Why Coombsville is Napa Valley’s Rising Star

Hidden in plain sight, since 2011 Coombsville has been increasing in prominence as a premier producer of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Zinfandel.
The mist over Coombesville's Covert Estate / Photo by Jimmy Hayes

Most people have no idea where Coombsville is located, even though it’s hidden in plain sight just a stone’s throw from the city of Napa, California.

An appellation since 2011, it’s quietly become the darling of small, up-and-coming producers, as well as buyers that desire something new from Napa. Coombsville has a distinct neighborhood feel populated by small, family-owned wineries with adventurous spirits. It’s more farmland than grape land. Among its rolling hills, time seems to slow down.

“Coombsville, for me, has a lot of soul, some grit, a rich history and there are quite a few people toiling away here out of the spotlight of the main part of the valley,” says winemaker Andy Erickson. “Many people come to visit Napa Valley and don’t even know that this little corner is here.”

“There is starting to be some attention paid, so we’ll see what that means for the future. I think it will only make people work harder and do better in Coombsville.”

Erickson and his viticulturist wife, Annie Favia, have put down stakes here to raise their family and make wine from the old Carbone Ranch. It’s the former home of three Italian-immigrant brothers who planted grapes more than a century ago (reportedly Zinfandel, Mataro and Burger), along with other fruits and vegetables in the hills of what is now Coombsville. Arriving in the 1870s, they’re considered to be among the earliest Italians to settle in the Napa Valley.

“There is starting to be some attention paid, so we’ll see what that means for the future. I think it will only make people work harder and do better in Coombsville.”

Antonio Carbone’s stone cellar and upstairs residence, built in 1886, still stands. It’s a relic of Antonio Carbone Winery and Italian Gardens, once a 125-acre property.

It’s now home to Erickson and his family, though with a much smaller, 6½-acre footprint. They grow enough vegetables to supply local restaurants, and they manage fistfuls of olive, fruit and walnut trees. Favia soon plans to launch an herbal tea company, too.

The original Antonio Carbone Wine Cellar
The original Antonio Carbone Wine Cellar

From a tiny crushpad in the back of the stone cellar, they make Favia Wines. The grapes are sourced from throughout Coombsville and the wider Napa Valley and Sierra Foothills. Their barrels rest below their home.

The Champions of Underdog Grapes in Napa Valley

East of the city of Napa, Coombsville is ringed by a west-facing, horseshoe-shaped caldera that rises nearly 2,000 feet toward the Vaca Range, the result of an ancient collapsed volcano. Grapevines love these rocky, volcanic soils that drain easily into compressed ash, which stores moisture.

Coombsville’s climate, the coolest in the Napa Valley after Carneros, is as important as its geology and soils. Influenced by nearby San Pablo Bay and the greater San Francisco Bay Area, early morning fog settles easily and burns off later in the day.

Mellow, cooling winds often hit in the early afternoon. During prime growing season, temperatures are often 10°F lower than much of the rest of Napa Valley. The appellation also tends to get fewer heat spikes. These conditions help grapes to retain acidity and ward off dehydration.

Only about 1,400 acres are planted to grapes, less than 13% of Coombsville’s total acreage. The area is more about rural homesteads than built-in hospitality and showy palaces.

Coombsville Pioneers

Current-day grape growing can be traced back to Haynes Vineyard, planted in 1966 to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Lawyer Frank Farella soon followed in 1979, when he planted 26 acres. His plantings included the area’s calling card, Cabernet Sauvignon, some of which he sells to Realm, Far Niente, Lail and Di Costanzo.

Farella’s son, Tom, authored the petition for the Coombsville AVA. Many of the blocks at Farella are planted on a steep, west-facing slope to capture late-afternoon sun.

Fresh black currant and a mineral-driven character of wet stone mark the appellation’s Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines tend to not feel heavy on the palate, but are structured and fresh. Floral aromas of rose petal and lavender, along with white pepper, abound.

Fellow pioneer John Caldwell founded Caldwell Vineyard on the other end of the caldera in 1982.

A successful shoe salesman who drove a Cadillac Seville back in the day, Caldwell was often adorned in open-collar shirts and gold chains. He turned pasture thought too cold for Cabernet Sauvignon into a sought-after grape source for emerging wine stars like Randy Dunn, Helen Turley (who was working at Pahlmeyer at the time), Jayson Pahlmeyer and Joseph Phelps (for early vintages of Insignia). He even smuggled in grape clones from France for good measure.

