New! Napa Trip Planner

Armchair Sommelier Logo

Carpe Vinum: The Napa Valley Challenge

The right wine for you- 6 bottles for just $34.99!
Mondavi, circa 2006.

Our question for this month’s Carpe Vinum was this:  Can you taste a difference between Napa Valley sub-appellations?  

(My background post on Napa Valley and its sub-appellations can be found here).

My husband, Mr. Engineering Guy, says to get a true answer to that question, we’d need to conduct an experiment with set control variables, and a much larger sample size.  We’d need to use the same grape variety, the same vintage year, and the same winemaker (with identical winemaking processes, equipment and storage).  And we’d need to taste in a blind, or even a double-blind format.  He said some other sciency stuff, too, but by that point, I had tuned him out.  Kill joy.  😉

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).  The closest attempt I’ve been able to find is this:  Back in 2007, winemaker Jeff McBride of Conn Creek Vineyards, attempted a Napa AVA experiment.  He made wines from all of the (then) 14 Napa sub-appelations, using identical winemaking processes.  His goal was to arrive (eventually) at distinct flavor profiles for all of the Napa sub-appellations.  Unfortunately, I can’t find any follow-up information about his results, and whether he’s continuing his experiment.

So, right from the start, I acknowledge ours was an imperfect experiment.  What can I tell you? The world’s an imperfect place — screws fall out all the time (nod to The Breakfast Club).  My personal goal was to see if I could tell the difference between the Cabernets from the Napa Valley floor vs. the Cabernets from the mountain (altitude) AVAs.  Speaking in wild generalizations . . . Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley floor is supposed to be more powerful and fruit forward.  Cabernet Sauvignon from the mountain area AVAs is supposed to tend toward a leaner style, with great acid and savory and/or spice elements taking center stage.  Which Cabs did we taste, and did they match the Napa Valley generalizations?

Unum Wine Cellars District Atlas Peak Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 ⭐⭐⭐/88
The vineyard is at 1,300 feet in the Vaca Range of the Atlas Peak AVA.  The nose on this wine reminds me of my mom’s cedar chest.  Man, I love that smell.  Flavors are cherry and tobacco with vanilla and nutmeg on the finish.  Loads of acidity, delicately balanced.  $40.

Paired with a Roasted Vegetable Tart made with Diane’s Flaky Cheddar Cheese Pie Crust
This is a great veggie tart recipe, but the genius is in the crust.  I loathe making pie crust.  My recipe involves buying a box of Pillsbury ready-made crusts.  But my friend, Diane’s recipe for cheddar cheese pie crust makes me want to make pie crust.  It’s that good!

The Pairing 👍
The vegetable tart definitely amplifies the tannins in the wine, making them seem even more powdery.  The wine works beautifully with the eggplant & mushrooms, as well as the Roquefort cheese (and I don’t even like Roquefort cheese).  The char on the veggies played very well with the Cabernet.  I can’t explain it, but I found myself craving tomatoes in this tart. Maybe something to do with the higher acid in the wine??


Beaulieu Vineyard Clone 6 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford 2003 ⭐⭐⭐⭐/92
I love the age on this wine — it’s had over a decade to chill out.  The tannins are well integrated now, very smooth, even elegant.  Rutherford Dust is a phrase originally coined by BV winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff.  The microclimate in Rutherford AVA allows grapes to ripen just a bit longer, so tannins tend to be softer, or “dusty”, with flavors of cocoa.  But is this winer really dusty?  I get flavors of blackberry and currant, and absolutely no doubt — eucalyptus. And I just happen to have some eucalyptus growing in my backyard, so I brought some inside for comparison.  Ding! Ding! Ding!  Eucalyptus.  And there’s definitely some cocoa on the back end.  But I don’t know whether I’m really tasting dust, or simply a reflection of terroir.


Paired with Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Garlic and Sage & Sweet Potato Puree with Garlic, Thyme and Balsamic Vinegar
These are both recipes from Andrea Robinson.  When I first saw the recipes I thought, “Is she crazy?  Who pairs brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes with a Cab?”  But she’s Andrea Robinson, she knows what she’s doing — I had to trust her.  Both recipes are beautifully simple and satisfying — and they scream Thanksgiving dinner!

