1940s Archive

San Francisco North

Originally Published February 1949

IN GENERAL, as you go north, almost anywhere in Europe or the United States, the climate becomes consistently and perceptibly colder practically county by county, sometimes mile by mile. There are a few exceptions—climatic eddies and backwaters, so to speak—districts such as the great wine-producing area north of San Francisco Bay, where, on a weatherman's map the isothermic lines and the lines of latitude form a patternless tangle of hot northern valley and cool southern plains, where the hilltops are often warmer than the lowlands and where, traveling due north, you can move from the climate of northern France to that or central Italy within thirty miles.

This whole extraordinary country, approximately sixty miles long and half as wide, consists principally of Napa and Sonoma Counties, plus perhaps a corner of Contra Costa. It is actually farther south than Washington, D. C., or Rome, and it is indebted for its long, fairly cool, dry summers and adequate winter rainfall to its proximity to the ocean and to the fog and damp winds that blow in over San Francisco Bay and up the Russian River Valley every evening nearly twelve months out of the year. The farther you get from the bay or the ocean, going north or east, the warmer it is, and whereas the village of Sonoma and the town of Napa, which are both practically on tidewater, have summer temperatures much like those of Burgundy, in France, Calistoga and Cloverdale, farther north in the same counties, are as warm as southern Italy or Spain.

All of the really distinguished table wines of California come from about five or, at most, seven counties which, in the order of their annual over-all production, are as follows: Sonoma, Napa, Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Benito, Santa Cruz. Here we shall attempt to deal only with two, but with the two most important—Sonoma and Napa.

It may be just as well, however, to give in passing a few further words of explanation as to why seven little counties, which produce no more than 10 per cent of California's total annual gallonage, are responsible for over 90 per cent of the fine table wine made in this country. Climate, of course, plays a major role, as does the fact that most of the northern coastal vineyards are planted on hills, or at least on fairly unfertile, rolling ground which does not require irrigation. But the question of grape varieties is even more important. No fine wine, anywhere in the world, has ever been made from anything except wine grapes, and all the best of it comes from a dozen or so varieties, useless for making raisins and poor or, at best, passable as table grapes.

As I write these lines, in December, California wineries have reported a total crush, for the 1948 vintage, of 1,281,-495 tons of grapes (a ton of grapes yields from 150 to 160 gallons of table wine, or from 90 to 100 gallons of fortified wine). Now out of this total of 1,281,495 tons, 319,397, according to the reporting wineries themselves, were table grapes, 523,333 tons were raisin grapes, and only 438,765 tons (under 35 per cent) wine grapes. In other words, only about a third of the 1948 California wine that Americans will drink has been made from wine grapes to begin with, and only a fraction of this third from wine grapes of superior quality.

On the other hand, about 85 per cent of the wine produced in the north coast counties is made from wine grapes (as against 35 per cent for California as a whole), and these counties include almost every commercial planting of superior varieties on the West Coast. At the 1948 State Fair in Sacramento, all the gold and silver medals for table wines, without exception, were awarded to wineries in the north coast counties, and no really outstanding table wine has, to my knowledge, ever been produced in California outside of these counties. It is therefore hardly surprising that most of the best American wines carry on their label not only the name of a specific wine grape, but also the name of a north coast county as well. And now back to our subject.

Sonoma and Napa Counties form, in general, the northern shore of that rather considerable inland sea known as San Francisco Bay. They are not, by any means, exclusively wine-producing districts: the great naval base of Mare Island is in Napa Country, and there are as many pear orchards and duck blinds as vineyards. Sonoma is hardly more famous for its wines than for its chicken farms (the town of Petaluma calls itself “the egg basket of the West”) and its cheeses and its summer resorts. In neither county, as you travel through, do you get the impression that wine is the livelihood and lifeblood of the countryside. You can get good Napa wine, if you insist, in a few restaurants and lunchrooms in Napa and St. Helena and Calistoga, and good Sonoma wine, rather less easily, in Sonoma and Santa Rosa and Healdsburg. In both counties the waiters and waitresses are astonished when an outsider orders one of their local wines by brand name and seem surprised even when you ask for a wine from Napa or Sonoma. Yet the economy of both counties is to a considerable extent based on wine, and nowhere in the United States will you find so high a proportion of laborers who prefer a glass of red wine to a glass of beer or whisky.

Let us hope that before long some of the better wine producers come to realize what a remarkable asset they possess in the way of an extraordinarily lovely district. If they gave a little guidance and help and advertising to a few enterprising restaurateurs, they could make of Napa and Sonoma a second Cote d'Or and second Rhone Valley, loved and praised and remembered by thousands of tourists every year. As it is, to those who care to visit America's major fine wine country, I can recommend the St. Gothard in St. Helena, and the Sonoma Mission Inn, north of Sonoma, as places to sleep, and, with some reservations, Lena's Buon Gusto in Santa Rosa and Galli's, near Hamilton Field on Route 101, as places to eat, and I do so thinking nostalgically of the necklace of incomparable restaurants which awaits the traveler on his way south from Paris, by way of Saulieu or Beaune, and Lyon, Vienne, Valence, Chateauneuf-du-Pape—all of them featuring, I need hardly add, the wines of their own local vineyards. Perhaps in America, wine producers as well as prophets are destined to be without honor in their own country.

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