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California Dreaming. Part Two

Text and Photographs © 2013 Tom Cannavan

This feature on the winemakers and wines of northern California is presented in three parts:

Part 1 - setting the scene and Sonoma profiled
Part 2 - Napa vineyards, wines and producers
Part 3 - Mendocino vineyards, wines and producers


The vineyards of Cuvaison, Napa. Click photograph for larger version.

The Napa Valley

Napa has become one of the world's great travel destinations. From hot-air balloon flights drifting majestically over the vineyards, to 3* Michelin dining in The French Laundry, Napa has become a playground for the well-heeled and gastronomic tourist. Summer and weekend prices in the area's upmarket hotels, spas and B&Bs soar to eye-watering levels.

That is one side of Napa for sure, and it is reflected to an extent is some of the region's wine offerings. Wine columnist Eric Asimov summed it up rather pithily in 2006 when he wrote: "Billionaires buy pieces of Napa Valley, charge $150 a bottle for the first vintage and want you to understand, by the way, that they do it all for charity." Asimov hit the nail on the head describing a Napa Valley that is alive and well today. But he also went on to talk about the other, "more modest," Napa that exists in parallel. This is the Napa where thoughtful and patient farmers and winemakers are happy to operate somewhat under the radar. They are working on longer term plans to make 'quieter' wines that are the highest quality reflection of their vineyards. Both Napas exist and, depending on your viewpoint, both are there to be enjoyed.

map The Napa Valley is easy to visit. The vast majority of its wineries line Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, the parallel roads that run along the valley floor. But do not think that Napa is a single, homogenous place in which to make wine: those American Viticultural Area (AVAs) with names like Howell Mountain and Mount Vedeer are not so named by chance: vineyards here can sit way above the fog line, straddling 2,000 feet of elevation. Rainfall is considerably higher too, giving distinctly different climatic conditions to those on the valley floor.

And soils can differ greatly too. To the north of the valley, and high on the mountains, soils are mostly of volcanic origin, with pockets of deep red clay. Lower down and in the south, soils are sedimentary with deep layers of gravel and sand - this was once the ocean, part of San Pablo Bay.

Though ripening grapes is rarely a problem anywhere in the sun-blessed Golden State, there are geological, topographical and climatic differences. In fact, for its surface area, the Napa Valley has one of the most diverse geologies on the planet.

Given this diversity, why is it that Napa has a reputation amongst some wine aficianados for making only one style of wine: big, high-alcohol, sweet-fruited and solid reds that, basically, all taste the same? Whilst there is undoubtedly a grain of truth in this (some blame it on the chase for high Parker scores), it also tars this changing, developing region with too broad and too coarse a brush. Napa does do nuance and does do balance, and I got the impression from this brief visit that more and more winemakers are reconsidering what makes a wine 'great'.

Mountain fruit vs valley fruit

Around the world consumers are beginning to appreciate freshness and subtle complexity over 'gobs of fruit' and 'hedonism'. And Napa does have wines with these qualities. There has long been a discussion in Napa over mountain fruit and valley fruit: up on the mountains, temperatures are generally lower but sunshine is plentiful, and the soils are poor. The result is grapes that can hang a little longer, producing smaller berries with thicker skins and more acidity, often with slightly lower alcohol too. The lush valley floor has the propensity to grow grapes that make softer, bigger and more forward wines.

But of course it is not so simple as that. The quality of the farming and the skills of the winemaker make a huge difference, and careful management of the vineyards can allow real elegance in the valley, whilst elevation alone does not guarantee great wine from the mountains. Site - terroir if you like - is vitally important, but then so too is the masterplan of the experienced winemaker. If the mindset is right, the tools - both viticultural and oenological - are there to fashion multi-facteted wines, irrespective of altitude.

Napa producers and wines

Cade Estate

Perched on the top of Howell Mountain, Cade is a start-up producing some beautiful wines under winemaker Danielle Cyrot.

5 wines tasted

Chimney Rock

Elizabeth Vianna is crafting some beautifully balanced and elegant Stag's Leap wines with a nod to classic Bordeaux style.

5 wines tasted

Schramsberg Vineyards

Kings of sparkling wine, the beautiful Schramsberg estate boasts miles of caves carved deep beneath Diamond Mountain.

5 wines tasted

Swanson Vineyards

The experienced Chris Phelps uses his Bordeaux-influenced background to great effect making wines at Napa's Merlot specialist.

5 wines tasted

Rocca Vineyards

Rocca Family Vineyards farms two beautiful estate vineyards, making a range of organic wines with minimal winemaker input.

6 wines tasted


Maestros of Pinot and Chardonnay in Carneros, I meet up in Saintsbury's idyllic tasting garden with co-founder David Graves.

6 wines tasted


Also specialising in Pinot and Chardonnay, Cuvaison has seen considerable investment in facilities and vineyards under experienced winemaker Steve Rogstadt.

6 wines tasted

Part 1 -
setting the scene and Sonoma profiled
Part 2 - Napa vineyards, wines and producers
Part 3 - Mendocino vineyards, wines and producers