Thursday, April 20, 2023

Napa Series: Oak Knoll to Calistoga


There is a large sign along Highway 29 announcing to all travelers that they are passing through the famous Napa Valley.  The "Welcome to the Napa Valley" greeting, near Oakville, may be the most photographed sign in California, after the famous "Hollywood," sign on the hillside outside Los Angeles. 

By the time you've passed the Napa Valley sign, you are already about mid-way up the valley, past Oak Knoll and Yountville, with Rutherford, St. Helena and Calistoga to come. Geographically, Napa Carneros is separated from the main part of the valley. 

These names (and others) are the source of noted wines with specific pedigrees, identified by wine drinkers everywhere. For some, Napa Valley means California wine. It is hallowed ground for wine fans, wine tourists and day trippers who gladly put up with crowded tasting rooms and long waits at the valley's acclaimed  restaurants. 

What they are coming for is to taste Cabernet Sauvignon, the king of Napa Valley. And some of the anxious and thirsty will be looking for Merlot, Cabernet Franc and a smattering of Petite Verdot, Malbec, Syrah and Zinfandel.  If white wine is what they are after, there's Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, with a small amount of Chenin Blanc. 

There are 16 American Viticultural Areas (AVA) in the Napa Valley, scattered along H-29 on the valley floor, the Silverado Trail and in the mountains.  The following six appellations, from south to north, on both sides of Highway 29 and along the Silverado Trail, are closely associated with Cabernet Sauvignon, the core of Napa red wine.

Oak Knoll District (AVA 2004) is the southern most part of the valley, between Yountville and the city of Napa.  Cool breezes off San Pablo Bay temper the growing conditions, ideal for Merlot, Chardonnay and Zinfandel.  The somewhat cumbersome name for this area is a compromise settlement of a complaint filed with the federal government by Oak Knoll Winery in Oregon. Noted wineries: Voss Vineyards, Hagafen Cellars, Trefethen Vineyards, Black Stallion Winery, Boyd Family Vineyard.

Yountville (AVA 1999) is a name that resonates with foodies hoping to score a reservation at the famous French Laundry, arguably America's best restaurant. Yountville is also the location of Dominus, owned by the proprietor of Ch. Petrus, one of Bordeaux's most celebrated wines, as well as the home of Domaine Chandon, the U.S. outpost of Champagne's Moet & Chandon.  Wineries: Kapcsandy Family Vineyard, Hoopes Family Vineyard, Grgich Hills Estate, Ad Vivum, Monticello Vineyards, Rocca Family Vineyards.

Oakville (AVA 1993) is known for famous vineyards like ToKalon and noted "cult" wines like Harlan and Screaming Eagle. For those who remember back to the original cult cabernets, there's Opus One. A variable wind off the bay keeps Oakville cool, adding a delicate dimension to the wines.  Wineries: Robert Mondavi, Far Niente, Groth, Rudd, Peter Michael, Dalla Valle.

Rutherford (AVA 1993) is on land formerly known as the Rancho Caymus land grant.  The collection of famous Rutherford vineyards lends an authenticity to Napa Valley.  To name just a few, there's Beaulieu 1 and 2, Bella Oaks and Inglenook.  Slightly warmer than Oakville, Rutherford red wines have an attractive ripeness balanced with crisp acidity. More Rutherford wineries: Staglin, Honig, Sequoia Grove, Caymus, Inglenook, Hall Wines.

St. Helena (AVA 1995) is one of the valley's more interesting appellations, since it would seem that people associate the name more with the town than the wines. Yet the areas soil diversity and moderate weather contribute to proper grape ripening in mountain bench and valley floor vineyards.  Wineries: Beringer, Rombauer, Crocker & Starr, Corison. Hall Wines, Spottswoode.

Calistoga (AVA 2009), in the summer, is hotter than just about any place in the Napa Valley.  Fortunately, it cools off at night, thanks to breezes wafting in from Knights Valley.  This diurnal shift makes Calistoga a cool place for Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel.  Noted wineries include Chateau Montelena, Sterling Vineyards, Araujo Estate, Storybook Mountain Vineyards, Ballentine Vineyards. Tom Eddy Wines.

An aside.  One of the most unusual, and for a time controversial, wineries in California, is Sterling Vineyards. Perched atop a hill off Dunaweal Lane, between St. Helena and Calistoga, the Sterling winery reminds one of an orthodox monastery on a Greek isle.  The unusual design and location of the winery came from Peter Newton and Michael Stone, owners of the Sterling Paper Company. A visit to the winery required a ride on a cable car, like those at a ski resort. The fee, to ride the tram, which is partially returned with a wine purchase, was perhaps the first tasting fee by any winery in California. 

Next blog: Benchmark Roses

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