An Armchair Traveler’s Guide to Napa Valley Wine Country

Coombsville sunset
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Ordinarily, Napa Valley would be packed this time of year. Visitors come for its Mediterranean climate, world-renowned resorts and restaurants, and hospitable wineries, which receive 3.8 million guests per year.

Alas, America’s most famous wine region remains sheltered in place, while the essential duties of agricultural and cellar work carry on.

The California Wine Industry Adjusts to the New Not-Normal

Just 30 miles long and a few miles across, Napa Valley is about an hour north of San Francisco. With just one-sixth of the planted acreage of Bordeaux, it produces 4% of California’s overall wine grapes. Yet, it looms large in the minds of wine consumers everywhere.

Most famous for Cabernet Sauvignon, it also grows Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Zinfandel, among other varieties, and is deeply committed to its agricultural heritage.

With 16 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) that stretch from San Pablo Bay north to Mount St. Helena, and with high-elevation mountains on either side, Napa Valley offers plenty of diversity within its compact frame.

Here, we highlight a handful of its regions and detail a few ongoing virtual tastings that will bring a piece of Napa to you.

Bouchaine winery
Bouchaine, Carneros / Photo by Michael Hospelt

Carneros

Carneros is Napa Valley’s coolest appellation, influenced by wind and fog that bring cold air in from the Pacific Ocean. It’s also the only appellation to straddle both Napa and Sonoma counties, with Sonoma to its west.

Carneros is known for producing quite a bit of sparkling wine from its vast plantings of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Still versions of both also thrive alongside pockets of cool-climate Merlot, Syrah, Albariño and other less-common reds and whites.

Behind Napa Valley’s Hard-to-Find Pinot Noir

Set along low, rolling hills with mostly shallow clay-loam soils, Carneros’s best-known vineyards include Hyde and Hudson. Domaine Carneros is among the finest sparkling wine houses here, while other producers (on the Napa side) include Artesa, Bouchaine, Saintsbury and Etude.

Bouchaine B Live Virtual Wine Tastings – Winemaker 101, 201 and 301

Bouchaine is a premier producer of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, plus smaller offerings of Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. It relies on both estate-grown fruit and fellow Carneros growers like Hyde and Las Brisas.

You can schedule a virtual tasting from a choice of three experiences. A set of wines will be shipped to you, and the tasting will be led by a private host in view of the Bouchaine vineyards.

By appointment; $59–$250; 800.654.WINE, virtual@bouchaine.com

Coombsville

A small appellation east of the city of Napa, this corner of Napa Valley sees few visitors, but it produces exceptional wines. Ringed by a west-facing mountain range, this caldera is the result of an ancient collapsed volcano. Its rocky, volcanic soils drain into porous compressed ash.

While the soils give it a unique edge, Coombsville is also relatively cold, thanks to early morning fog and afternoon winds that come off the San Pablo Bay. During the height of growing season, it’s usually around 10ºF cooler here than most of Napa Valley, with the exception of Carneros.

Winemakers love the acidity that the grapes retain. Haynes Vineyard, recently bought by Gaylon Lawrence Jr., who also owns Heitz Cellar, produces a small amount of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah. However, the bulk of Coombsville’s fame is tied to Cabernet Sauvignon, thanks to producers like Meteor, Farella, Realm, Di Costanzo, Favia, Covert, Lail and Caldwell.

Legendary wine pioneer Warren Winiarski’s Arcadia Vineyard is also here, which supplies Chardonnay grapes to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

Blend Your Own Meteor Wine at Home with Virtual Tasting Blending Session

Meteor makes only two wines, both estate Cabernets, from its Coombsville site. The vines were planted in 1999 to three distinct clone and rootstock combinations. Through Oct. 30, the winery offers a Clone Project three-pack to blend at home under the virtual guidance of a winemaker or estate director.

By appointment; $600 includes three wines and a Coravin system; 707.258.2900, info@meteorvineyard.com

Sheep in the vineyard
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Stags Leap District

The region was famous after the 1976 “Judgment of Paris” tasting, when Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet was selected as the best in the world. This AVA has volcanic soils that sit at the base of the Stags Leap Palisades, a steep outcrop of the Vaca Range on Napa Valley’s eastern side.

