Napa Valley’s Top 10 Iconic Images

I’m driving up Highway 29 in Napa Valley yesterday and somewhere around North Rutherford, with my windows up in my car, I start to smell that iconic Napa Valley smell: fermenting wine grapes. It’s unmistakable. But more importantly, it’s purely Napa Valley.

And it gets me thinking. What are the Napa Valley icons? What are those things that are truly emblematic of Napa Valley. People see a picture of them and “yep, that’s Napa Valley!” Firstly they would have to be those things that are or have become associated with this place by having been in place for a while; those things that many people, two or three generations of people, have seen and been taken by while traveling through this valley. They would be symbols that this very specific place that people take away or tuck away in the subconscious.

I think I have a good list of the Iconic Napa Valley

rubicon_estate_2The great, massive stone château lurking on the west side of the Valley in Rutherford isn’t easy to get a good look at from Highway 29. However, consider that it has been there, lurking, for over 120 years. Built in 1897 By Gustave Niebaum, the massive building has gone through a number of owners and incarnations. Today it is owned by Francis Ford Coppola and services the newly revamped “Inglenook” brand. Generations of visitors to Napa Valley have confronted this beautiful Chateau.


WaterTowerThey are spread throughout the Valley, some taller than others. But they are fixtures here of a time gone by and even represent a certain kind of architectural style that have caught the eye of visitors for decades. Perhaps the most famous of the Napa Valley water towers is that simple white tower that sits on the famed Rossi Ranch on the west side of Highway 29 between Whitehall Lane and Zinfandel Lane, just south of the entrance to the town of Saint Helena. Owned now by Frogs Leap winery, the famed ranch with its iconic water tower un-missable by anyone driving up and down the highway has recently become part of the California Land Trust (Thank you, John Williams!). Meaning, it will be there for generations to come.


mondavifaceEven in death, Robert Mondavi looms over the California/American wine industry and most particularly over Napa Valley where he did his utmost to put California, Napa Valley and Robert Mondavi wine on the world map. For more than 40 years, Robert Mondavi was the face of Napa Valley. No person, no celebrity, no name loomed larger than his, largely due to the success of the brand and his own work publicizing the brand and the region’s wines. I only met the man once in person, sitting next to him on a bus shuttling us from Charles Krug Winery to some Valley event. I recognized him instantly as he boarded the little bus and headed down the aisle to sit in the empty seat next to me. I would have recognized him anywhere, as the face of Napa Valley.

SterlingIn 1972, only three years from the release of its first vintage, Sterling Vineyards opened the doors to what would become one of the most familiar sights in Northern Napa Valley: The great white winery on a hill, inspired in its design by the iconic white structures on the Greek island of Mykonos. You can’t miss the winery. It sits upon a hill outlined in and surrounded by tall green trees. It doesn’t hurt either that for many years visitors drawn to the standout winery had the disney-esque pleasure of riding from the parking lot to the winery in an aerial tram.


greystoneCompleted in 1889, Greystone Cellars was originally built to be the home for a Napa-based cooperative winery that would produce high quality wine and undermine the power of the San Francisco-based wine dealers who had the Valley’s industry by the financial throat. The grand castle, located on Highway 29 just north of the center of Saint Helena, has stood as a magnificent piece of grandeur as it has moved through various owners over the years, including the Christian Brothers. Today it is in the hands of the Culinary Institute of America. Generations of visitors to Napa Valley have taken memories of this beautiful structure home with them and the building today resides on the National Register of Historic Places.


Robert Mondavi Winery 4 - Erik WaitThe mission-style building sitting in the Valley enclave of Oakville and surrounded only by vineyards was, in the early 1960s, the first new Napa Valley winery to be built since the late 1930s. With its tower and triangular entrance, the building came to represent modern Napa Valley and has hosted millions of visitors. However, it’s iconic and instantly recognizable status is a result of the building being long portrayed on the Robert Mondavi label, of which millions upon millions have circulated around the globe.


