A Tour of Napa Valley Wines: History and Highlights

Written by: Matthew Raica



Time to read 10 min

Nestled amidst the rolling hills of Northern California lies Napa Valley, a name synonymous with outstanding viticulture and some of the world’s most cherished wines. I had the distinct honor to work two vintages in the Napa Valley with two different top tier wineries; in this blog we’ll discuss some of my favourite producers from the valley. Come along as we dive into this mecca of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon!

Please note: some of the links below are affiliate links, which means we may get a small commission if you click through and purchase (at no extra cost to you). We only ever promote products we love and use ourselves. Thanks for your support!

First, a little history of Napa Valley wines

Napa Valley's transformation from modest beginnings to a world-renowned wine region is a rich tale of resilience and vision. Before it gained international acclaim, Napa Valley was much like any other agricultural community in the United States, with farmland primarily dedicated to diverse crops and cattle. It wasn't until the mid-19th century that the first commercial vineyards were planted in what would become a vinicultural empire. Through the devastation of phylloxera in the late 1800s to the crippling blow of Prohibition in the early 20th century, Napa Valley's wine region faced its share of struggles. Yet, resilient grape growers and winemakers persisted, setting the stage for an extraordinary comeback crafting premiere Napa Valley wines.

The true renaissance of Napa Valley can be traced to the post-Prohibition era, when the wine industry began to flourish once again, although it would take several decades before the region gained significant international attention. A pivotal moment in establishing Napa Valley on the world wine map was the 1976 Judgement of Paris, a wine competition where Napa Valley wines triumphed over their French cousins in a blind tasting. This unexpected victory acted as a catalyst for Napa Valley, not only bolstering the self-esteem of local winemakers but also capturing the attention of oenophiles worldwide. This watershed event heralded the beginning of Napa's golden age, propelling the valley into a period of unprecedented growth and global recognition in the art of winemaking. The region's success has since been etched into history, setting a benchmark for new world wines and celebrating the spirit of innovation that continues to define Napa Valley's wine legacy.

The Top Wineries in Napa Valley

Chateau Montelena

Chateau Montelena, one of the original premiere producers of Napa Valley wines

Founded in 1882, by Alfred Tubbs, Chateau Montelena is a beacon of winemaking tradition. Purchased by the Barrett family in 1972, the winery gained international fame with its Chardonnay's victory at the 1976 "Judgment of Paris" tasting. Montelena continues to be a symbol of Napa’s global prestige. Known for their old-vine Zinfandel and estate Cabernet Sauvignon, this winery merges history with the art of wine.

Now, in full disclosure, I interned with Montelena during the harvest of 2015.  So, I do feel an extremely strong attachment to these people and their wines.  I really do love this wine family!  And, they do stand at the top of my favorite Napa Valley wines!

Matthew with owner and CEO Bo Barrett and winemaker Matt Crafton at the end of harvest 2015 Chateau Montelena

Chateau Montelena’s Estate Cabernet Sauvignon stands as my favorite wine from their cellar.  With a heavy focus on the purity of the fruit and a restrained oak profile, this Cabernet retains the characters of a more classical, old-world style without tending toward the heavier and more fruit forward style Napa has become known for.  You’ll find more raspberry, cranberry, and red currant notes on this wine vs black fruits.  Slight baking spices  give way to more powerful floral and herbaceous notes.  A beautiful, cellar worthy wine! 

Chateau Montelena is open 7 days a week from 9:30am to 4:00pm.  Reservations are highly recommended and can be booked on their website, however limited availability does exist for walk-ins.  I would highly suggest booking though, this is an exeperience you don’t want to miss out on during your Napa Valley Trip!

Madrigal Winery

Main sign for Madrigal Winery in the vineyard, another great example of Napa Valley wines

Jacinto Madrigal came to the Napa Valley from Mexico in 1938 as a farmhand, working the orchards that used to cover the land between Calistoga and Saint Helena. His son, Jess, was the first in the family to get into winegrowing, building a business that now manages over 800 acres in the Napa Valley. In 1995, Chris Madrigal, Jacinto’s grandson, founded the Madrigal Family Winery and continued the family’s legacy in Napa.

