Coombsville Comes of Age
John Caldwell’s voice echoes in the caves below his vineyard: “Coombsville is in play!”
He’s marveling at how this once-sleepy part of Napa Valley has become not only its newest American Viticultural Area (AVA), approved in 2011, but also a hotbed of critical attention.
That’s something Caldwell never imagined in 1974, when he bought his property. Coombsville was, according to him, “the low-rent area of Napa.”
“It was just bare land, pasture, cattle,” says Tom Farella. In 1977, his father, Frank, bought his spread, which sits just north of Caldwell’s.
The boutique winery movement was exploding along Highway 29 in the upvalley towns of Oakville and Rutherford. Coombsville, however, was considered too cool for red grape growing—and culturally uncool, too, for its livestock ranching and subsistence farming.
It was pioneers like Caldwell the Farellas, Tulocay Winery (founded in 1975) and the Hayne family that led to the movement for a Coombsville AVA.
Spearheading the push, Tom Farella wrote in his AVA petition that Coombsville’s “unique weather”—warmer than Carneros to the south, but cooler than Oak Knoll and other districts to the north—makes it distinct.
Also distinct is its singular geologic feature: the half moon-shaped caldera that defines the area, which lies in the lee of the Vaca Mountains.
Named after Nathan Coombs, who founded Napa city in 1848, Coombsville has the most consistent soils, climate and terroir of Napa’s 16 appellations.
What marks this corner of Napa Valley is its proximity to chilly the San Pablo Bay. That mitigates the temperature during the growing season.
It never gets as hot as upvalley, or as cold as fall’s frosty mornings along Highway 29 and in the mountains, which can threaten the development of late-ripening grapes like Cabernet.
As a result, Coombsville has the long hang-time fruit normally associated with the Central Coast.
The region is neither mountainous nor flat. Instead, it resembles Pritchard Hill: rolling benchlands.
Mount George is the focal point. It’s Coombsville’s highest elevation, rising to 1,877 feet above sea level. Soils are largely byproducts of the volcanism that caused the caldera. Well drained, they allow only modest yields.
The AVA covers just over 11,000 acres (about the same as Atlas Peak, just to the north). Of those, 1,360 acres are planted, mainly to Cabernet Sauvignon, other Bordeaux varieties and Syrah, as well as Chardonnay.
The Napa River, and the city of Napa, border Coombsville to the west. Napa’s Oxbow Market, less than 10 minutes by car, is a favorite lunch spot for vintners.
Upvalley winemakers have long realized the quality of Coombsville fruit. Phelps Insignia, Viader, Merus, Paul Hobbs, Pahlmeyer, Dunn, Quintessa and others have utilized its grapes.
Veterans like Farella and Caldwell are joined by younger standouts like Massimo Di Costanzo, who are proud to put the Coombsville name on their wines.