About Napa Valley
For those of us who live in San Francisco, it is only an hour’s drive north into the famous Californian wine country.
For those of us who live in San Francisco, it is only an hour’s drive north into the famous Californian wine country.
There can be no doubt that many of the best U.S. wines come from Napa Valley. The thirty-mile valley showcases over two hundred wineries, and has long been synonymous with natural beauty, a comfortable lifestyle, and world-class wine.
The United States is the world’s fourth largest producer of wine, and almost every State produces it. 90% of the nation’s wine comes from California, however only 4% come from Napa Valley. The entire area is only about 35,000 acres (14,000 hectares), and could fit inside the Chianti region five times. The vast majority of California’s wine comes from the Central Valley or the Central Coast. The focus of many wineries in this region are to produce large amounts of wine, and the region has something that Napa Valley does not – some of the darkest, richest and best soil in the country. This, along with a lot of water, makes the vines produce huge, juicy grapes. These are very suitable for eating, but watery grapes produce watery wine. The result are several wines which usually sell for about $7 a gallon, the most famous being White Zinfandel, which is given very little contact time with the skins during fermentation, giving it a light pink color.
Napa Valley, on the other hand, contains poor rocky soil, and one feature of this soil is that it drains very easily. This forces the roots of the vines to burrow to the existing clay bed in their search of water, which gives the resulting wine many “earthy” flavors. The more than 140 different soil varieties that, along with dozens of microclimates, give Napa an extraordinary range of wines produced with its boundaries.
The Northern and middle part of the Valley is planted with Bordeaux Varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc, as it benefits from a hot and dry summer, with temperatures in the 90’s (around 40 degrees Celsius) and often not a drop of rain from March to October. The “Carneros”, or southern part of the valley is much cooler because of its proximity to the north end of the bay. Constant winds, as well the fog that San Francisco is famous for keep the area cooler, and as a result, the area is known for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Napa Valley is separated from Sonoma Valley by the Mayacamas mountain range, sometimes called by its highest peak, Mt.Veeder. Up here the vines are “dry-farmed” meaning that they get no water for the entire season. This forces the roots to go down very deep, often in excess of forty feet (15 meters). Los Carneros and Mt. Veeder are just two of the Valley’s fifteen appellations. Other noteworthy appellations are Stag’s Leap and Rutherford, which are known for world-class Cabernet Sauvignon, and Spring Mountain, known for producing top quality Merlot.
The Napa Valley makes wines in a distinct style that is not found anywhere else. They take advantage of the long growing season and produce wines that taste very ripe, and full-bodied, usually with 1-2% residual sugar. They often believe in tasting more “fruit” and less oak. The wines aren’t cheap however, with some of the regions best wines costing as much as a Barolo or top Bordeaux.
The original inhabitants to the Valley were the Onasti, which arrived about 6,000 years ago. They were decimated by Smallpox as Mexican soldiers arrived, claiming California for Mexico in the 1820’s. It was at this time that the first grapes were planted by George C. Yount, an English settler that acquired land as he married the daughter of a rich landowner named Mariano Vallejo. The area changed hands again in 1847, as a prize in the Mexican-American wars. Nine days after California became part of the United States, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in the close-by Sierra Nevada Mountains. This brought in hundreds of thousands of settlers into Central California over the next couple of years (affectionately known as the 49ers.) Many people followed Yount’s example and by 1900, there was over one million gallons of wine produced between Napa and Sonoma Valleys.
This came abruptly to an end with the onset of Prohibition. From 1919 to 1933, alcohol was illegal in the U.S., and as a vineyard is a difficult thing to hide from the law, most of the wineries left to pursue more lucrative crops in other parts of the country. Some stayed making wine, brandy, and sherry illegally, and a few wineries were allowed to stay open making sacramental wines for the church. Others switched what they were doing with the grape, for example making grape juice, raisins, or vinegar. I remember being shown a bottle of grape juice from prohibition times, and if you turned it around and read the back label, it read: “Warning – please do not add two tablespoons of Flor yeast and a quarter cup of water,” which of course are the exact instructions how to make wine. This is one way that producers were able to get around the laws of the time. I sure the wine did not taste very good, but at least it was wine. These were particularly lean times for farmers in the area, as no matter how good your grape juice is, no one will pay more than a couple of dollars for it, by today’s standards.
After prohibition ended, the area was devastated and abandoned. Trees started to grow in the vineyards and reclaim the land, while many of the old stone wineries and cellars deteriorated. From the 1930’s to the 1960’s the valley saw little or no action. In 1966, Napa Valley’s most famous resident, a Robert Mondavi moved in and planted Cabernet Sauvignon. In 1969, his Cab won first place – best wine in California. Several vintners moved back in to try making wine again.
The next thing that happened is something that stunned the world and established Napa wines on the as an international competitor – something known as the 1976 Paris Tasting. The Paris Tasting was held by an Englishman named Steven Spuurier, who owned a wine shop in Paris, France. He pitted Californian wines against several top French chateaux in a blind tasting. The 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon won first place for best red, and the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay won first place for white.