But despite that in 1995, Caldwell did become the first American importer of French clones licensed by France’s ENTAV regulatory agency. He then started a certified California nursery to legally sell cuttings.

In the late 1990s, Caldwell began to make his own wine, focused around traditional Bordeaux varieties and blends, developing a mounting interest in Tannat. Caldwell also uses 100% French oak sourced from Forêt Domaniale de Bercé to make his barrels. Every two years, he buys 200 more trees and sends the wood to Cognac where the wood is turned into vessels by the Ramiro Herrera, the winery’s master cooper.

The vineyard’s older plantings of Cabernet Franc are of particular intrigue. Caldwell believes they’re finally coming into their own after 30 years. Cabernet Franc also interests Erickson as he founded Favia to demonstrate the greatness of Napa Valley Cabernet Franc.

Julien Fayard of Covert Estate with his Syrah / Photo courtesy Jimmy Hayes
Julien Fayard of Covert Estate with his Syrah / Photo courtesy Jimmy Hayes

Current Developments

Also coaxing structure from Coombsville grapes is Julien Fayard of Covert Estate, one of the appellation’s few wineries open to visitors by appointment. Fayard and his co-owner/wife, Elan, raise their three children here and run a rosé-focused brand called Azur, inspired by Julien’s native Provence. He trained at Lafite Rothschild and Smith Haut Lafitte in Bordeaux, and then came to California to work with Philippe Melka and surf.

Fayard earned an MBA with a focus in entrepreneurship and marketing. He offers these skills to winery clients like Nicholson Jones, Empreinte, Scalon Cellars and Purlieu, many of which are built around Coombsville fruit.

Scalon is a partnership between Jesus Espinoza—a former laborer who now owns his own vineyards and manages others for Caldwell—and Cruz Calderon, who built Caldwell’s wine caves.

Wines to Try

Ancien 2015 Musque Chardonnay. From the Haynes Vineyard, this is a beautifully floral wine with lasting, well-mannered acidity. The vineyard is full of volcanic ash, with rocky and alluvial soils. The Haynes family originally purchased the property in 1885 from Nathan Coombs for “3,135 Dollars gold coin.”

Di Costanzo 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon. A small-production wine from winemaker Massimo Di Costanzo, this 100% varietal wine is from the Farella Vineyard, first planted in 1979 to Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Sloped gently, the base of the site is awash in volcanic ash and gravelly loam and has been farmed sustainably since the beginning.

Mike and Molly Hendry 2015 R.W. Moore Vineyard Zinfandel. From a historic site planted in 1905, this wine has great length and breadth, with ample acidity to keep it from being overdone. At over a century old, R.W. Moore is a member of the Historic Vineyard Society, dry farmed and thought to be a field blend of mostly Zinfandel, with smaller plantings of Petite Sirah, Carignane, Mourvedre and Napa Gamay.

Scalon 2013 Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon. This is an elegantly restrained Cabernet from rocky soils that emphasizes a deft minerality. Jesus Espinoza first planted the grapes as a day laborer; he now owns the grapes.

Sleeping Giant 2014 Coombsville Cabernet Sauvignon. A new wine from the producer, this offers a juicy, acid-driven approach and a beautifully balanced mix of dark fruit. Winemaker Chris Dearden looked to a small vineyard on Olive Hill Lane within the appellation that yielded a small amount of exceptional grapes.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 2015 Arcadia Vineyard Chardonnay. Stag’s Leap sources from former owner and living legend Warren Winiarski’s personal, 128-acre vineyard in the heart of Coombsville near Mount George for this beautifully elegant wine, his site planted to both Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. This is half barrel-fermented and half fermented in stainless steel. Its luxurious palate has a tease of anise on the lengthy finish.

Published on March 21, 2018
Topics: Napa Valley
About the Author
Virginie Boone
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from California.

Contributing Editor Virginie Boone has been with Wine Enthusiast since 2010, and reviews the wines of Napa and Sonoma. Boone began her writing career with Lonely Planet travel guides, which eventually led to California-focused wine coverage. She contributes to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and Sonoma Magazine, and is a regular panelist and speaker on wine topics in California and beyond. Email: vboone@wineenthusiast.net




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