The Pairing 👍
Color me surprised!  This is a delightful pairing . . . but, the balsamic vinegar is the key.  Without it, the paring falls flat on its face and reverts to being crazy.  I can’t believe how well the Cabernet plays with the balsamic vinegar.  And the sage & thyme bring out the herbal notes in the wine.  I never would have thought!


Black Stallion Howell Mountain Barrel Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ⭐⭐⭐⭐/92
A special wine that was created specifically to celebrate the Year of the Horse.  Only 24 barrels produced.  My girlfriend called the winery directly to order this wine, and was blown away by their level of customer service, so shout-out and kudos to Black Stallion!  Soft and approachable tannins, continues to evolve and develop once it’s open.  Loving the acids in this wine.  Fruit definitely takes a back seat here to flavors of tobacco, cedar and ground spices — and I’m really digging this wine.  So many layers of complexity — each sip was a little different as the wine warmed and opened up.  14.5% ABV.  $98.

Paired with Meatballs with Pomegranate Currant Sauce
This is a recipe from St. Francis Winery in Napa.  The pomegranate currant sauce was an interesting flavor contrast with the meatballs.  It’s made with something called pomegranate molasses, which I’d never heard of before.  Imagine going on a hunt for that ingredient. Wegmans to the rescue!

The Pairing 👍
The Dijon mustard is a bit of a bully in this dish.  The meatballs were a bit salty and tart on their own (not sure exactly what was pulling my focus), but with the wine those flavors tamed quite a bit.  This would be a great wine for anything on the grill . . . or just to sit and drink all by itself.


St. Clement Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2011 ⭐⭐⭐/88
This wine is from the broader Napa Valley AVA.  According to the St. Clement website, it’s a “classic example of Napa Valley, combining valley floor terroir and mountain fruit power.”  Fruit-driven — plums and blackberries mingling with cloves.  Some faint mint and vanilla on the finish.  Smooth, approachable, easy.  $40.

Roots Run Deep Winery Educated Guess Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ⭐⭐⭐/87
This is actually 87% Napa Valley, 8% Paso Robles, and 5% Lake County.  And it’s 88% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot.  So we can’t really count it in our already weak sample.  😉  Very plush with lots of fruit, kind of reminds me of a chocolate covered cherry.  And for $20?  Can’t beat it.

Paired with French Dip Sandwiches
This recipe is one of my friend, Kari’s go-to meals for busy nights (you know, when there are too many kid-activities and not enough time to cook).  You toss a handful of ingredients into the Crock Pot (all hail the Crock Pot) and walk away.  And when you return . . . Voila!  Dinner.

The Pairing 👍
Both wines are friendly and approachable enough to work well with just about anything — hamburgers, pizza, heck, even a grilled hot dog would be good with these guys.


Given our rather unscientific approach to our question, realistically, my goal was only to see if we could tell the difference between the Cabernets from the Napa Valley floor vs. the Cabernets from the mountain(altitude) AVAs.  And I’m happy to report we achieved that goal. The fruit forward power vs. savory spice and acid restraint was very noticeable.   But a difference between Howell Mountain and Atlas Peak?  I feel like I’m splitting hairs there.  Both were excellent wines, but I sure as heck couldn’t isolate the magical Howell Mountain or Atlas Peak gene.  I’m not even sure I could extract the storied Rutherford Dust in a blind tasting.
I guess I’ll have to keep tasting and tasting and tasting these Napa Cabs!

While we’re on the subject of California wines, Napa and Sanoma take up much of the oxygen in the conversation around the sunshine state (for a good reason), but there are are few other amazing regions producing great wine in the state. Check out this post about the Livermore Valley wine region.

I almost forgot!  I made Bourbon Salted Caramels for dessert.  They pair with absolutely none of these wines, but September was Bourbon Heritage Month, so I had to make them!


This month, Carpe Vinum will tackle Celebrity Wines!


Armchair Sommelier Wine Tasting Guide

Spice up your next party with our FREE wine tasting guide! Learn what to look, smell, and taste for while appreciating your favorite bottle. We’ve also included a printable tasting notes template and a tasting wheel.