of business as a result of Prohibition. During this time period, the acreage was converted to the growth of other products.
In the 1940s; however, the venerable Krug winery began to return from the ashes after it was purchased by the Mondavi family. Today, the Krug winery is still one of the most respected in the state.