Strolling through the meadows of wild flowers, grasses and grains, the native Indians must have lived in paradise. The volcanic activity that formed the valley left it fertile, protected by mountain ranges and stunning to the eye.
A river flowing through the valley, provided life giving water and an enviable menu of fresh fishes. Fruits, nuts and berries were plentiful. Tools like arrowheads, knives and ax heads were carved out of obsidian, a volcanic glass. Mortar and pestles were used to grind the grains.
Deer and other wild life looking for food along the base of the mountains, carved out the first trails. Life was peaceful, except perhaps when a bear wandered too close to the village. This was the good life in Napa Valley.
As always, change is inevitable and modern times brought others to the valley.
1831 - The first settler comes to the valley. George Yount, a frontiers man from South Carolina, received a land grant of 11,000 acres from General Vallejo, the last Mexican Governor. Yount built a blockhouse, a rustic fort to defend his wife and family from unfriendly Indians, ruffians and bears. (Today you can see the brass plaque that commemorates this spot just outside of Yountville). Within a few years, herds of cattle roamed his rancho, wheat and 'Mission' grapevines were planted. A flour mill, and saw mill were built. Wine was made to provide libation for special occasions and dinners.
'Civilization' had found the Napa Valley. Chiles, Berryessa, and Bale followed George Yount with grants in hand and carved out ranchos for themselves.
All this 'progress' was not such good news for the natives. While there were several Indian tribes here, the 'Wappo' tribe was the largest community. Tenaciously clinging to their homeland and lifestyle, they refused to go along peacefully with the newcomers takeover, hence the name Wappo which means 'brave'.
Disease takes its toll. As it turned out the newcomers carried a weapon they were not aware of. They brought disease to the valley. In 1838, the Indian population was nearly decimated by small pox. This 'massacre' marked the end of Indian prominence in the Valley. Fortunately, they left behind a legacy of cultural artifacts that would be discovered by future landowners (currently on display at some of the Silverado Trail wineries).
1848 - The Gold rush was on. The newly populated valley emptied out as opportunists fled to the site where gold nuggets were reportedly rolling down the water chute at Sutters Mill in Coloma (a small town near Sacramento).
1852 - The first permanent road was built from Napa to Calistoga, providing a major trade route for hauling wheat, and fruit, the primary crops, as well as travelers. This road would later be known as The Silverado Trail.
1858 - A silver rush hit Napa Valley. Mining activities flourished on mountain sides in the northern end of the valley. A clever landowner, Mr. Patchett recognized the expanding mining industry as a grand opportunity for wine sales. A young Prussian who knew something of winemaking, was employed by Patchett to make 1,200 gallons of wine using a cider press. Thus, wine commerce began in the Napa Valley.
1862 - Tourism turned hot. Napa Valleys Mediterranean climate, natural hot sulfur springs and proximity to San Francisco, make it an ideal vacation spot. Resorts began springing up off the Silverado Trail in Calistoga and then Soda Springs. Grand examples of extravagant lifestyles, all modern day amenities were offered. Ladies in big hats and full length white dresses whiled away their leisure hours playing croquet and lawn tennis, while their children took riding lessons or swam in huge pools. They sipped mineral water, straight from the spring, which was thought to be good for the digestion.
1872 - Silverado was born. Alexander Badham staked a claim on the southeastern corner of Mt. St. Helena. Miners moved to the area creating Silverado City. Several businesses and a hotel grew up around the claim, the population swelled to 1,500. The only successful silver mine in Napa Valley, reportedly brought in $2,000 in silver bullion daily during its boom time. However, the mine soon played out as the vein disappeared in 1875. The miners and their equipment moved on.
1875 - Napa County produces the best wines in the State. While still in its infancy, annual wine and brandy production reached 1,500,000 gallons. Fine quality wines are making a name for the valley and becoming a major industry.
1880 - A young writer on his honeymoon found an abandoned shack in Silverado, a ghost town on Mt. St. Helena. Short on cash, he lived there with his bride for 3 weeks. Three years later, Robert L. Stevenson published Silverado Squatters, memoirs of his stay.
1883 - Black Bart, notorious highway bandit who avoided the law for several years was finally behind bars. He and others like Buck English, attracted by mining payrolls, harassed Stage coaches running up and down the Silverado Trail. Travel was considered risky until motorized buses took over in 1910.
1893 - First Strike of Phylloxera epidemic leaves half of the vineyards in the Napa Valley seriously affected. The good news was that while the old mission varieties were almost totally eliminated, the introduction of new varieties along with new wine making techniques elevated the quality of wine during this period.
1900-1933 - Many growers discouraged by dying grapevines and a drop in wine prices replanted their vineyards with walnut, olive and fruit trees. Those who did, were feeling pretty good about it when Prohibition was declared in 1920.
Nevertheless, at least 3 vintners remained in operation, outlasting Prohibition and the great Depression by making sacramental and medicinal wines.
The New Era - 1976 - California rocks the wine world. In a blind tasting staged in France, French Wine Masters chose a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay as the best of class. All hell broke loose when they learned the wines were not products of France! (In fact, one of those winning wineries lives along the historic Silverado Trail.)
Today there are over 200 wineries in the Napa Valley. Many have fancy new tasting rooms, with exquisite views and tours of modern winemaking. Others are small, modest operations that reflect the down home, hands on lifestyle that once prevailed in this Valley. And many fall somewhere in between.
A journey along the Silverado Trail offers our guests an adventure of all that Napa Valley was and is, old and new, historical and state of the art.
We look forward to seeing you on the Road Less Traveled, The Silverado Trail!