Madrigal Family Winery, located roughly halfway between Calistoga and Saint Helena, has a passion for producing small lots of wine that honor the family's Spanish heritage. Their Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon are perfect illustrations of Napa Valley wines' innovative spirit matched with familial dedication, producing again, restrained styles that tend more old-world complexity than new-world power.. They have more recently begun to branch out from the stock-standard varieties of the Napa Valley and are producing delicious examples of Garnacha and Tempranillo.

Madrigal used to allow walk-in tastings. Reviewing their website, they still have COVID restrictions concerning booking and face-coverings, so I don’t know exactly what the current requirements are. However, they do say the can accommodate ssme day bookings with a phone call, based on availability. The success of the Napa Valley has been built largely on the labor of Hispanic immigrants and migrant workers; Make sure you don’t skip out on experiencing the wines that come from this 3rd generation family who quite literally have grown up in this place!

Wine is the most healthful and most hygienic of beverages.

Louis Pasteur


Panoramic view of Quintessa Winery, a premium example of sustainable winemaker for Napa Valley wines

Quintessa's panoramic Rutherford estate is a testament to holistic farming and winemaking. Their Bordeaux-style blends are masterclasses in balance and complexity, reflective of the diverse ecosystem from which they hail.

Founded in 1989 by famed Chilean winemakers Agustin and Valeria Huneeus, the first vines were planted in 1990 and 1991 and comprise the main Bordeaux varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and the rare-for-Napa Valley Carménère. The produce only one wine: A Cabernet Sauvignon that will have small amounts of their other 4 varieties blended in depending on vintage. If you’re lucky, you may also have a chance to try their other wine produced here, the Illumination Sauvignon Blanc!

Touring Quintessa is an experience meant to immerse you in the property, normally beginning with a walk to the top of the hill to view the vineyards beyond while the your guide takes you through the sustainability and biodynamic measures taken to ensure the health of both the vines and the property.

 I would highly suggest taking the winery tour, as the thought that went into the design is amazing. Gravity feed to all fermentation tanks intermixed with stainless steel and oak makes for a both functional and beautiful sight. A short stroll past the trophy wall of hand blown barrels thiefs takes you into the wagon wheel shaped barrel caves. The tasting portion is shorter, as there is only one wine! But depending on which experience you choose, this will either include a couple vintages OR an opportunity to barrel sample some of the individual components to better understand how this amazing  example of Napa Valley wines is crafted.

The wine thief wall in the cellars of Quintessa Winery

Quintessa is open open 7 days a week for tasting but Reservations are required!  This isn’t so much a tasting as it truly is an experience with an guide assigned to you for the  whole time, so you can understand walk ins are difficult.

Some of our favorite products!

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars


Renowned for their storied Cabernet Sauvignon which also triumphed at the "Judgment of Paris," Stags Leap Wine Cellars remains a touchstone of Napa Valley wines viticulture. Their wines showcase the distinctive terroir of the Stags Leap District, enveloping sophistication and grace.

Founded in 1970 with the purchase of the S.L.V. vineyard, it only took 6 years for their 1973 Cabernet to take the top stop at the Judgement of Paris, beating out a prestigious lineup of top tier Bordeaux.

The Fay Vineyard was the original inspiration to plant the S.L.V. vineyard here. In 1986 the winery had the opportunity to acquire Fay Vineyard and jumped at the chance.

The lineup of wines available offer a chance to taste and acquire at any pricepoint. Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon sits the the lower pricepoint, offering an opportunity to experience this special place without damaging the pocketbook TOO much. Jumping up the single Vineyard FAY and S.L.V wines gives a chance to really understand the subtle differences between these neighboring vineyards. At the top of the list, the Cask 23 is eye-opening with how silky and subtle Napa Cabernet can be while also carrying the legs to age for decades.