Oakville-Grocery_1719The Oakville Grocery, in Oakville, is really just a tiny little shack with a big old Coca Cola sign on its south-facing facade. But it is also one of the most recognizably “Napa” institutions where people have stopped for decades to outfit their picnic and get an introduction to the notion of “wine country gourmet” in the process. As a result of its simple success, that little building with its Coca Cola signage is instantly recognizable as part of Napa Valley history. A good deal of this status has to do with the fact the little grocery has been opened since 1881 and is claimed to be the oldest continually operating grocery store in California.


john-alves-welcome-sign-napa-valley-californiaThere are two of them and they are nearly identical. One sits on highway 29 just south of the town of Calistoga with the other located in Oakville down valley. The signs are constantly photographed and have been a part of the regional marketing effort here since their erection in 1950. Originally, the signs had the names of nine Napa Valley wineries on them including Beringer, Louis Martini, Inglenook, Freemark Abbey, Beaulieu, Napa Cooperative Vineyards, Vin-Mont Wines, Christian Brothers and C. Mondavi and Sons. Those names were removed in the 1960s and replaced by the phrase, “Bottled Poetry”. Today the signs are constantly photographed to the delight of the Napa Valley Vintners, which is charged with maintaining the iconic signs. (Thank you, NVV)

winemakersculptureIt is located at the southern entrance to Napa Valley where the southern industrial area starts to give way to the agricultural valley. There on the little knoll placed to be perfectly visible from cars ascending Highway 29 is the iconic Grape Crusher Statue. If you did not see it in person driving into the Valley, you’ve seen in depicted in countless renderings or depictions of “things Napa”. The statue is dedicated to the vineyard workers of Napa Valley and was created by artist Gino Miles. It has been in place since 1987.

napa-valley-vineyards-wine-grapevinesIt’s not that the vineyards of Napa Valley look different from vineyards anywhere else in the world. It is that there is no Napa Valley without vineyards. The very tone, geography, mystique, vision and spirit of the area is vineyards. You cannot imagine this place in your mind without vineyards coming to mind first. Nothing matches the iconic status of vineyards where Napa Valley is concerned.

Are there other iconic Napa Valley images that could be included in this top 10 list. I think there are for sure. This however is my list based on visiting, working in and living in Napa Valley for the past 20 years. What iconic images did I leave out?

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7 Responses

  1. Alison Crowe - October 23, 2013

    Loved this post, Tom!
    So many wonderful choices.

    I would add:
    -The stately line of eucalyptus trees at Stanly Lane/Stanly Ranch right as you come into Carneros over the big Southern Crossing bridge over the Napa River
    -The Wine Train (love it or hate it!)
    -Taylor’s Refresher sign (the old one)

    Thanks for writing posts like this that remind us we live in an iconic place and to enjoy it and the special things that make this area home!



    • Helen - October 23, 2013

      Yes Alison, I agree! Great article Tom. I think you hit the top 10. Turns out there are more than 10 highlights.

  2. Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » Daily Wine News: Nuke Your Pinot Noir - October 24, 2013

    […] Tom Wark lists “Napa Valley’s Top 10 Iconic Images.” […]

  3. Holly Evans-White - October 24, 2013

    The tunnel of (I think) old elm trees in front of Beringer, in any season.

  4. Tom - October 24, 2013

    Fantastic article and a perfect tool for the tourist venturing North from the city. I would add the “Water Truck” in front of the, now closed Calistoga Mineral water facility on the Silverado Trail.

  5. pricklypear - November 2, 2013

    Yes, the smell of fermenting grapes – quite nauseating to me unfortunately. Can’t stand it.
    It like living in San Leandro again over 20 years ago with Ghiradelli Factory having this burnt chocolate smell over take the area, but mixed with what was a lumber place that had a constant “pencil” smell. Burnt chocolate and pencils…… not a good combo

  6. anjela - November 18, 2013

    It is very good site this Napa.

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