The main town is Napa, with a population of approximately 80,000 people, strategically located next to the Napa River. In the early years, settlers could go by boat from San Francisco all the way north to Napa, which made the town the main trading center with the rich agricultural areas further north. The first steamboat arrived in Napa from San Francisco in 1850. Commercial wine production started in 1858, and by the end of the 19th century, there were already more than 140 wineries in operation. Major setbacks came through the infestation with the Phylloxera louse that killed many of the vines throughout the valley. And when the prohibition of alcohol in the US went into effect in 1920, most wineries had to close. But Napa valley bounced back, and began to thrive again after the Second World War. The warm and protected Mediterranean climate is ideal for wine-growing, and in the 60s and 70s large-scale industrial wine-making was introduced, spearheaded by Robert Mondavi. The region got a boost from the Paris Wine Tasting competition of 1976, which included a Napa Valley Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. These wines won in a blind tasting comparison, and this success cemented the region’s reputation as a producer of world class wines.
With the vineyards came the tourists and the restaurants. The best restaurants today can be found in the small villages north of Napa, like Yountville, Rutherford, or St. Helena. Yountville is a small town of 3000 people, but it houses 18 restaurants, and three of them have Michelin stars. The leader is still the French Laundry, a restaurant that received three Michelin stars and was nominated several times as the best restaurant in the world. It offers an expensive, sophisticated and yet simple menu. How do you reach and maintain a level of perfection in cooking? What happens in the kitchen is only the endpoint in the chain of production, as the French Laundry Cookbook demonstrates. Finding and selecting ingredients is integral to its success, and in this way, the restaurant connects to the surrounding land and the farms. Cooking itself has become a high-end skill: being a chef today is a very intense and complex profession that has little in common with the way people cooked even 50 years ago. The owner and chef of the French Laundry, Thomas Keller, renovated the kitchen and the restaurant in 2018 for a reported cost of 10 million dollars.
At the end of 2019, there were 10 Michelin-rated restaurants in Napa Valley, which makes it the culinary equivalent to Silicon Valley on the northern side of California's Bay Area. Some of these restaurants deserve a visit: The Auberge du Soleil, La Toque, the Japanese Restaurants Kenzo and Morimoto in Napa. There is another three-star restaurant in Rutherford, the Meadowood Restaurant, which operated its own garden as well. You cannot visit it any ore, because it was destroyed by the wildfires in September 2020. The website indicates that they are looking for a way to survive. It also demonstrates that these high-end restaurants are not the work of an individual culinary genius: They are successful enterprises run by talented teams. A few years ago, they expressed their philosophy of cooking in these words:
We strive for seriousness, for meaning, and for permanence in our cooking. We attempt to cook in service to the place in which we find ourselves–hoping that, if we succeed in doing so well, that we may cement our legacy within this greater thing. We hold the thread of the multitudes of collaborators and of a history shared by chefs and cooks that have preceded us. We try to do things right in how we shop and cook; how we approach the sanctity of the products that we grow and procure; how we teach and mentor and support our team. We are relentless in trying to make the food better, more delicious, more relevant, more singular, more personal. We are smart enough to know that this is a forever task, yet impetuous enough to try to still do it all today. Our food is what we give of ourselves. It is at once our daily efforts and their culmination.
Unfortunately, human effort alone does not guarantee success.