The outcroppings funnel airflow from the San Pablo Bay, which help the grapes build acidity. They also reflect the afternoon sun, which contributes power and structure to the wines.

Winemakers often describe Stags Leap District Cabernet as an iron fist in a velvet glove, and the wines can indeed be silky in texture, with pretty aromatics of violet and cherry.

Along with Winiarski, the appellation is associated with the late John Shafer, founder of Shafer Vineyards, who helped draw the AVA’s boundaries in 1989. A region planted primarily to Cabernet Sauvignon, Shafer’s well-known neighbors include Clos du Val, Chimney Rock, Realm, Odette Estate and Cliff Lede Vineyards.

There’s also Stags’ Leap Winery, which battled with Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in the courts over use of the “Stags Leap” name. Where the apostrophe is placed is important.

#StayHome with Stags’ Leap Winery Virtual Wine Tastings

Known for Petite Sirah as much as for Cabernet Sauvignon, the historic winery at the foot of the Palisades holds virtual tastings Thursdays at 3 pm Pacific. Discussions not only center on the winery, but the AVA as well, with different wines featured every week. The tastings are offered through Dec. 31.

Free on Instagram Live @stagsleapwinery

Oakville

One of Napa Valley’s most famous appellations, Oakville is home to the likes of Harlan Estate, the Mondavi Reserve blocks, Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard and Martha’s Vineyard, among others. The wineries are equally recognizable, from Screaming Eagle, Cardinale, Silver Oak, Groth and PlumpJack to Rudd and Opus One.

The Making of a 100-Point Wine: A Napa Cab of Substance

Robert Mondavi chose the west side of Oakville to establish his namesake winery in 1966, and it’s served as a beacon of history, quality and hospitality ever since. The To Kalon Vineyard dates to 1868, while the stone Far Niente Winery was originally founded in 1885, abandoned during Prohibition and brought back to life by Gil Nickel in 1979.

A bottle of Far Niente 1886 Sweet Muscat found in a private cellar during the 1990s is thought to be the oldest intact bottle of California wine.

Far Niente Private Virtual Wine Tastings

Surrounded by the 57-acre Martin Stelling Vineyard, Far Niente offers custom tastings and consultations with its stable of wine educators through Dec. 31. Known for ageworthy Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, the company also farms the 42-acre John C. Sullenger Vineyard in Oakville and several sites in Coombsville.

Free by appointment; 707.302.3627, kdenny@nickelandnickel.com

Rutherford winery
Tres Sabores, Rutherford / Photo by Robert Barclay

Rutherford

Just north of Oakville, Rutherford has fertile soils and ecological diversity. Warmer on average than anywhere south, this is undoubtedly Cabernet Sauvignon country.

The appellation’s lineage is long. Finnish sea captain Gustave Niebaum established Inglenook in 1879, while Georges de Latour bought what would become Beaulieu Vineyard in the early 1900s.

Russian-born viticulturalist and enologist André Tchelistcheff created Georges de Latour Private Reserve in 1940, Napa Valley’s first cult Cabernet. Tchelistcheff is believed to have made this statement: “It takes Rutherford dust to grow great Cabernet.”

Beaulieu and Inglenook endure, the latter owned by film director Francis Ford Coppola since 1975, when he bought the property with earnings from the first two Godfather films. Caymus and Quintessa dominate on the eastern side of Rutherford, while on the western benches near Inglenook sit Tres Sabores, Staglin and Scarecrow.

Tres Sabores Online Wine Tasting Series with Julie Johnson

Owner/Winemaker Julie Johnson founded Tres Sabores in 1999. She also helped launch Frog’s Leap Winery with her ex-husband, John Williams, and partner Larry Turley.

In addition to Cab, she makes a lovely Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc and the sought-after ¿Por Que No? red blend, or what she likes to call “a party in a glass.” The tastings focus on food and wine, as chefs or Julie talk about food pairings and recipes. Johnson is a devoted organic gardener and cook.

Tuesdays at 4 pm Pacific through Dec 31. Instagram Live @tressabores

Additional virtual tastings with Napa Valley producers can be found here.

Published on May 18, 2020
Topics: Wine and Ratings