Because of this, one can only imagine the peaking interest to learn more about this region and to invest in it. Most of the land was bought up immediately, as several new wineries stated operating. To buy an acre of vineyard in Napa today can cost $500,000 an acre ($1.25 million per hectare), making it some of the most expensive farmland in the country. Obviously, this is not an area that someone can buy into easily. We are now seeing a change as large corporations, such as Nestle and Fosters Beer Company and moving in and buying land. However, there are still hundreds of family owned vineyards, making handcrafted wines in small lots.
One nice feature of the area is that over 60% of people who own vineyards in Napa don’t own a winery. This practice benefits everyone. It benefits the consumer as wineries that make estate wines (grown and produced on property), can sometimes end up with a bad crop due to a poor year, for example. They can mix and mix that crop into a blend until it is sellable. But with individual growers, if they have a bad crop then no one will buy their grapes, so the wineries get only the best grapes. It benefits the consumer as we can be offered more of a range from the same producer. And of course it benefits the grower as many of these people have full time jobs in other types of work and grow grapes for extra income, so more people can be involved without a major investment.
Napa Valley is best known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, which continually stands out as some of the world’s best. The wines are crafted in a style, which enables them to be consumed at three or four years in age. This contrasts the Chateaux in France, or wines from Barolo, which reach their potential after ten years or more. The full ageing potential is not yet known, as many of the wineries are relatively new. One thing that is certain however, is that the wines will only get better as vintners become more experienced and more is learned about the region.
Napa Valley is more diverse than people think. Multiple soils types and different micro-climates lead to a huge array of wines. Winemakers take advantage of the long growing season and construct wines that taste very ripe and full-bodied. These wines are crafted in a style which enables them to be consumed at three of four years in age. Napa is also smaller than people think. It could fit inside Sonoma four times.
The “Valley” is 30 miles long and shaped like an hourglass. The defining weather feature is fog, which comes in from San Pablo bay in the south through Carneros, and to a smaller extend from the north through the Petaluma gap. These maritime influences cool down the valley in the early evening and throughout the night, so the grapes retain precious acids. Rain happens only in the winter and spring, so mold or wines with low concentration are not a concern. The climate, on the other hand has more to do with your latitude. The temperature in Napa goes up one degree for every mile and a half you drive north. It can be 70 degrees outside and if you get in your car and drive 15 minutes north the temperature is 80 degrees. It’s very noticeable. The warmest area is what I call “the pinch” just north of St Helena, where the valley is at its most narrow. The mountains to the west are the pine covered Mayacamas, which get morning sun and 50” of rain. To the east lies the Vaca range, roasted in the hot afternoon sun with only 30” of rainfall. These mountain soils are rockier with better drainage, producing wines with a tannin structure which can last 50 years. The soils are deeper and more fertile on the valley floor, turning out softer wines which can consumed almost immediately. There are 75 different soils in Napa, created by volcanos, rivers, glaciers, earthquakes and the collision between the Pacific and North American plates.
The valley floor is completely planted. Vines are uniformly trained using Vertical Shoot Positioning. Each cordon has four to six spurs or “stations” depending on soil depth. Most vines are replanted every 25 years, or when the yields start decreasing. 80% of Napa’s wine is red, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, with the other Bordeaux grapes grown to a lesser extent for blending. Other wines include Zinfandel, Petite Syrah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. There are also many 100+ year-old bush vines in the valley, growing what was popular at the time. Americans, and the new world in general can blend anything together, and it is not uncommon to find Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Viognier together in the bottle, or blends of Zinfandel and Bordeaux grapes. However, Napa Valley is best known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, which continually stands out as some of the world’s best. Cabernets are aged in new French oak.
Rutherford is the Pauillac of Napa, producing balanced Cabernet that is the most structured and will age the longest. It is a mostly flat area in the center of Napa, although dominated by three alluvial fans. The soils are loam and sand, which drain extremely quickly, forcing the roots to grow as deep as 50 feet in search of underground water. The soil becomes rockier and the temperature increases as you move north, producing more full bodied wines
Oakville is located just south of Rutherford and is also famous for Cabernet Sauvignon. This area still sees a little ocean influence, but the Yountville hills to the south block a lot of it. Cabernet here is no less opulent – fleshier but not as structured. Higher elevation bench land on either side is composed of more alluvial soils, with larger particles leading to increased drainage. These areas can produce wines that can age as long as any in the world.
The third region important in Cabernet production is Stags Leap. It occupies southwest facing hillsides along the Vaca range. Poor, rocky soils get hit by the sun during the hottest part of the day, but are cooled at the same time by funneled ocean breezes ending their journey. The resulting Cabernet is ripe and supple, fragrant and silky. One could draw parallels to Margaux.
The Carneros is located in the extreme south and is the only AVA to span both Napa and Sonoma counties. This is a cool region, mainly planted to Chardonnay and Pinot noir for both still and sparkling production. Shallow clay and loam soils keep productivity down. It is an area comprised of rolling hills studded with oak trees. There are many vineyards, but few wineries as most grapes are trucked up valley for vinification.