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Napa Valley Cabernet AVA differences

The Napa Valley Wine Library held a roundtable forum of experts to unravel the mystery of how Cabernet Sauvignon differs throughout the sub-AVAs of Napa Valley.

Napa Valley (AVA)

Just What are the AVA Distinctions
of Napa Valley Cabernet?

by Alan Goldfarb
October 15, 2007

Napa Valley’s viticulturists and winemakers sit down to puzzle over real regional diversity and come up with an answer...sort of...

We all know that in the Napa Valley Cabernet is the cat’s meow, and the cash cow that drives the limo. In the Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon is king. But is a Diamond Mountain District Cabernet different from a Spring Mountain District Cabernet? Or, can one really discern the distinctions – if any, and winemaking style notwithstanding – among the Cabs from let’s say, Rutherford and Stags Leap District?

At a recent all-day seminar sponsored by the venerable Napa Valley Wine Library, vineyardists as well as winemakers discussed the valley’s 14 sub-regions with regard to Cabernet variance.

Conclusion from this reporter’s vantage point: Like the Corsican brothers, or those Lohan and Hilton girls, it’s indeed a daunting task telling the differences among them.

Chateau Montelena’s Jim Barrett.
However, the idea of holding a seminar to discuss such arcane matters as regional diversity may signal a paradigm shift away from the geopolitical demarcations and marketing tools heretofore used to justify the existence of American Viticultural Areas (AVA).

In my experience with such matters, trying to get a cogent answer about how terroir manifests in a glass of wine is not unlike extracting a lateral incisor from a winemaker. It’s not easy or without pain. In addition to the variables of so many different vineyard practices and gobs of winemaking regimens, to intuit terroir in the glass is to know the earth’s core.

And so it went on this particular Saturday in the southeastern corner of the Napa Valley, not far from the Atlas Peak AVA. Much was said, many wines were tasted, about which there came forth wonderful discussions. But in the end, one went away craving more evidence.

Jim Barrett, the founder of Chateau Montelena in the Calistoga area – the latter of which is undergoing
Cain Winery winemaker Chris Howell.
great scrutiny and was the principal cause for the TTB to begin taking another look at its AVA system – set the tone for the day:

“The land has been here but then along came the pioneers and they started to put the hand of man on it …”

But if the curmudgeonly Barrett informed the mood, vineyard manager and winemaker Doug Hill of Hill Family Estate put the subject into perspective.

When asked by Chris Howell, winemaker at Cain Winery (who later on his own panel had difficulty identifying terroir differences), “Are we concerned that (wine producers) might be overwhelming terroir?”

Hill demurred: “I’d much prefer to talk about my Merlot because our Merlot is definitely an expression of our terroir (in Yountville),” said Hill, who was asked instead, to present his Cabernet in a discussion of terroir ‘in the vineyard.’”

But Hill then responded to Cain’s poignant query that got to the heart of things: “You really get vineyard character if you pick a little less ripe … Certainly we can over-design and over-farm if we use the tools that we have (improperly). One of the best ways to lose terroir is the square-peg-in-the-round-hole (adage). We have to be conscious of where we’re farming.”

Harlan Estate’s Bob Levy
[Photo by Robert M. Bruno]
At the winemaker panel later on that morning, the ever-inquisitive and scholarly Howell pursued his line of questioning, aimed at Harlan Estate’s Bob Levy. “I’ve heard it said, as we wait for ripeness, expression of place might be attenuated.”

To which Levy succinctly rejoindered under a few gasps and chuckles from the audience, “It’s quite the opposite. As we wait, I think we get better expressions of site.”

When this reporter followed up with: “How does that happen?” Levy parried rather obtusely, “I can only assume it has to do with the utilization of the energy within the plant.”

Levy, like Jim Barrett before him, is a believer in the hand of humans in creating terroir. While there’s the school of terroir that defines it only as all the natural elements that go into growing a wine grape, there are those – such as Levy – who believe that human influence should also be counted.

“When I think of terroir versus vinification, the character of the wine expresses the terroir, not just the dirt but the people and all the decisions made,” stated Levy unequivocally. “You have character and you have style. Our vinification practices (for all Harlan wines) are not recipes, but comparable.”

Levy also blends wines for Harlan’s Bond brand and he does so across three areas of Oakville, each of which he says, has its own distinctiveness. Mike Wolf, who farms in Oakville for his eponymous vineyard management company, intimated that because the region has such diverse soils, perhaps the AVA should be divided. But in this climate of TTB crackdown, there isn’t a chance of that happening in our lifetimes.

Nonetheless, Wolf declared that in Oakville, the soil profiles “may be as extreme as anywhere in the valley. You can see it visually. Just look at the hills on the west side of the valley where it’s forest. On the eastside, it’s red soils (and more bare and rocky.) There are also temperature influences from one side to the other.”

Wolf went further, stating that the Napa River, which runs down the geographic center of the area, should not always be the defining influence. “It’s not always the river,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be interesting if Opus One (which is close to the river east of Highway 29) and Robert Mondavi Winery (across the road on the west side) were in two different AVAs? The highway (also) is not the dividing line.

