Skip to main content


Vintage Years in the Napa Valley

April 2024
5min read

Rich soil, warm days, and cool nights have shaped the history of northern California’s Napa Valley. Thirty-five miles long and one to five miles wide, this fertile valley has successively lured Indians, Mexican rancheros, American pioneers, and vintners to settle here. Today it also attracts some two and a half million tourists a year. Recently I was one of them and discovered that the Napa Valley has more to offer visitors than tours and tastings at its renowned wineries.

When George Yount was given an 11,814-acre land grant in the Napa Valley by the Mexican government in 1836, he became the valley’s first permanent resident, lord of a rich country of redwood forest and fields tall with wild oat and golden mustard. He hunted abundant game and befriended the Caymus Indians. But Yount was a sociable man and, wanting for neighbors, he invited other Americans to join him on his land.

Settlers poured in, and towns sprang up. A succession of industries rose and fell; a mid-century boom in the hide and tallow trade was followed by an era in which Napa produced much of the wheat that fed the forty-niners. Modest mining booms occurred in Napa County itself, starting with an 1858 silver rush and ending with the closing of a long-producing cinnabar mine in 1903. Throughout that period hot-springs resorts flourished in the area, attracting wealthy San Franciscans to take the waters, as the Indians had before them.

In 1858 the first commercial wine crush was made in the valley, and Napa’s chief industry was born. It grew in fits and starts, profiting from France’s root louse infestation of the 1870s, slowed by the louse’s eventual arrival in America, and nearly finished off by Prohibition. Since the 1950s the number of wineries in Napa has multiplied many times over, making the name Napa Valley synonymous with wine.


In the nineteenth century goods and tourists traveled in and out of the valley by ferryboat on the Napa River, which provided a water route to San Francisco. Around the upriver landing sprouted the City of Napa, founded in 1848; a saloon was its first building. My tour of the valley began on Riverside Drive in Napa, where the black skeletal remains of old piers rise from the water below. This town has recently awakened to the value—aesthetic and commercial—of its past. Fine old Victorian dwellings near the river, once the homes of the city’s rich, are being restored, and architectural landmarks are popping up here and there. There’s also talk of converting the Hatt Building, formerly a seed mill on the river’s edge, into a mall, and of reviving ferry services.

The suddenness of all this preservation frenzy detracts not in the least from a stroll down Division, Oak, or Jefferson Street. With a free architectural walking-tour pamphlet in hand, I ogled shingle-style bungalows, elaborate Eastlake-style cottages, and more somber Greek Revival homes along the city’s streets. One pillared extravaganza, Churchill Manor, at 485 Brown Street, has become a fantasy bed-and-breakfast. Its gleaming redwood interior and antique furnishings make the price of a stay worthwhile.

The vestigial remains of Napa’s once-flourishing hide-and-tallow industry can be found at Sawyer of Napa’s Coombs Street plant. Founded in 1869 as a wool pullery, the Sawyer Tanning Company eventually made “NAPA Leathers” so famous that European competitors put the label on their products. Today Sawyer primarily makes sheepskin coats; visitors to the plant can watch craftsmen tooling skins and leather.

Six miles north of Napa on Route 29 lies quiet Yountville. Named after the hospitable Mr. Yount, the town is dominated by a sprawling complex of shops and restaurants now called Vintage 1870. Originally this structure was the Groezinger Winery. But this sort of metamorphosis is fairly common in the Napa Valley. I stayed in the Burgundy House, a bed-and-breakfast built as a brandy distillery in the 1870s out of raw fieldstone. The building reportedly went through incarnations as a bordello, and then an antiques store.

Four miles up the road is the Inglenook Napa Valley winery, one of the oldest wineries in the valley. Tours are given regularly of the old building, which is now a museum; it’s worth a stop, especially to examine the ponderous masonry and the original wine-tasting room, modeled after the quarters of a ship’s captain—the founder’s first profession.

A few miles north Route 29 becomes the main street of St. Helena, a town that sprang from the brow of the Englishman Henry Still. In 1853 he purchased one hundred acres from Edward Bale, an Englishman who had married into one of the original Mexican ranchero families. Still offered a free lot to anyone who would open a business. Before long he had a lively town.

