From Carneros to Oakville

Napa County encompasses 485,120 acres with 45,000 acres planted in vineyards. This accounts for about 4% of wine production in California. There are over 300 wineries ranging from the small family operation without a tasting room to the giant destination wineries with first class art galleries, full time chefs, and prestigious international distribution. Some wineries have history and facilities, going back to the late 1800’s, while others are new operations with state of the art equipment making small amounts of highly sought after wines.

Five million visitors descend upon the region annually with most coming through during the summer or during the harvest in the fall. First class hotels, resorts, restaurants and spas contribute to the areas quality reputation.

Napa Valley is itself an appellation and has 13 unique sub appellations (AVA’s) within its boundaries. Each AVA has a distinctive microclimate, soil, terrain, and elevation that imprint identifiable characteristics into the fruit. Matching the right grape variety, root stock, trellis system, vine spacing, irrigation, nutrient amendments, cover crops and wine making style to the vineyard location contributes to the unique “terroir” of the vineyard.

Here is a brief review of eight American Viticultural Appellations (AVA) found in the Napa Valley starting from the south heading north toward the bustling town of St Helena.

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Los Carneros spans Napa and Sonoma counties is the coolest grape growing region in the area with just over 1000 acres planted. This flat rural land at the base of the valley has no small towns, restaurants or shops. There are over a dozen wineries here, including a number making sparkling wines, and most have tasting facilities but may require an appointment. The prevailing marine winds from San Pablo Bay keep the summertime high temperatures under 80 degrees. Cool and wind-whipped, the AVA has thin soils and only 18 to 23 inches of rain annually. The principle white grape is Chardonnay which often displays crisp, mineral flavors of pear-apple, lemon, pineapple and spice. The dominate red wine grape Pinot Noir, is known for its tight structure, its earthy, ripe cherry-cinnamon and spicy berry flavors.

Mt. Veeder is a small, 25-square-mile appellation located on the western slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains in the southern part of the Valley. Most of the 1000 acres of vineyards are above the fog line allowing for warmer nights and cooler days. Some of the most remote wineries and steepest vineyards are found here on this rugged, volcanic mountain producing intense chewy red wines with firm tannic structure, distinctive earth and berry aromas and a bit of spice. The white wines have a minerally character and even some notes of citrus and apples. Less than a dozen wineries hide out in this remote area.

Oak Knoll District is just north of Carneros is the slightly warmer area of Oak Knoll with 3,500 acres under vine. Located at the southern end of the Napa Valley it has a relatively low elevation ranging from sea level to about 800 feet. Soils in the northeast are volcanically derived with a gravelly consistency. In the south, soils transition from silty clay to loam. The cool air from San Pablo Bay creates conditions where temperatures rarely reach over 90 degrees. Rainfall is moderate averaging 36 inches annually. The area has a dozen wineries with tasting rooms, with many more purchasing fruit from the region. Wines from Oak Knoll are known for an elegant restrained style with fruit flavors of cassis, tobacco and spice. Merlot Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are the principle varieties as well as Riesling. 

Destination Winery in Yountville

Yountville has a moderate climate with the marine influence keeping temperatures generally under 90 degrees in the summer. Temperatures will drop 30 to 40 degrees in the evenings. Soils are sedimentary and moderately fertile. Rainfall averages 32 inches. The Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grown here are known for their rich supple flavors and firm tannins. The small town has shopping, and a number of hotels, inns, and places to eat.

Stags Leap District was the first viticultural area in the United States to be approved based on the distinctiveness of its river sediments and volcanic mountain soils. Located five miles north of the town of Napa along the Silverado Trail the region is a mile wide and two miles long. Most of the region is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese and Merlot. The wines are powerful and distinguished by their lush, velvety textures, cherry and berry flavors and soft tannins. The district is moderately warm reaching 100 degrees in mid-summer. Rainfall is 30 inches annually and elevations range from 66 to 400 feet. The district is home to 16 wineries.

Atlas Peak faces west from the eastern side of the valley near the city of Napa, and has the benefit of direct afternoon sunlight. The 11000 acre area is 10 to 15 degrees cooler than the Valley floor in the summer with temperatures rarely above 90 degrees. Elevations run from 1100 to 1800 feet with rainfall averaging 35 inches annually. The red basaltic soils are porous requiring irrigation on most of the regions 1500 acres of vines. Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese and Chardonnay are planed here producing wines with good acidity and bright fruity flavors for the reds and flora, aromatic and pear flavors for the whites. A dozen wineries can be found here with most requiring an appointment for tasting.

Wild Horse Valley is a mere 3,300 acres in size with only one winery and three vineyards that total about 110 acres. Straddling Napa and Solano counties this area is warmer and well to the east of Napa Valley proper. Its southerly location at elevations of 400 to 1500 feet exposes it to cool westerly winds from the ocean and bay. 35 inches of rain fall annually on its shallow volcanic soils. Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese are the principle red grapes with characteristics of cherries and berries. The Chardonnay has distinctive aromatic flavors of pears and floral notes with good acidity.

 Tasting Room at Groth Vineyards

Oakville lies in the flat open spaces of Napa Valley with over 5000 acres of vineyards carpeting the valley floor. The deep gravelly and sandy clay loam soils are a perfect match for Bordeaux varietals. Thirty-six wineries reside here with many being the most historic and prestigious. Cabernet and Merlot are grown and have a rich texture, firm tannins, and ripe currant, herb and mint flavors. The temperatures can reach the mid-90’s in the summer then cooling from the morning and evening fog.