“In Oakville, you can make an argument that there are three things going on that’s quite different and discernible (temperature, soils, location).”

Pam Starr
Crocker & Starr’s Pam Starr.
And speaking of so

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Reader Feedback

Reader Comments... [8]

Michael Rugers
AVAs will start to mean something when producers start limiting their yields. One can get 2 tons an acre while his neighbor gets 6. No way to judge AVAs.

Tom Hedges , owner
Hedges Family Estate, Red Mountain AVA, WA
Quote: "It's indeed a daunting task telling the differences among them". This wasn't the case twenty years ago, when grapes were picked earlier. Differences were more profound, period. I'm amazed that someone knowledgeable could state that more ripeness actually enhances terroir? That's crap. And terroir is topography, soil, and microclimate. If you want to throw humans into the mix, invent your own, new word. True alcohol content, and remember, in the U.S. we can be off by as much as 1.5% (Europe has a much more "truth in labeling"-oriented variation of just 0.5%) is normally an accurate indicator of "somewhere-ness", or terroir: The higher the alcohol content past the traditional, about 12.5%-14%, for most grape varieties, the less terroir is evident. Sadly, we can all thank Robert Parker and his success with the 100-point scale for the death of terroir in many wines. Not to mention the death of varietal identification, cellarability, and food compatibility. I like the term "Bimbo wines" for high alcohol, plush wines: You may be impressed initially, and they could be great in a bar with a cocktail, but you probably wouldn't want to take one to dinner.

barley corn , recovering wine jerk
Overripe or overcropped or overacidified or overoaked or alcohol adjusted, tannins and enzymes and RS tricks -- you guys and girls are sooo full of BS. Oh, and could you please charge a little more?

When you start to make wine with just grapes, then you can talk about sense of place. wine = grapes + yeast.

Bill Buckner , Winemaker / Drinker
Healdsburg / Napa, CA
Sounds like an interesting panel. From my limited experience (around 6 years of fairly intense winemaking and drinking) Napa would have the toughest time divining differences in terroir. It’s tough for me to strike the polite, keep-negative-comments-to-yourself industry posture when it comes to Napa wines. I just don't get them. Too ripe, too much oak, and balance is rare in my experience. Complexity? I don't find it often... older Napa wines, maybe. Complexity in this realm means different oak blends maybe. Just not very interesting wines. Most of the wines I try -- even the $200 ones -- remind me of the experience of eating a cupcake rather than sipping a high-end wine. There are a handful of exceptions, of course. But not too many. I don't begrudge people making a good living. Tough to do in this industry... but it is a shame that such great land is (currently at least) being squandered stylistically with these "rich" wines. Coupled with such high prices and the power of a couple kingmakers (with seemingly tired palates) from Wine Spectator the current state of Napa wine borders on fraud. Well-heeled, status conscious wine drinkers all over the world will keep Napa in the money... but from the wine point of view I go elsewhere to find terroir in Cabernet.

Stefen , wine lover
Forestville, CA
Reply to Tom Hedges [comment #2]:
Hey Tom, you are of course entitled to your "bimbo wine" opinion, but I would disagree on your definition of terroir. If you know anything about winemaking, which as a winery owner you must, then you know that topography, soil, and microclimate do not make wine by themselves. Somebody picked the spot, chose the rootstock and variety, amended the soil, trained and trellised, made a host of cultural decisions throughout the year, and finally created the wine. You cannot remove the human aspect when discussing terroir.

To barley corn [comment #3]:
If nature could make perfect fruit every year, few would take the time and money to acidify, add sugar, or do any of the "tricks" you discuss. But does a chef perform "tricks" when seasoning a great meal? Should that be considered BS? Should dinner be as simple as food fork = full stomach?

Christopher P Lavin , Sommelier
Picking early is not the solution to "terroir"-specific Cabernet. I find that many times, picking early leads to "green" characteristics in the wine -- phenolic ripeness is most important. Would you not also use the argument that if California gives us all this fabulous sunshine, why should we not pick at higher sugars and great phenolic ripeness to achieve the greatest wine. Ripeness is a factor of our "terroir" in California -- greatness can seldom be achieved picking early.

Julio Figueroa-Colon , Ecologist/enophile
ECO-Maboya, San Juan, PUERTO RICO
Producers needn't be so defensive over their perceived attacks on terroir-based marketing. They created the distinction and effect of terroir so they should own up to consumer scrutiny. Bottom-line, it's the terroir's juice but it’s the winemaker's wine.

Woody Guderian , Owner
Woody's Wine Tours, Santa Rosa Ca
As a wine tour guide, AVA’s are a way for consumer to get a grasp of the region. You have to give the consumer a starting point AVA’s do this. You would not look for pinots in Calistoga or cabs in Carnoros. It is a great guide for people when there standing in a store looking at 200 bottles and they are intimated by it. Any tools that we can use to help demystify wines in my book are a good thing. I agree with the point that wineries are shooting for score again another consumer tool that has gotten out of hand. I think what we need to remember here is that there are relay only two kinds of wine for the consumer and it is the one they like and the one that they do not.

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