Napa Valley is the most famous wine region in the United States and St. Helena has the distinction of being the birthplace of the Napa Valley wine industry.
Over 150 years ago in 1861, Charles Krug established a winery just north of the town of St. Helena. As immigrants moved west, they settled the sleepy little town near the center of the Napa Valley throughout the 19th century, turning to farming to support their families. Somewhere along the way, grapes were planted and found to flourish. The area was soon regarded as one of the finest vineyard locations to be found anywhere in the world and by 1880, over 100 people were making wine in St. Helena.
Henry Pellet, another winemaking pioneer, had a winery just south of the town of St. Helena. In 1873, he and Charles Krug combined their wine lots in carloads to ship to eastern cities such as Detroit. But the wines were not well received, buyers having the impression that there were too many Mission grapes in the mix.
This impression was confirmed again the following year when Charles Krug returned from a trip to the east and met with discouraging results. Adding to their woes, the country was in a recession and the market was flooded with French wine. Tariffs on the imported wine were low, but railroad fees for the California wine were high. Phylloxera had begun to surface in California, and a glut of wine was beginning to accumulate in the Napa Valley.
In what might be considered the first ever marketing report on the California wine industry, the president of the State Agricultural Society in 1874 confirmed in a report that the perceived quality of the wines would not improve unless Missions were removed from the fermentation process. Clearly something had to be done and in December 1875, Charles Krug, Henry Pellet and Seneca Ewer met to develop a strategy to overcome their problems.
Two days later they held another meeting inviting others to attend. It was a veritable “Who’s Who” of Napa Valley vintners, businessmen and pioneers of the time. A new organization was established called the St. Helena Viticultural Club and meetings were to be held twice a month.
The Club accomplishments were numerous by the close of the century and the vintners began to see increased interest in Napa Valley wines. According to historian William Heintz, they began “…collecting and publishing statistics showing the superiority of our climate and the great fertility of our soil.” A 40 ft. by 135 ft. bonded warehouse was completed in 1878 as well as a two-story Vintners Hall for offices and meetings, which was opened in 1880. After lively debate, members signed a pledge to eliminate chaptalization. Krug used the Club to raise awareness of one of his pet topics – the value of planting foreign varieties instead of Mission grapes. An organization was started to deal with the onslaught of Phylloxera.
In 1880 the name changed to St. Helena Viticultural Association and it remained active until around 1912.
Today, St. Helena thrives as an important, historic Napa Valley community. The official Appellation was approved in 1995, its boundaries defined by Zinfandel Lane to the South, Bale Lane to the north, the intersection of Howell Mountain and Conn Valley Road to the east, and the 400 ft. elevation line on the west.
In 2004, after a 128-year hiatus, grape growers and wineries in St. Helena revived the St. Helena Viticultural Society for education and promotion purposes. “We formed this group to focus the public on the exceptional quality of the wine produced with the St. Helena appellation,” explained Beth Novak Milliken, the group’s first president. “The St. Helena appellation has a number of unique features – its history, its community, its very specific geographic and climactic conditions, the large number of wineries and growers it supports and the diversity of the varietals we grow.”
The group’s modern day moniker is Appellation St. Helena. Harking back to the original meeting in 1876, Fulton Mather, Chairman of the History Committee commented, “It was Charles Krug who urged at the very first meeting of the Club that to win the respect of wine connoisseurs on the East Coast, it was not enough just to declare that we own possibly the best soil and climate on Earth for growing grapes. We must harvest and produce from this appellation wines made from the world’s best varieties. The direction for St. Helena was forever set at that meeting.”
For more details, see the history of the St. Helena Viticultural Club.