• Alexander Smith

Napa Valley - In Depth!

As most of you know, I am a huge fan of Napa Valley. I believe the quality of their wines is improving at an unprecedented rate, and it is only getting better. Gone are the days of overripe and sugary jam, yes you can still find these examples, but their focus is now on producing a complete wine with elegance and precision. I thought I would take this opportunity to go into what makes Napa so unique and the different regions within Napa Valley, along with famous producers and whether I approve them or not ;)

Napa Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area) was created in 1981 for the consumer to better understand the wines of Napa Valley. It was actually the second AVA created in the U.S, the first was Augusta and Missouri! There are currently 256 AVA's in the U.S and 16 AVA's within the larger Napa Valley AVA.

Even though the Napa Valley AVA was only founded in 1981, Napa Valley has a long history dating all the way back to the 18th century. At this time the Spanish Missions planted vineyards to grow grapes for their sacramental wine. By the 1830s Jacob Beringer, Jacob Schram and Charles Krug had arrived and started establishing wineries in Napa Valley. The wine industry was booming until a few fatal blows nearly wiped out the valley. This included Phylloxera (1873), the Great Depression (1929) and Prohibition (1933). It was not until Robert Mondavi came with a vision in 1966, that a new renaissance started, and with the Judgment of Paris in 1976, Napa was back on the map!

In terms of climate, Napa Valley has a Mediterranean climate, that consists of warm and dry summers with wettish winters. Along with low humidity, large diurnal swings allow for slow ripeness and little loss of acidity in the grapes. The secret of Napa Valley is the morning fog, which is drawn in from the San Pablo Bay, this fog slows the photosynthesis, which helps to maintain the acidity, it is then burnt off by mid-morning. There are also cracks in the Mayacamas mountains which bring in cool air both at the south and the north end of the Valley. This all sums up to a perfect climate to grow grapes. Another secret is the soil, which boasts over 100 different variations, 33 soil types, a multitude of elevations and aspects, you can really start to see why no two Napa Valley wines can be the same.

Within Napa Valley AVA are 16 nested AVAs. These 16 AVA's all showcase a different unique side of Napa Valley. These include both Mountain and Valley AVA's. Below is a summary of the AVA's and the wineries which in my eyes showcase the best and sometimes the worst of each AVA:

Mountain AVA's

1) Diamond Mountain

Located at the North West of the Valley, hugging the Mayacamas mountain range. Famous for both highly structured Cabernets as well as Sparkling wines.

- Diamond Creek (1972) - Small production Cabernet Sauvignon with a focus on single-site wines. Wines to try: Red Rock Terrace and Volcanic hill. Highly recommended

- Schramsberg (1862) - Sparkling wine producer. Wines to try: Blanc de Blancs.

2) Spring Mountain

I have always found Spring Mountain as a transition AVA, you get the fruit quality of the valley floor with the structure of the mountain.

- Stony Hill (1948) - Wines with great acidity and purity of fruit. Wines to try: Chardonnay

- Vineyard 7&8 (1999) - Premium, small family-run estate. Wines to try: Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (7) and Estate Chardonnay (8). Highly recommended

- Pride Mountain (1890) - Big, Lush and heavily oaked Cabernets. Wine to try: Vinter Selection Cabernet.

- Cain (1989) - Rustic Cabernets and a unique style. Wine to try: Cain five

3) Mount Veeder

Smallest production in Napa Valley yet largest region. High elevation wines with those famous Mountain tannins

- Mayacamas (1889) - Focus on varietal blends and famous for their 1971 Cabernet which was entered into the 1976 Judgment of Paris. Wine to try: Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder

- Mount Veeder (1973) - These wines sing Mount Veeder. Wine to try: Mount Veeder Elevation 1550

4) Howell Mountain

True Mountain Cabernet, remember don't open a Howell Mountain wine too young! The wines from the 80s are just starting to come around.

