There’s No Place Like Napa

Today is the day!  Carpe Vinum (the wine club I’m part of) is back in session after our summer hiatus.  And I’ve really missed it.

The recent Napa Valley earthquake pulled our focus, and our wallets (we’re doing our small part to support recovery) west.  There are many grapes grown in Napa Valley, but there’s only one grape to rule them all — Cabernet Sauvignon.  So, each of us is bringing a bottle of Cabernet from a different Napa Valley sub-appellation, and a food to pair with it.

And we’ll attempt to answer this question:  Can you taste a difference between Napa Valley sub-appellations?

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I took this photo from the terrace at Silverado Vineyards.

I’ve done a lot of reading over the last couple of days about Napa Valley terroir, and it’s pretty much unanimous — Napa Cab tastes like Napa Cab.  But can anyone really tell the difference between an Oakville Cab and a Rutherford Cab?  This is the subject of much, much debate among winemakers and wine-lovers alike.  There’s a lot of intense discussion about nature vs. nurture — where and how heavy the hand of a winemaker should be.  I read some arguments (mostly by guys named Pierre and Jacques) that California doesn’t really have terroir because it’s too much — too much power, too much fruit, too much alcohol.  I don’t like/buy that argument . . . because it’s that congruence of things that makes Napa, well, Napa.

If I distilled any kind of wild generalization for Napa Valley terroir (at least for Cabernet Sauvignon), it boiled down to this:  Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley floor tends to be more powerful and fruit forward.  Cabernet Sauvignon from the mountain area AVAs tends toward a leaner style, with great acid and savory and spice elements taking center stage. I’m excited to put that generalization to the test.

But first . . . I need a Napa Valley refresher.

Napa Valley is the most well-known wine region in California.  But Napa produces only 4% (that’s barely a drop in the spit bucket) of all the wine produced in the state of California.  Over 45,000 total acres of grapes are planted in Napa — and that’s only the third largest planting in California (after San Joaquin and Sonoma).  Dusting off what I remember from Econ 101 —  Napa’s limited production, coupled with a high demand, drives prices up.  Have I paid $100+ for a bottle of Napa Cab?  Guilty.  I don’t love the price tag, but I still get out my wallet. Because people will pay what the market will bear.  Enter the Napa cult wines.  Screaming Eagle costs $1,000+ a bottle because people are willing to pay $1,000+ a bottle.  Not me, people . . . but people.

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From the Armchair Sommelier photo vault . . . here I am inhaling the Nectar of Bacchus at Mondavi, circa 2005.

History:  George Yount was the first to plant grapes in Napa Valley, sometime around 1838. The first commercial winery in Napa was established either by John Patchett or Charles Krug (depending on who’s telling the story), sometime around 1860.  And today there are over 300 wineries in Napa Valley, most of them family owned.  Winemakers in Napa have always been a resilient bunch.  The triple-whammy of phylloxera, prohibition and the Great Depression nearly wiped out winemaking in Napa Valley.  But slowly, Napa recovered.  And in 1976 at the now infamous Paris Tasting, Napa fired a warning shot across the bow of the Wine World — Napa can (and will) play with the Big Dogs.

Geography:  Napa isn’t a big piece of real estate.  It’s 30 miles long and only about 5 miles wide. By way of comparison, this is about 1/8 the size of Bordeaux.  Napa is flanked by mountain ranges on both sides — the Macaymas Mountains to the west, and the Vaca Mountains to the east.  The mountains protect the valley from the cool breezes off the Pacific Ocean.  And, at the southern end of the Napa Valley, the San Pablo Bay pulls some very important fog into the valley, keeping overall temperatures significantly cooler in the southern part of the valley.  The Napa River runs north-south through the valley, and soils vary depending on how close or far away from the Napa River they are.

Bottomline:  It’s a lot cooler in the southern parts of Napa Valley, and warmer in the northern parts.  It’s counter-intuitive, but true.

