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.
Caldwell is a legend in Coombsville, both for his history and unique style. He’d owned a string of shoe stores before buying 54 acres of rolling pasture land in the southern Vacas in 1974.
“It was cheap,” he says with a grin—only $1,000/acre.
He had intended to subdivide it and sell, but zoning revisions foiled that plan.
“So I started planting [grapes],” he says.
The county’s agricultural commissioner advised him to plant Chardonnay. “But I did two years of heat summations,” Caldwell says, “and found out we were warmer than Bordeaux. So, from 1983 on, we planted reds.”
Jayson Pahlmeyer made the Caldwell name famous.
“He put me on the label,” Caldwell says. “It gave Jayson a legitimate vineyard [designation], and it legitimized my brand.”
Caldwell’s first commercial release was in 1998. Today, the vineyard has 65 acres planted to eight red varieties. About 40 percent of the fruit goes into Caldwell wines, while the rest is sold, mainly to smaller vintners.
What makes his fruit special, he believes, is hang time.
“We normally don’t finish [picking] until early November,” Caldwell says. “But we maintain structure and acidity because it’s so cool.”
95 Caldwell 2010 Gold Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley). Big, rich, vital and dramatic are only some of the words that describe this 100% Cabernet, grown on the low-yielding estate vineyard in Coombsville. It’s lush in black currants yet bracing in tannins, with a minerality that makes it feel firm and grounded. The barrels are 100% new French oak, but the wine never tastes oaky. Instead, the wood adds a savory level of char and vanilla. This is clearly a wine to cellar for a long time. Start enjoying it in 2018, and it’s likely to continue to develop bottle complexity throughout the 2020s. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14.4% Price: $165
92 Caldwell 2011 Silver (Napa Valley). Caldwell managed to wrest plenty of blackberry and cherry fruit from this Cabernet Sauvignon-based blend, even though the vintage was a tough one. The wine, which was aged in 80% new French oak, is elaborately opulent, but the tannins are strong, giving the mouthfeel a locked-down astringency. No reason it shouldn’t age well. Your window of drinking begins in 2019. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14.2% Price: $120
92 Caldwell 2011 Right Bank (Napa Valley). Amazingly lush and delicious in blackberry and cherry pie, mocha and sweet new oak flavors, this blend is so tannic that it’s nearly undrinkable at this time. You definitely want to give it at least eight years in the bottle. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14.2% Price: $90
Montes’s father planned for him to go to college in Mexico, but as a 17-year-old, a summer trip to Napa Valley in 1966 convinced the son to seek a future in California.
“I was working with my father in a St. Helena vineyard,” Montes says. “I saw the grapes, how they ripened, how we harvested them, and I thought, ‘I can do something here.’
“So, I told my father, ‘I want to stay.’ He said, ‘Really? You want to do this hard work, with a shovel, and outside, with this high temperature?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’”
Soon, Montes began a 30-year relationship with vintner Joseph Phelps, where he was responsible for acquiring grapes for the winery’s Insignia bottling.
“That’s when I met John Caldwell,” Montes says. “So I knew the climate and soil of Coombsville.”
He bought his property in 2001, in part because the slope reminded him of Château Pétrus. Montes began planting Cabernet Sauvignon in 2002, and the first crop off Marita’s Vineyard (named after his daughter, Mara) was in 2004.
The 2.6-acre vineyard’s grapes are made into wine with the help of consulting winemaker Kurt Niznik of Continuum. Montes and his brother, Manuel, do the farming, while Mara, her sister, Sophia, and her mom, Sara, pitch in on the business side.
97 Marita’s Vineyard 2007 Select Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley). This extraordinary wine is among Napa’s most distinguished Cabernets. The Coombsville location accounts for its superb structure of acids and tannins, as well as the long hang-time flavors that are perfectly ripe in black currants. Sweet barrel notes of toast come from new oak. At over six years of age, the wine is starting to mellow, but is only hinting at the drama to come. Splendid and beautiful, it will glide through the decades. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14% Price: $150
93 Marita’s Vineyard 2007 SOMA Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley). The 2005 and 2006 bottlings of this Cabernet were awesome. So is this 2007. Aged over six years, it’s just beginning its long journey. It’s still tannic, but they’re ripe, sweet tannins, framing gorgeous, deeply satisfying blueberry, black currant, cassis, mocha and cedar flavors. It drinks well now, and will develop further in the bottle over the next eight years.
abv: 14% Price: $86
Only 33, Di Costanzo has already had a legendary career, including two vintages as Screaming Eagle’s winemaker.
A Bay Area native, he spent summers with his grandparents in Italy, where he developed “a deep passion for food, wine and living,” he says.
A UC-Davis grad, Di Costanzo’s day job is winemaker at Farella Vineyard. He also has his own brand, Di Costanzo, which produces only one wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon. The grapes come from the Farella Vineyard, which averages about 500 feet in elevation.
“Coombsville’s best Cab vineyards are on higher slopes,” Di Costanzo says. “The wines are more acidic than upvalley, because it’s cooler here. So you have nice Napa richness, but more balance and finesse, with greater potential for aging.”
Di Costanzo lives in St. Helena and loves to cook. Among his favorite foods with his Cabernet is fresh tagliatelle with chanterelles and thyme.
92 Di Costanzo 2010 Farella Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Coombsville). A great success for the cool vintage, and an outstanding wine in any year. It’s notable for the firm structure of acidity and tannins that frames lush, ripe blackberry, cherry, currant and oak flavors. It will have no trouble aging over the next 10 years. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14.3% Price: $85
Reichow calls her 1995 move to Coombsville with her husband, Rick, and two kids, “an Alice in Wonderland story.”
