Valley Forth: How Napa Valley set out to conquer the world of high-end wine…

The world of fine wines has long been dominated by illustrious French Bordeauxes and Burgundies, with these illustrious creations seen as the very pinnacle all things oenological. Over, the past 50 years, however, the supremacy of these venerable vintages has been challenged from a clearly impudent – but highly-rated – ascendant territory: California’s Napa Valley.

Not entirely a newcomer, this coastal region first crossed into global wine-making awareness back in 1861, when an intrepid trailblazer – by the name of Charles Krug – set up Napa Valley’s first commercial winery, one that remains active to this very day.
Scarcely had the region begun production some 160 years back when two factors combined to virtually snuff it out entirely. The first came in the form of phylloxera, a grape root-eating louse plague. This devastated not only Napa, but also every grape-cultivating region across the United States and Europe in the 19th century.

gafencu Valley Forth How Napa Valley set out to conquer the world of high-end wine…

Thankfully, over subsequent years, it was discovered that grafting these old world vines onto the root stalk of a native species protected the grapes from phylloxera, while still retaining the preferred fruit characteristics for producing fine wines. The damage, however, was done and Napa’s viticulture was set back by decades.

Scarcely had this particular problem been resolve, when a very different calamity struck – the 1920 imposition of Prohibition across the US. It doesn’t require much imagination to realise how catastrophic this ban on the sale of alcohol was for the still-recovering estates of Napa Valley. In total, only about 60 wineries survived this wide-ranging legislation, with the innovation and determination of the remaining winemakers deserving much of the credit for ensuring the region not only survived but, eventually, came to global prominence.

gafencu Valley Forth How Napa Valley set out to conquer the world of high-end wine…

In truth, Napa’s renaissance followed many decades of hard work, with the watershed moment came in 1976 with the Judgement of Paris – a tale fabulously retold in the 2008 hit indie film, Bottleshock. During this high-profile wine-tasting event, the judges were famously obliged to undertake a blind sampling of Cabernets and Chardonnays from both France and the US. In a shocking upset that few saw coming, it was the upstart wines from the Napa Valley that triumphed, catapulting the region to the forefront of fine winemaking.

gafencu Valley Forth How Napa Valley set out to conquer the world of high-end wine… most expensive no.2 Harlan Estate

Today, Napa Valley has an abundance of quality wines, different wine varietals and a truly beautiful ambience, with its hundreds of wineries also famed for their hospitality. To all intents and purposes within the oenological sphere, Napa is now California. In fact, Napa pretty much represents the whole of the US when it comes to winemaking. While other states may have their cult wines, when it comes to the most expensive varietals, nothing can compete with the staggeringly priced bottles produced by such Napa estates as Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate and Tusk Estate.

gafencu Valley Forth How Napa Valley set out to conquer the world of high-end wine…screaming eagle

Overall, eight of the US’s 10 most expensive wines come from Napa, with the most popular grape varietal being Cabernet Sauvignon, while the priciest is Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon, which regularly goes for a minimum of US$3,500 a bottle.
While the wines’ strong, delicious flavours definitely contribute to their exorbitant price tags, another key factor also plays a part. Even though Napa makes the most sought-after of all US wines, it only accounts for about four percent of overall production. This scarcity is reflected in the extreme difficulty in buying the region’s vintages.

In many cases, demand is so steep that wineries maintain mailing lists. Even getting on such a list is notoriously difficult and it can still be years before a newcomer gets a chance to actually buy anything. If the level of interest is anything to go by, however, it’s clearly a wait that’s more than worthwhile.

California Drinking: The innovative wines from California by Orin Swift

The ’90s have been accredited as the golden decade for California wines, and understandably so, with an explosion of high-end producers setting their sights on creating some of the world’s finest vintages from 1990 to 1997 within the tiny Californian region of Napa Valley, which accounts for only 0.4 percent of the world’s total wines.

It was in fact also the same decade that California wine producer Orin Swift Cellars set up shop in 1998. The story goes that in 1995, founder David Swift Phinney took a friend up on an offer to visit Florence, Italy, in what was supposed to be a semester studying, which instead turned into a lifelong love affair with wine. Fast forward to the present day, and Phinney has created a multinational brand known for its eye-catching labels.

For Californian winemakers, the bottles’ labels certainly play on the unique counter culture of the region, including nostalgic collages of pop culture, homage to B-flicks and the general angst of Generation X – those born in the ’60s, including Phinney, who could go on to found the label of Orin Swift. But of course, an eye-catching sleeve only goes so far. A customer could realise it’s just another gimmick as soon as he opens a bottle. However, this is certainly not the case with Orin Swift wines, as what lays inside its bottles is just as unique and beautiful as their casings.

Mannequin 2017 – California Chardonnay

Said to be inspired by a Nicki Minaj lyric, the Mannequin chardonnay was our favourite of the night thanks to its uncommon notes of spices and butter, and pineapple finish. Aged for eight months, this white wine is slightly sweet and has medium-low acidity. Certainly a wine of character, its long finish makes it an enjoyable wine to stick to for an entire night.

Abstract 2017 – California Red Wine

Orin Swift

Left to age for over a ten-month period, the Abstract combines the rich tastes of grenache, syrah and petite sirah grapes. Delighting with aromas of milk chocolate and black tea, the texture of the wine is truly as impressive as its smell, thanks to the subtle hints of blackberry and mocha, which result in a smooth and fruity blend. With a 15.7 percent alcohol content, we recommend savouring this wine slowly, for a long finish.

Mercury Head 2016 Napa Valley Cabernet Savignon


Orin Swift

The Mercury Head is acclaimed as the best Cabernet Sauvignon from Orin Swift, with the grapes sourced from premier vineyards such as Stagecoach Vineyard atop Atlas Peak. The mouthfeel of this particular bottle is slightly more complex and drier than the other wines, but still remains just as smooth. Its bold notes of dark fruits such as blackberries and boysenberries make it the most seductive of the wines on offer.


For more information and to purchase Orin Swift wines one may visit

Text: Bailey Atkinson