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.  

 I knew that the municipalities or the county assigned street and public road names within their respective boundaries.  The municipalities or the county also assigns 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 is comprised of representatives from Federal agencies and is authorized to establish and maintain uniform geographic name usage.  Although established to serve the Federal Government as a central authority to which all name issues can be directed, the Board also plays a similar role for the general public. 

 I visited the BGN website on the Internet at  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 over 2 million geographic names and then display the map showing the named feature.

 The Napa County Historical Society at 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 is available from the Historical Society at

 Geographic names are very important to the wine industry.  Names of specific wine-growing regions are known as viticultural areas in the United States which are comparable to appellations as they are known in Europe.  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 at to learn more about how to apply for a viticultural area name or to read 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.