Stags Leap Wine Cellars is open 7 days a week for tasting by appointment only. In the past they have been able to accommodate same day appointments, but I would highly recommend booking in to ensure you have the best experience possible.


Cardinale Cellar door

My first opportunity to taste Cardinale was from a most gracious wine club member when I worked in Washington State. It was 2015 and we had just finished pouring at the Taste of Tulalip Wine Fair. Our friend had attended and, as it was also the same night of a major UFC fight, he had booked out tables at the Tulalip Casino Sports Bar and invited us along. Me not being much of a UFC fan, I chose to have a beer outside with some other acquaintances first. About 2 sips in, my boss and the head winemaker texted me and said, “You MUST get in here before this wine is gone…” On the table was the 2012 Cardinale. That ruined it for me, I’ve been hooked on Chris Carpenter-produced wines since. Amongst many other wine projects by Chris that I love (check out our blog on McLaren Vale to read about his South Australian project!) I dived deep into all his Napa Valley wines.  I made sure when I was back in Napa the next harvest to visit the estate.

Another Cabernet dominant wine, Cardinale is not site-specific but is comprised of multiple vineyards, primarily mountain fruit from Howell Mountain and Mount Veeder. But the availability of multiple other vineyards enables the team to craft a truly complex and complete wine.

Cardinale can be a bit more difficult to visit; tastings must be requested through the website and they cellar door will respond with availability. But if you can get in, you must add this to your Napa Valley list.

Titus Vineyard

Titus Vineyards winery and tasting room, newly built in 2014 to produce premium Napa Valley wines

This family-run vineyard crafts wines that express the character and diversity of their St. Helena lands. Titus produces a variety of wines including Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and a traditional Sauvignon Blanc, each vibrant and reflective of their terroir.

This is another winery I have a close affinity to, as I worked harvest here in 2016. Headed by the Titus Brothers on their family land, Eric manages the day to day busines and vineyard while brother Phillip Titus, a famous vintner of Napa Valley wines long running the program for Chappellet Winery, guides the winery style as executive winemaker. Winemaker Stephen Cruzan runs the day to day winemaker here and crafts a unique style for this small vineyard.

Harvest team 2016 at Titus Vineyards

Titus is open daily from 9:30 am to 3:00 pm for tasting by appointment only. Make sure to get a great seat on their deck for expansive views of the vineyard while you taste!


Mayacamas Winery, one of the top producers of Napa Valley wines

My first taste of Mayacamas was, again, at the generosity of another. A small group I used to share wines with in Seattle occasionally met at a gentleman’s home that had a small cellar tucked away in his basement. One day just post harvest in 2010, after the larger group tasting, I was lucky enough to be invited to hang back with a smaller group to try other “fun” things. One of those, amidst some rare old Bordeaux and aged Port, was a very special wine, a 1975 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon. Again, I was hooked!

1975 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon

High in the Mayacamas Mountains, this historic winery has been creating age-worthy wines since the 19th century. Their Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons are renowned for their longevity and classical structure. The winery transferred to the Schottenstein family in 2013, who have continued to ensure the style stayed true to the history of this winery. You’ll find here again a classical Napa style much more akin to old world than new. And obviously extremely age worthy!

Mayacamas offers two tasting locations, at the vineyard on the top of Mount Veeder or at their downtown Napa location. Both are appointment only.

From the storied cellars of Chateau Montelena to to the visionary hills of Quintessa, Napa Valley boasts an array of wines diverse in their styles. As you taste your way through this iconic wine region, take a moment to reflect on the ingenuity and passion that have made this region in such a short time, wine-wise, become one of the top viticultural areas in the world.  A tour of Napa Valley wines must be part of your bucket-list wine explorations!

Napa Valley isn’t just a destination for the wine aficionado – it’s a worldly treasure trove for all who seek the beauty within the vine. Make sure to explore this vibrant region, and let us know what your favorites were!

"Matt was here" written on a barrel at Titus Vineyards on the last day of harvest 2016.

Related Readings

Chloe and Matthew travel