Napa Valley

When you think of Napa Valley, the first thing that comes to mind is "Wine Country."  In terms of grape growing and wine making in the United States, Napa has been at the forefront for many years.  It is hard to deny that.  Also, you could say that Napa is lucky; lucky because of where it is.

Let me explain by telling a story.  My grandmother used to live in a house that is located in St. Helena, towards the north end of The Valley.  At one point in my life I lived in her house for several months and made an observation; the fog burns off every day at 9:30 am.  You can make the connection between the fog burning off at about the same time every day and nature's regulation of the temperature by the fog.  You could almost set your watch to it, it is so machine like.

The farther north you go in Napa Valley, the hotter it gets during the day.  Calistoga is the farthest north, and is home to the hottest temperatures in Napa Valley.  As you go south, you pass through St. Helena, Rutherford, Oakville, Yountville and then pass through Napa on your way to Carneros at the very southern most point in The Valley.  Towards the south end of Napa, the temperature is better suited for cooler climate grapes like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Hot in the north, cooler in the south.

At some point in the middle, you have achieved the most ideal growing conditions for Cabernet Sauvignon that one can find.  The temperature is hot enough, but not too hot and the exposure to the sun is just right.  Many people believe that this specific point lies somewhere in the Tokalon vineyard.  I won't weigh in too heavily on the subject, but think that there is a great argument there.

Several other factors that should be considered in the debate over where the best Cabernet Sauvignon comes from in Napa Valley;

  • east vs. west
  • valley floor vs. mountain fruit.

The argument that the east-siders pose is that because of the way that the sunlight rises and hits their grapes first thing in the morning, their fruit starts photosynthesizing and warming up earlier in the day.  This gives them a slightly longer growing window during an important time of the day.  Once the sun begins to set over the valley on the west side - during what can be the hottest part of the day - the grapes get a reprieve from the sun when it can cause damage to the fruit or over heat the plant.

The counter argument that the west side growers make is that the sunlight hits their plants during the end of the day and that keeping the vines photosynthesizing through the end of the day results in better ripening for the fruit.  There may also be an argument that the sunlight which the east side of the valley gets in the morning could be blocked by the fog if it didn't clear until later into the day, and would give the west side vines more time to ripen.

The important thing to keep tabs on here is that there is an exposure battle going on.  The east and the west have vested interest in making sure their exposure is advantageous, but the reality is that it probably depends on the season.  I'm all for splitting hairs, so would like to do as much work as possible to determine which side of the valley produces the best wines in different seasons.  I like the red Maserati.  I like the blue Maserati.  Let's face it, these are both killer wine producing regions.

The Elevation Discussion:  The higher elevation vineyards are from the tops of the valley walls, which run north-south on the east and west side of The Valley.  They range from approximately 1,600 ft. elevation to 400-500 elevation, and there are vineyards planted everywhere between there and The Valley floor.  There are three considerations in the elevation discussion: soil content, temperature and exposure.

Soil content is fairly rich on the valley floor, which contributes to a more favorable existence for the grapevines.  With most of The Valley floor consisting of soil that has been enriched by the Napa Valley River over the past several thousand years, there are more nutrients available to the grapevines.  This is actually undesirable because the vines don't work as hard to produce fruit when they aren't worried about their survival.  In other words, grapevines produce fruit that is more potent and desirable when they are worried that they are going to have to spread their seeds in order to survive.  High elevation vineyards which have more barren soils will provide a harsher environment for the grapevines, which could be viewed as an advantage.

The ideal temperature for a grapevine throughout the day is something that doesn't seem to be set in stone as of yet.  There are several schools of thought, which we will cover briefly.  Some people think that the hotter the day and the cooler the night, the better the growing conditions.  Other people think that a more even temperature is better for the vines.  This is called the diurnal temperature swing:  The difference between the minimum temperature recorded during the night and the maximum temperature recorded during the day.  The greater the diurnal temperature swing, the more the temperature changes, the less the diurnal temperature swing the more consistent the temperature is.

Because of the elevation gain between the valley floor and the ridge line of The Valley, there is a moderate but measurable decrease in the diurnal temperature swing the higher up you go in elevation.  In short, vineyards at higher elevation have less diurnal swing (more even temperatures,) and vineyards at lower elevation have higher diurnal temperature swings (more extreme lows and highs.)

The last factor we are going to cover here is exposure.  Mountain vineyards have much less uniform growing conditions.  There are quite often trees that can shade certain parts of the vineyard during part of the day, and the orientation of the vineyard can be varied significantly.  Finding the right place to plant a mountain vineyard can be very challenging.  Done right, it can be very rewarding.

Now that you have some of the basic principals for Napa Valley's different Cabernet growing regions, let's work to explore each subregion briefly.

Napa Valley AVA Map From the NV Vintners

South to North valley floor AVA's

Coombsville

Oak Knoll

Yountville

Oakville

Rutherford

St. Helena

Calistoga

Mountainous AVA's

Howell Mountain

Spring Mountain

Stag's Leap

Atlas Peak

Diamond Mountain

Mount Veeder

Chiles Valley

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