Raw numbers often speak louder than refined wine: Napa county accounts for a full twenty percent of the dollar value of California’s wine grapes on just four percent of its volume.
Napa is so world renowned for its distinctive Cabernet Sauvignon that it is frequently considered Cab’s second home base after Bordeaux.
These AVAs seem stacked one on top the other like a child’s assemblage of blocks, with a handful of outliers. The Napa Valley AVA encompasses sixteen of these sub-AVAs which, while often snuggling in with each other, do not overlap (as one finds so often in neighboring Sonoma).
Napa wine did not attain its present world-class status overnight.
- Commercial production begins about 1860. By the turn of the twentieth century, Napa has over 140 wineries, some of which still operate: Chateau Montelena, Charles Krug, Schramsberg, Far Niente, Markham, Beaulieu, Beringer, and Mayacamas.
- Then Napa suffers a devastating three-pronged attack: phylloxera, Prohibition, the Great Depression.
- In 1938, Beaulieu hires legendary winemaker André Tchelistcheff, who brings in scientific techniques such as vineyard frost protection, oak barrel aging, malolactic fermentation, and cold fermentation.
- Beringer Vineyards starts a promotional campaign “All roads lead to Beringer” in 1939, inviting Hollywood royalty to visit, the first step in the wine country tourism that is so well developed in Napa today.
- Christian Brothers Winery expands its operations and disseminates its quality wine image under the leadership of winemaker Brother Timothy, whose smiling face on wine labels comes to be synonymous with wine in the eyes of the American public.
- World War Two ends, and wine consumption begins to pick up. Returning GIs, having had the experience of liberating fine European wines, ratchet up public demand for better wines.
- Robert Mondavi breaks from his family’s Charles Krug winery in 1965 and sets up a large scale winery of his own in Oakville. Mondavi is indefatigable in his promotion of Napa wine, using varietal labeling to connote quality. Many other wine producers follow Mondavi’s lead.
- In 1976, at a blind tasting in Paris, a Napa Cabernet and a Napa Chardonnay bested leading French comparables from Bordeaux and Burgundy. The French cried “foul,” but a repeat of the “Judgment of Paris,” thirty years later gets the same results.
- Massive investment from outside the world of wine streams into Napa. As just one of many examples, moviemaker Francis Ford Coppola and his wife Eleanor bought the legendary Inglenook winery in 1975, with profits from The Godfather. The couple have spent the last forty year restoring the property.
Today Napa has over 450 wineries, producing wines under the Napa Valley label and under its sixteen sub-AVAs. A number of Napa wineries have made serious reputations as architectural wonders (or, in some cases, curiosities). The region attracts over four million wine tourists each year.
Let us take a look at the array of Napa AVAs, many of them iconic in the world of wine. We will move south to north. In covering some of these wine names, it would seem germane to mention their cachet, their reputation, their tourist value, while keeping in mind that a lot of work, hard sweat, and risk capital goes into many of these wines. When reputation and actual quality come into alignment, you get a memorable experience. (Your wallet also ends up lighter.)
The Napa Valley AVA is virtually synonymous with Napa County itself, including all areas of the county that producer wine (in 16 sub-AVAs). Astonishingly, there are stretches of Napa County, mostly in the east and in the north, where no winegrapes grow. It is worth repeating here that, to the west, the Sonoma Valley AVA comprises only a portion of Sonoma County. According to the rules that allow a place name to be put on a wine label if 85% of the grapes come from that place, whether county or AVA, the phrase “Napa Valley” on a wine label means:
- at least 85% of the grapes come from the Napa Valley
- most probably none of the sixteen Napa sub-AVAs can individually account for 85% of the grapes
- winemakers often claim they are using the larger appellation to avail themselves of the best grapes they can find, regardless of their sub-AVA
- the reality might be that they are shopping around for the cheapest grapes they can find
- and remember the other side of the 85% rule—up to 15% of the grapes can come from anywhere in the state, with no requirement that the content be disclosed
We have already covered the Los Carneros AVA Napa shares with Sonoma. To recap: the rolling hills of Los Carneros abut San Pablo Bay at the southern end of both counties, making Los Carneros the coolest and most windy AVA in either Sonoma or Napa. Los Carneros specializes in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, much of which goes into sparkling wine.
Napa shares the Wild Horse Valley AVA in its southeast with Solano County. San Pablo Bay exerts its cooling influence in the western half of the AVA, while the eastern half, shielded by hills, has a warmer climate. Soil is volcanic. Less than a hundred acres are planted, to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
The Coombsville AVA is Napa’s newest (2011). Coombsville rises from near sea level at its western edge to 1,900 feet on the crest of the Vaca Mountain Range to the east. Lava and volcanic ash once flowed from these mountains, while river action wore down the hillsides yielding rocky, gravely soil that drains well. Cooling marine fog from San Pablo Bay is significant, even at elevation. Coombsville produces approachable Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir with good structure and mouthfeel, earthy and mineral notes, layers of flavor and aromas, and soft tannins among the reds.
The Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley AVA is considered by many to be Napa Valley’s “Sweet Spot.” Close enough to San Pablo Bay to benefit from its cooling, Oak Knoll nevertheless has a long growing season. It is warm enough to ripen Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon while at the same time cool enough to boast of delicate and restrained Chardonnay with crisp apple and mineral notes. The Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling are equally good.
The Yountville AVA produces Cabs more subtle, gentle and reserved than those from the warmer AVAs to its north (Napa gets warmer the further north you go from San Pablo Bay). Tannins are hard and acidity levels are good. Yountville also produces quality Merlot on Merlot-friendly clay alluvial soils.
It was a wine from what would become the Stags Leap District AVA that won the earth-shattering “Judgment of Paris” in 1976. Stags Leap is the only Napa AVA to justify its status on the basis of its soils, which vary from river sediments of loam with clay substructure, to volcanic mountain erosions. Its reputation is for powerful Cabs with firm tannins, elegance and grace. Stags Leap Merlot is unique, with velvety textures, perfumed cherry and red berry flavors, and soft tannins. The Sauvignon Blanc here is round and ripe, yet retains excellent citrus and apple flavors.
The Mount Veeder AVA features thin acidic volcanic soil on elevations from 500 to 2600 feet with steep angles that gives vines concentrated sunlight and fine drainage. Low yields give Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Zinfandel wines firm, tannic structure with strong earth-berry aromas and powerful flavors.
The Atlas Peak AVA in Napa’s center is one of the higher elevation appellations, with little ocean or bay influence. Growers here produce Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Merlo, Marsanne, Sangiovese, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc.
The Oakville AVA is where Robert Mondavi built his iconic winery in 1966. Oakville is moderately warm, with night and early morning fog acting to maintain grape acidity levels. Oakville has a large array of growers and wineries and is known for small boutique players who often limit production and availability. The Bordeaux trio of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc show ripe currant and mint flavors, rich texture, and full, firm structure tempered by rich fruit. Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay here are fruity and luscious.
The Rutherford AVA features well-drained soils composed of gravel, sand and loam with volcanic elements, resulting in legendary Cabernet known for its earthy mineral aspect (the Rutherford Dust). Reds like Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Zinfandel are typically rich, medium to full bodied, elegant, with black-currant, cedar, cassis, black-licorice, spice box, cherry, and earth flavors. Production here in the dead center of Napa is relatively small. Rutherford is home to such well known wine names as Beaulieu, Rutherford Hill, and Francis Coppola’s Inglenook.
One step further to the north, the St. Helena AVA is a major tourist stop. St. Helena (pronounced Saint Hel-EEN-a) covers 9,000 acres of flat narrow land between the Vaca and Mayacamas Mountains. In 1861, Charles Krug, the Napa Valley winemaking pioneer, opened his winery in St. Helena. The AVA is known for big Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot wines with black jammy fruit. The Syrah is fleshy, supple and slightly earthy. St. Helena Zinfandel is well-structured with blackberry notes. The Sauvignon Blanc brings passion fruit and lemon, with a crisp and fresh quality, not “grassy“.
Despite its distance from San Pablo Bay, the Spring Mountain District AVA gets the cool breezes from clear across neighboring Sonoma thanks to the energetic Petaluma Gap. Spring Mountain is the coolest and wettest AVA in the valley. Soils are a unique blend of volcanic and sedimentary rock. The five Bordeaux red blending varieties—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec—account for most of production, with some plantings of Zinfandel, Syrah, and Petite Sirah. Half the AVA’s white grapes are Chardonnay, with Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc.
Another step to the north is the Diamond Mountain District AVA, which does not benefit from the cooling Petaluma Gap influence like Spring Mountain. Vineyards sit at on steep slopes at high elevations on porous volcanic soil. The name “Diamond Mountain” refers to small touches of volcanic glass the sparkle in the soil. Age-worthy Bordeaux varieties predominate.
Situated at the top of Napa’s array of stacked blocks, the Calistoga AVA has very warm days moderated by the cooling influence of the Russian River at night, to generate exceptional diurnal temperature swings to ripen the Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel and Syrah the appellation is known for.
The Howell Mountain AVA is primarily a Cabernet producer sited on a high ridge overlooking the town of St. Helena from the east. Howell is warm with little marine influence. Vineyards stand at from 1400 to 2600 feet on shallow infertile volcanic soils. Howell Cab is powerful and firm with blackberry-currant flavors, richly tannic, with excellent acidity for aging. The Chardonnay and Viognier show citrus and stone fruit flavors. Merlot and Zinfandel are also produced.
The Chiles Valley AVA in Napa’s east sits high in the Vaca Mountains, high enough, in fact, to benefit from breezes coming in all the way from the Pacific Ocean. Some vineyards here were planted in Zinfandel in the 1870s. The valley’s isolation served to spare the region from the scourge of phylloxera. The old-vine Zinfandel also managed to weather the storm of Prohibition. In addition to Zin, Chiles Valley is known for (no prizes awarded for guessing) Cabernet Sauvignon.