Reichow had been an investment banker, and thought she was retiring to a comfy life in an idyllic rural setting.
“I had no idea I was entering a second career,” she says.
She’d been a fan of the wines of the Northern Rhône. What began with some plantings of Syrah morphed into Black Cat Vineyard, which produces two wines, an estate Syrah and a cuvée of Syrah and purchased Cabernet.
Her soils, Reichow says, are volcanic and granitic, “with lots of ash. It looks like a blown-out volcano.”
As for the climate, “because of our proximity to San Pablo Bay, it’s cool, but we’re protected from the fierceness of the winds due to this ridge,” she says, one of the final outcroppings of the southern Vaca Range.
Reichow is the winemaker and produces her products at Farella, part of what she calls, “our incestuous Coombsville.” She is also the founder of the Coombsville Vintners and Growers.
92 Black Cat 2010 Family Cuvée (Napa Valley). This is a 50-50 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah from Coombsville. It’s tempting to call it a feminine wine, because even though it’s dense in tannins, they’re very finely woven, and the wine has a gentle grace. The flavors of blackberries are pure, accompanied by a sweet, new-oak smokiness. Good as it is now, it will develop bottle complexity after 2016. Cellar Selection.
abv: 13.8% Price: $48
92 Black Cat 2010 Syrah (Napa Valley). This is a Syrah for Cabernet lovers. It has a fine, complex structure of tannins and acids, with flashy black currant and oak flavors. But Syrah shows up in the form of grilled meat bone, sprinkled with black pepper. Made of 100% Syrah from the winery’s Coombsville vineyard, it will develop bottle complexity over the next six years.
abv: 14.5% Price: $48
Farella’s dad, Frank, was one of Robert Mondavi’s lawyers.
“By 1977, he finally had the financial wherewithal to buy some land in Napa Valley,” says Farella. Coombsville, where land “was embarrassingly cheap,” was the choice.
When Frank planted grapes, in 1979, “Chardonnay was king,” Farella says. So Chardonnay dominated in the vineyard.
As the popularity of Cabernet Sauvignon grew, aided by better viticultural techniques for ripening in cool climates like Coombsville, its acreage increased. Farella’s 26 acres now are planted to Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc.
Tom’s decision to enter the business stemmed from a trip the family made to Burgundy, when he was 12.
“We were at Faiveley,” he says. “Joseph [Faiveley] brought out a ’59 Musigny, my birth year. I thought, ‘How cool is that?’ I was definitely primed to take things to the next level.”
After graduating from UC-Davis, Farella launched his brand in 1985.
The major force behind the AVA effort, Farella explains his motive: “I wanted to see Coombsville on the map. I got tired of explaining to people that we were in the southeast corner of Napa.”
Farella feels that day has come, with the recent burst of attention following the AVA declaration.
“Now, when I tell people we’re in Coombsville, they say, ‘Oh, yeah,’ ” he says. “Getting that notoriety is the icing on the cake.”
93 Farella 2010 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (Coombsville). Coombsville pioneer Farella has produced an opulent wine that will reward cellaring. Tasted at three years, it’s dry and rich in oak, with ripe, jammy blackberry, cherry and ripe currant flavors. The acid-tannin structure is especially fine, lending the wine elegance. Begin drinking it around 2018. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14.8% Price: $65
92 Porter Family 2010 Syrah (Napa Valley). A superb Syrah, and a great followup to the 2009. There are incredibly ripe blackberry jam, currant, chocolate and toast flavors, with notes of grilled bacon and black pepper. The tannins are so rich and fine, you can drink this wine now.
abv: 14.3% Price: $49
92 Rocca 2010 Collinetta Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Coombsville). Coming on the heels of the extraordinary 2009 vintage, this is a worthy follow-up. It’s bone-dry, tannic and enormously complex, offering waves of blackberry, cola, cassis liqueur, new oak and spice flavors. It’s so good now that you may not want to cellar it, but try. It will begin to approach its peak after 2017. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14.9% Price: $85
91 Silverado 2010 Mt. George Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley). If ever there was a guaranteed cellar candidate out of Napa Valley, this Cab is it. It’s enormously rich and extracted in blackberries, currants, plums and mocha, but for all the fruity sweetness, it finishes firmly dry and tannic. Give it at least four more years in a good cellar. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14.4% Price: $56
90 Faust 2009 The Pact (Napa Valley). This 100% Cabernet is tannic, acidic, dry and fruity. It shows a classic cool-climate Napa structure, with blackberry, currant and barrel flavors that are simply not ready to drink now. A project of the well-known Napa vintner, Agustin Huneeus, it wants at least six years in the cellar, and possibly far longer. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14.1% Price: $75
90 Le Chanceux 2007 Belle Filles Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley). Give this 100% Cabernet some more time in the cellar. Even at six-plus years, its tannins are hard, although the primary blackberry fruit flavors are beginning to dry out and turn mushroomy. It should approach its peak around 2015. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14.2% Price: $65
90 Tournesol 2007 Proprietor’s Blend (Napa Valley). At more than six years, this Cabernet Sauvignon-based blend remains tannic and rich in black cherries and mocha. It’s in suspended animation, but hints of softness and emerging earthiness suggest that it’s in a transition from primary fruits to secondary bottle bouquet. Keep it for another 3–4 years. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14.4% Price: $125
- 2John Caldwell, Caldwell Vineyard
- 3Bulmaro Montes, Marita
- 4Massimo Di Costanzo, Di Costanzo Wines
- 5Tracey Reichow, Black Cat Vineyard
- 6Tom Farella, Farella
- 76 More Great Coombsville Reds