Place Names

The Value of a Name

While the public usually comes to us looking for information, we often learn something from the questions asked. In fact, whenever an issue comes up that we cannot fully answer, I always ask the person to let me know the final outcome. When someone asked about assigning a name to a geographic feature (a stream) within Napa County, I needed to do some research to provide an answer.

Who Assigns Names to Geographic Features

I knew that the municipalities or the county assigned street and public road names within their respective boundaries. The municipalities or the county also assign addresses for specific properties. I suggested that geographic names were probably the responsibility of the United States Geological Survey (USGS), a branch of the United States Department of the Interior that produces most maps of the United States. The actual agency that assigns or changes names on these maps is the United States Board on Geographic Names (BGN), a unit of the USGS The Board comprises representatives from federal agencies, and is authorized to establish and maintain uniform geographic name usage. Although the Board was established to serve the Federal Government as a central authority to which all name issues can be directed, it also plays a similar role for the general public.

Board on Geographic Names

I visited the Board Geographic Names website. The website has a number of interesting features, including the ability to propose a new geographic name or to change an existing name. Even more interesting is the ability to search more than 2 million geographic names and then display the map showing the named feature.

Napa County Historical Society

The Napa County Historical Society (1219 1st Street in Napa) has published an index of the geographic names shown on the topographic maps that cover Napa County. The index tells in which Township, Range and Section the place name occurs. That index can be obtained from the Historical Society website.

Geography in the Wine Industry

Geographic names are very important to the wine industry. Names of specific wine-growing regions are known as "viticultural areas" in the United States, comparable to Europe's "appellations." In the United States, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), an agency of the Department of the Treasury, establishes viticultural area names upon application by wine producers in the area. You can visit their website to learn more about how to apply for an application to learn more about how to apply for a viticultural area name or to view the list of approximately 150 viticultural areas already designated. 

Having a well-known viticultural area name on a bottle of wine can influence the price which consumers are willing to pay for that bottle. Location inside or outside of a certain viticultural area can also influence the purchase price of vineyard land and the price per ton paid for grapes grown on that land. Geographic names can have great significance, as shown by the recent legislative battles over using the name Napa County or Napa Valley on the labels of bottles of wine made from grapes that were grown and made into wine outside of our area.

More Information

Should you have any questions please contact Napa County Assessor-Recorder-County Clerk John Tuteur at 707-253-4459 or email John.