I have seen a tremendous evolution in Napa Valley since I began doing business there 18 years ago. In addition to the advantages of a strong economy and limited availability, Napa has done an impressive job marketing itself, including the creation of unique sub-appellations (“SA”) that have helped define terroir.
Consumer fascination with high-end wines from Napa is at its zenith, with Cabernet Sauvignon from the most prestigious SA commanding astronomical prices. And keep in mind that Napa Valley represents only 4% of California grape production.
Napa now has 16 sub-appellations that were each created to lend a sense of place to unique regions. This system has also given panache to the regions and created pricing momentum in the most highly regarded ones. There is certainly a wide range of quality within each appellation, but the designation has created more reliability as to the unique taste profiles inherent to each region.
Perhaps the most prestigious SA is Oakville (created in 1993), with famed wineries like Beckstoffer To Kalon, Harlan, Bond, Lakoya and Screaming Eagle. Some of these wines from the better vintages command several thousand dollars a bottle. Cab is king in this sub-app, with wines getting lots of sun, so they have intensity and are nicely structured.
The other prominent valley floor SAs include Rutherford, Stag’s Leap and St. Helena. Rutherford became a SA in 1993 and it has gravel, loam and sand soils, and the famed “Rutherford dust” that evokes a unique earthiness. Renowned wineries include Quintessa, Scarecrow, Staglin, and Caymus. The Cabs from Foley-Johnson and St. Supery provide value opportunities and a strong taste profile.
The Stag’s Leap district dates back to 1989 and has volcanic soil hillsides and river sediments in the lower elevations. Wineries include Shafer, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Stag’s Leap Winery.
St. Helena represents the best value of these four prominent valley floor SAs and is home to a lot of wineries. Some of the best relative value wines include Salvestrin, Long Meadow Ranch, DR Stephens, Burgess Winery and Clif Family.
New and Notable
The up-and-coming Calistoga SA in northern Napa borders Sonoma Valley and includes important players like Araujo, Larkmead and Schramsberg.
Coombsville is the newest SA and has lots of potential. It’s located east of the City of Napa and is home to many small family producers. Many producers are not even using this sub-appellation on the bottle, because it doesn’t necessarily resonate with consumers yet.
Oak Knoll is a diverse SA with less common themes among producers as it has a mix of warm and cool spots. Prominent wineries include Blackbird Vineyard, Darioush and Lewis Cellars.
Yountville is mainly known as a dining mecca with great restaurants like the French Laundry. The wines can be less predictable, but greatness is achievable as Christian Moueix (from Chateau Petrus fame) makes coveted wine at Dominus. I have also sampled the Kapscandy wines, which are outstanding.
A lesser-known SA with a mix of reliability is the Chiles Valley. I have visited with Brown Estate and it’s worth the trip, as they make tremendous smallbatch Zinfandels.
There is also the tiny Wild Horse Valley, a cool weather SA that borders Solano County. This sub-appellation will rarely appear on a wine label.
The Carneros SA, dating back to 1983, is most unique for Napa, as it has cooler weather with lots of fog and is home to outstanding Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It is also the only SA that has a Napa and a Sonoma side. Most producers on either side of this SA stress the name Carneros or Los Carneros on the bottle.
The five SAs with mountain fruit are all well regarded and include Spring Mountain, Howell Mountain, Mt. Vedeer, Diamond Mountain and Atlas Peak.
Spring Mountain became a sub-appellation in 1993 and is named after the small springs. The wines are typically from high elevations and have big tannins and are structured. There are not a lot of producers in Spring Mountain. Pride Mountain, Barnett, Paloma and Cain are well regarded.
Howell Mountain wines can take a long time to reach maturity, but are often worth the wait and can be very special. It became a SA in 1983 and has a high elevation above the fog line. Special producers include Robert Foley, Cade, Robert Craig and Dunn.
The Mt. Veeder SA, tiny and remote, dates back to 1993. It is marked for its long growing season and includes wineries like Mayacamas, Hess Collection and Rudd.
The wines from Diamond Mountain are typically very special and age-worthy. It was named in 2001 and has steep, rocky vineyards as part of the Mayacamas range, with unique Obsidian soil.
Atlas Peak is actually not far from downtown Napa as you pass the famed Silverado Country Club. This region was founded in 1992, but interestingly many wineries don’t include its designation on the bottle because it doesn’t have as much appeal as it should.
I certainly enjoy comparing wines from each of the major SAs, and getting to know many different producers and their winemakers. In the end, the quality has to be in the bottle and the reliability of producers is still the most crucial factor – more important than the vintage or the SA. Napa is a special spot on the planet Earth and its reputation grows with each passing year. And it’s not so bad to have a special Saturday night meal with wine that says Napa Valley on the label.
As the former chairman of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, Jonathan Newman was once the nation’s largest wine buyer. Follow him on Twitter at @NewmanWine and visit his website: www.newmanwine.com.