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Napa Valley is an AVA in and of itself, but there are also sixteen sub-appellations in Napa Valley.  In advance of our tasting, I thought I should review the Napa Valley sub-appellations. I’m hoping that between this awesome map from Wine Folly and some help from the emojis, I can keep it all straight in my head.

🌁 = Fog influence
🌅 = Warm days, cool nights
🗻 = Mountain/Altitude influence

Here are the Napa Valley sub-appellations, listed in order of creation:

🌁  Los Carneros (1983) — The Napa Valley anomaly.  A cooler, wetter microclimate because of its proximity to San Pablo Bay, it’s too cool for Cabernet Sauvignon here.  Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the backbone of Carneros.  It’s also home to many of the sparkling wine producers in Napa.

🗻  Howell Mountain (1983) — Vineyards here are planted between 1,400 and 2,200 feet above sea level.  Altitude serves as the cooling element — days are warm and sunny, nights are cool.  Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel flourish here.

🗻  Wild Horse Valley (1988) — Most vineyards are planted between 600-1,900 feet, so they miss out on the cooling effects of valley fog.  Moderation comes from altitude and winds coming off the Suisun Bay.  Soils are thinner, so the vines are stressed — this reduces yield, but increases concentration and quality.

🌁 🌅  Stags Leap District (1989) — Named after a legendary stag who, while being chased by hunters, made a bionic leap between two mountain peaks.  Cabernet Sauvignon is the signature grape.  Moderated by cool breezes and fog from the San Pablo Bay.

🗻  Mount Veeder (1990) — The highest peak in the Macaymas Mountains, at 2,700 feet.  Vineyards are planted at up to 2,630 feet, which puts them mostly above the fog line.  Days are warm, nights are cool.  Cabernet Sauvignon dominates, but Merlot and Syrah have a foothold.

🗻  Atlas Peak (1992) — The Foss River is the terroir driver here.  Vineyards lie above the fog line.  Soils are volcanic and porous, which leads to lower yields and higher quality grapes.  Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are the stars of Atlas Peak.

🗻  Spring Mountain District (1993) — Moderated by Pacific Ocean breezes.  Most vineyards are scattered on peaks and planted at 400-600m above sea level.  The dominant grape is Cabernet Sauvignon.

🌁 🌅  Oakville (1993) —  Home to some of Napa’s most famous wineries — Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate and Robert Mondavi.  Moderated by San Pablo fog, and a little cooler than it’s neighbor, Rutherford.  Cabernet Sauvignon is King of Oakville, and Oakville Cab flavor profiles often include eucalyptus, mint, sage, and black currant.

🌁 🌅  Rutherford (1993) — Warmer than it’s neighbor Oakville, grapes ripen a little quicker, producing more tannic wines, capable of aging.  Cabernet Sauvignon is King of Rutherford.  The flavor profile is often called Rutherford Dust, and includes plum, cherry, herb and mint descriptors.

🌁 🌅  St. Helena (1995) — Vineyards are located where the Napa Valley narrows significantly.  It’s home to some of the region’s most famous wineries — Joseph Phelps, Turley, Duckhorn and Beringer.  There’s less fog and wind than in more southern AVAs.  Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely planted grape, but because it’s farther north (and away from the fog), it’s warmer and also well suited to Zinfandel.

🗻 Chiles Valley (1999) — One of the smallest AVAs in the US.  Vineyards planted at 800 to 1,300 feet.  Winter and spring are cooler here, so harvest comes later than on the valley floor.  Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel are the most successful grapes.

🌁 🌅  Yountville (1999) — Moderated by maritime influence and fog.  Most vineyards are planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

🗻  Diamond Mountain (2001) — One of the northernmost AVAs, moderated by Pacific Ocean breezes.  Soils are mostly volcanic and rocky.  Dominant grape:  Cabernet Sauvignon.