Along Main Street today is a row of architectural delights—the Masonic Building, for example, built in 1892 and afroth with spindles, brackets, and latticework. The Odd Fellows Building across the street, built in 1885, is one of the largest stone structures in town and still houses the local lodge.

But St. Helena’s chief historical attraction is the Silverado Museum on Library Lane. It honors Robert Louis Stevenson, who in 1880 came to the valley seeking relief from his tuberculosis. He and his bride spent a week in Calistoga and several months atop Mount St. Helena at the head of the valley, living in the assayer’s office and bunkroom of the abandoned Silverado Mine. “We lived … entirely in the wreck of that great enterprise,” wrote Stevenson in his 1883 account of the adventure, The Silverado Squatters, “like mites in the ruins of a cheese.” The museum is a hoard of Stevensoniana; everything from his baby hair to most of his first editions is on display here.

Just north of St. Helena are three of the valley’s older wineries: Beringer Brothers, Christian Brothers, and Charles Krug. Krug is Napa’s oldest operating winery, but Beringer Brothers gives a good tour of its fortresslike winery, the Chinese-dug tunnels, and the German Gothic mansion on the lawn. In 1870 the local paper called the Beringer cellar “the most handsomely finished of any in the valley.” I was similiarly struck.

Another few miles up the road is the Bothe-Napa State Park, site of the Bale Grist Mill. Dr. Edward Turner Bale was Yount’s contemporary, an English doctor who married the niece of the powerful Mexican general Mariano Vallejo and was awarded a huge land grant. Fond of liquor and argument, Bale was once publicly flogged for contesting the honesty of his wife’s uncle and was later arrested and then released for shooting that gentleman. According to a contemporary’s diary, Bale’s house “looked desolate enough standing on a dry plane near a dry black volcanic mountain almost destitute of vegetation … and about 10 or 12 Indians lying naked in the scorching sun finished the scenery of the rural domain.” This paradise Bale named Rancho Carne Humana—human flesh.

But Bale contributed more than lore to the valley; he built his grist mill here in 1846. That year a party of Americans met here on their way to Sonoma to arrest General Vallejo and to declare the birth of the Bear Flag Republic. The mill was later equipped with the largest wooden overshot waterwheel west of the Mississippi; today’s restored version of that wheel bristles with huge redwood timbers and fist-size bolts.

In the 1870s, hot springs drew wealthy San Franciscans to take the waters as the Indians had before them.

High up on a hill, a jump beyond the park, perches the Schramsberg winery. Robert Louis Stevenson tasted Jacob Schram’s wines in 1880. “To Mr. Schram this was a solemn office; his serious gusto warmed my heart … ,” wrote Stevenson. Though the Scot found Schram’s vintage “still raw,” he detected promise enough to prophesy, “The smack of Californian earth shall linger on the palate of your grandson.” Schedule an appointment for a tour of the modern Schramsberg, which makes prizewinning champagnes but sadly offers none to taste.

My final stop in the Napa Valley was in its northernmost town, Calistoga, a resort created by the renegade Sam Brannan, who led a flock of Mormons west to California, took their tithes, and ran. Before long he was a millionaire with a plan to develop the Saratoga of California beside some Napa Valley hot springs. Legend has it that, somewhat inebriated when announcing his plan, Brannan inadvertently called it the Calistoga of Sarafornia. The name stuck. Five hundred thousand dollars later, Brannan had two thousand acres, twenty-five cottages, a hotel, and assorted parks, bathing pavilions, and stables. The resort opened in 1862, and for thirteen fine years Brannan dallied with his wealthy guests—too much so to please his wife. Their 1875 divorce settlement forced him to liquidate, and he lost his Calistoga.

Today Sam Brannan’s world is memorialized at the Sharpsteen Museum, which features a diorama of the resort. One of the original cottages is attached to the museum; it is furnished with antiques and manikins dressed in period clothing.

Stevenson stayed briefly in one of these cottages, and from its porch he observed the fretful pace of this Western valley. “This stir of change and these perpetual echoes of the moving footfall haunt the land,” he wrote. “Men move eternally, still chasing Fortune; and, Fortune found, still wander.”

— Karolyn Ide 

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.