- La Jota (1974) - Gentle extraction and oxygen added prior to fermentation, tames those wild mountain tannins. Wine to try: La Jota Cabernet Sauvignon

- Dunn (1979) - These Cabernets are best enjoyed after 20+ years. Wine to try: Howell Mountain Cabernet Recommended

- Dana Estates (2005) - Breathtaking Cabernet which is approachable along with phenomenal ageability. Highly Recommended

5) Atlas Peak

Only a couple of notable Vineyards are located on Atlas Peak,

- Antica (1998) - Owned by the Antinori family, and nothing exciting from my limited tasting

- Stagecoach (1991) - Does not produce any wine but sells grapes to over 100 wineries from Spottswoode to Gallo (who now own the whole vineyard). 25 different vineyard designations exist. Recommended

Valley AVAs

1) Los Carneros

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir homeland. This has acreage in both Napa Valley as well as Sonoma.

- Hyde (1979) - Larry Hyde sells to around 30 wineries including Kistler, Mark Aubert and David Ramey. He also has a collaboration with a certain Aubert de Villaine. Recommended

- Hudson (1981) - Another producer which sells 95% to premium wineries. If you can find that 5% buy it. Highly Recommended

2) Combsville

Located 10 minutes from downtown Napa, this small AVA is often overlooked however as some of the most distinctive wines in the valley.

- Farella (1977) - Tom Farella petitioned for the AVA and won back in 2011. Wine to try: Alta

3) Wild Horse Valley

Smallest AVA in Napa Valley with only 40 acres planted, mainly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir:

- Heron Lake (1980) - The only winery in Wild Horse Vally, produces Burgundy-style Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

4) Oak Knoll District

Known for its old Zinfandel vines. First Zinfandel vine planted in 1880s.

- Biale (1991) - Known for old vine Zinfandel and Petite Sirahs

- Trefethen (1968) - Estate grown Riesling, Malbec and Chardonnay.

5) Yountville

- Chandon (1973) - Traditional sparkling wine from Moet et Chandon

- Dominus (1983) - Collaboration between Petrus and Napanook Vineyard. Bordeaux-Napa style of wine. Wines to try: Dominus and Napanook. Highly Recommended

6) Stag's Leap District

The 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellar's Cabernet Sauvignon won the 1976 Judgment of Paris

- Shafer (1972) - Decadent Cabernet Sauvignon and luscious Chardonnays. Wines to try One Point Five and HIllside Select. Highly Recommended

- Stag's Leap Wine Cellars (1970) - Winner of 1976 Judgement of Paris. Wines to try: Fay, S.L.V, and Cask 23 Recommended

7) Oakville

Home of the big guns, nothing else to say

- Bond (1997) - Burgundy-style wines that focus on individual sites and examines the best sites in Napa Valley. Wines to try: Vecina and St. Eden Recommended

- Dalla Valle (1986) - Produces high quality and complete wines. Wines to try: Cabernet Sauvignon and Maya. Highly Recommended

- Bevan Cellars (2005) - Big, bold, and elegant, these are 100 point Parker wines at their best. Wines to try: Tench Vineyard, Tench Vineyard E.E, Sugarloaf Highly Recommended

- Groth (1982) - This is Benchmark Oakville, an old-style refined Cabernet. Wines to try: Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Recommended

8) Rutherford

Wine was first produced here in the 1850s! Cabernet is king!

- Caymus (1972) - Very ripe and jamy Cabernet, maybe too ripe?

- Grgich Hills (1977) - Natural and fruit-driven, It doesn't get any more pure than this. Wines to try Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel

- Mumm (1983) - Traditional Sparkling wine from G.H Mumm

9) St. Helena

Some of the most famous vineyards in the valley are located here.

- Beringer (1875) - A huge variety of wines from entry-level to high end. Wines to try: Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

- Corison (1987) - Elegant, refined Cabernets. Wines to try Kronos. Recommended

- Joseph Phelps (1972) - Fully estate-grown, half of their vineyards are now biodynamic. Wines to try: Insignia and the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Highly Recommended

- Spottswoode (1882) - Fully Biodynamic, medium alcohol, refined fruit, long-lived and old-world in style. Wine to try: Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and their Sauvignon Blanc Highly Recommended

10) Calistoga

The northern end of the Valley, with cooling breezes and a diversity of soils, make this one of the more diverse regions in the valley.

- Eisele (1990) - High-quality, laser-focused, and elegant wines. Wines to try: Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Altagracia, and Sauvignon Blanc. Highly Recommended

- Larkmead (1895) - Estate and Organic which produces breathtaking wines. Wines to try: LMV Salon, Firebell, and Solari. Highly Recommended

Hopefully, I included some of your favorites. Let me know if I missed any!

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