🌁 🌅  Oak Knoll District (2004) — Warm, but not hot — fog lingers a little longer here.  Cabernet Sauvignon , Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Riesling (!) are planted here.  Note to self:  Get ahold of an Oak Knoll Riesling.

🗻  Calistoga (2009) — Warmer and less humid than wineries on the valley floor.  Soils are mostly volcanic and rocky.  The dominant grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Syrah and Petite Sirah.

🌁 🌅  Coombsville (2011) — Napa’s newest AVA, established in 2011.  There’s a maritime influence because of its proximity to San Pablo Bay.  Dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, but some Pinot Noir is planted in the lower, cooler areas.

That’s a lot of information (and I feel like I should be writing it on the bottom of my shoes).  But I think I can go to Carpe Vinum now and contribute something that will at least sound semi-informed.  Stay tuned for our wine selections and food pairings.  And the answer to our question — Can you taste a difference between Napa Valley sub-appellations?

Salud!

19 comments

  1. Great summary and educational too. Yes, Napa gets slagged by the press sometimes. But, that might be product of their own success.
    Different AVA’s? I prefer the Howell Mountain and Mount Veeder cabs. But, if you had a Caymus Special Selection, Freemark Abbey, or Staglin to share, I’d say Rutherford is pretty fine too.

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    1. Thanks, Bill! I agree – Napa seems to be a favorite target for the press/industry. A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to try a bottle of Caymus’ 40th Anniversary wine. Soooo many folks complaining about this one, and I don’t know why. I really enjoyed it. My glass was empty pretty quickly . . . 😉🍷! Cheers!!

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  2. I look forward to reading the results of your tasting experiment! I can definitely taste the difference between the valley and the mountain cabs, but I can’t tell which AVA within the valley or the mountains. Some people are discerning enough to know a Goldilocks Stag’s Leap from the Rutherford dust. That just takes practice, right? ( As an aside, I’m sure its a typo, but I think you want George Yount rather than Young.) Looking forward to your follow-up post!

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    1. We had a great tasting yesterday, and, (without spoiling my next post), I can tell you I was both surprised and pleased with the results. I wonder how much Napa Cab you’d have to taste before you could ID the different subs blind?!? Thanks for the heads-up on my typo. I’m fixing it right now . . . Cheers!

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  3. An excellent foray into Napa 101, Kirsten. You also have a great talent to ask very difficult questions. Terroir is extremely important, and as a general assessment of valley floor profile versus elevations, I think my experience would confirm this. But then you got such a difference in the winemaiking style… For instance, both Ladera and Dunn make wines in the Howell Mountain area – but the Dunn wines have so much more earthiness and barnyard in them, you would never think the wines are coming from the neighboring vineyards. Same situation is with BV, where you can really taste that Rutherford Dust, and then Provenance, which is literally a few hundred yards away from BV, has none of it… Another mile down the road, and you will find yet another totally different style at Corison winery. This is why I’m saying that this is a very difficult question – how much of that difference is driven by terroir, and how much is played by the winemaker… Well, looking forward to the next post – the truth is in the glass!

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    1. Thanks, Anatoli. Without doubt, winemaker style is the wild-card variable. You’d have to equalize winemakers across the board to get a true read on the sub-AVA differences. And I’m not sure that’s even possible. (Lots of cooks, lots of kitchens). At any rate, I was both pleased and surprised with our results yesterday . . . stay tuned! Cheers!!

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  4. Wow, an informative intro to Napa! I really enjoyed it, but I’ll probably have to come back and read it again for all of it to sink in, haha. I never understand why people are so negative about wine- I mean, there are bad wines out there, but what is so bad about enjoying some new/different?

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  5. What an interesting post. Sadly, I much prefer cabs and pinots from the Sonoma Coast. The Napas are too “big” for me – especially for sipping wines. But I still want to visit one day. What time of years would be the best time to visit Napa?

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