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The Best of Napa

How well do you know America's most famous wine region? Well, if the name Diamond Mountain doesn't sound familiar, you need to know more. Here, a selective guide to Napa's 14 subregions (called AVAs), with the top wineries and key grape varieties in each.

The Napa Valley has become the most famous wine region in the United States. And Napa's vintners have presented such a unified front that it's easy to forget that the valley is a collection of 14 subappellations, or American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), each with its own distinctive personality. Just as Gevrey-Chambertin in Burgundy produces Pinot Noirs more powerful than those of neighboring Chambolle-Musigny, Napa's Spring Mountain District creates Cabernets that are denser and more structured than those made just next door in St. Helena.

One reason Napa vintners may not pay much attention to AVAs is that those in the valley tend to be quite large; a single AVA can encompass many soil types and microclimates. Plus, the Napa trend toward voluptuous wines with plush fruit and generous oak can overshadow the nuances of terroir. But careful tasting proves that AVAs do matter. What follows is a comprehensive AVA guide identifying the key characteristics of the wines, as well as the top wineries and a few great stopping points along the way for the Napa traveler. Note that most of the wineries listed here are open only by appointment, so be sure to call ahead.

Carneros

The Carneros AVA is a Napa anomaly. While most of the valley has a warm climate, ideal for Cabernet, the cool, breezy climate of Carneros is better suited to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Though Pinot is Carneros's key grape, many early plantings produced mediocre wines. Then phylloxera struck in the late 1980s and vineyards had to be replanted. The result, ironically, was much better Pinot Noir. Longtime Carneros names Saintsbury, Acacia and Carneros Creek are making better wines than ever, newer entrants like Robert Sinskey are producing Pinots that are pure and refined, and longtime Carneros sparkling-wine producer Domaine Chandon has a delicious new Pinot, Ramal Road Reserve.

As for Chardonnay, one star vineyard is Hyde, a source of top-notch fruit for Patz & Hall and David Ramey, among others. Grower Larry Hyde has also debuted a label of his own, HdV, in conjunction with Aubert de Villaine of the famed Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. They are producing minerally Chardonnay, rich Syrah and a Merlot-dominant blend. Syrah and Merlot also perform extremely well in certain Carneros sites: Two brilliant examples from Hudson Vineyards are Havens' Hudson T Syrah and the Merlot-based wines of Arietta.

Diamond Mountain

The dramatic terrain of Diamond Mountain District, one of the northernmost appellations in the Napa Valley, is steep and rocky. The soils are mostly volcanic, and the climate is influenced by ocean breezes and fog, resulting in large temperature swings between day and night, which help to preserve the acidity of the grapes.

Diamond Mountain District is best known for its big, structured Cabernets, exemplified by the enormously concentrated wines of Diamond Creek Vineyards. Once known for tannins that took years to unwind, Diamond Creek Cabernets have become more approachable in recent vintages, and though their tannins are still present, they're riper and finer.

While Diamond Creek still sets the standard for the AVA, other producers are making exciting wines too. The Davies family of the Schramsberg sparkling-wine empire released its first Cabernet in 2004 here under the J. Davies label. Dyer Vineyard turns out a full-bodied Cabernet with a hint of chocolate, while Von Strasser produces a notable Bordeaux-style blend called Sori Bricco that displays impressive minerality. And Sterling Vineyards' Cabernet from its Diamond Mountain Ranch vineyard has never been better.

Spring Mountain

There is no actual Spring Mountain. This mostly forested AVA, just above St. Helena, is not a mountain but a saddle of land between Mount Veeder and Diamond Mountain District. The name comes from the area's numerous natural springs. Grapes have been grown here since the 1870s, but only in the past decade or so did the region's reputation start to soar. Much of this is thanks to Cabernet, and that's what counts in Spring Mountain—powerful, rich, dense, dark Cabernet. Some of the best include delicious Cabs from Barnett Vineyards (its Rattlesnake Hill wine is particularly expressive of Spring Mountain) and even more intense versions from Pride Mountain Vineyards and Frias Family (its Cabernet has loads of vivid fruit that temper its powerful tannins). Other notable producers include established names like Robert Keenan and Spring Mountain Vineyard (both back in good form after some lackluster years) and newer ones such as Terra Valentine and Fantesca, all of which are helping to make Spring Mountain one of Napa's most exciting AVAs.

Spring Mountain District is also the source of some memorable whites, including Smith-Madrone's great Riesling (the best in California), Pride Mountain's excellent Viognier and the pioneering Stony Hill's long-lived Chardonnay.

St. Helena

The St. Helena AVA is still struggling to establish an identity. So far, Cabernet Sauvignon is the district's most important grape, and Spottswoode is its star producer, turning out elegant and restrained wines. In fact, elegance and restraint tend to be the hallmarks of St. Helena Cabernet (a little surprising, as St. Helena is one of the hottest places in the valley).

Whitehall Lane Winery produces superb Cabernet from Leonardini Vineyard, and Beringer's St. Helena Home Vineyard bottling, from the winery's original vineyard, which Jacob Beringer purchased back in 1875, is dense and velvety. Several new wineries are producing some of the AVA's best Cabernets; they include Bressler, Parry Cellars, Hundred Acre and Hourglass (whose rich Cabernet has surprisingly fine tannins).

Rutherford

Rutherford, though an AVA only since 1993, was the source of California's most outstanding wines during the mid-20th century. These days Rutherford doesn't have neighboring Oakville's feeling of flashy newness, but this venerable AVA still produces wonderful wines.

The best vineyards lie west of Highway 29, yielding fruit for rich, dense Cabernet-based wines such as Flora Springs Rutherford Hillside Reserve, Niebaum-Coppola Rubicon, BV Reserve, Grgich Hills Cabernet and Hewitt Vineyard Cabernet. Rubicon typifies the intense flavors of Rutherford's west side, as do the BV Reserve and the Hewitt, though those wines taste a shade riper than Rubicon. Hewitt's sibling, Provenance Vineyards, makes a Cabernet from a site east of Highway 29 near the Silverado Trail that has a hint of herbaceousness. Quintessa, also east of 29, combines lush fruit with firm structure.

As for the "Rutherford dust" scent or flavor often ascribed to Rutherford Cabernets, even the AVA's vintner group, the Rutherford Dust Society, claims the term "has come to reflect an enduring commitment to quality, as opposed to any sensory component in the appellation's wines." In other words, the phrase sounds good but doesn't mean anything.

Stags Leap

The controversy over Stags Leap District—the appellation name and its boundaries—began in the mid-1980s and lasted through the decade. It was a well-publicized and often public dispute. And a few vintners continue to grumble that some vineyards which weren't included when the AVA was approved in 1989 should have been.

But politics aside, a distinct resemblance can be found in many of the Cabernets from the district, and the most likely reason is climate. Stags Leap is heavily influenced by the cool breezes that swirl through its knolls and crags and give the district an exceptionally long growing season.

Stags Leap District Cabernet is typically described as "an iron fist in a velvet glove." The best are delicious when young and capable of aging quite well; Shafer Vineyards' Hillside Select Cabernet is a prime example. In fact, the Hillside Select bottling sets the standard. Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, which first brought fame to the area, still does a fine job with Cabernet, and Silverado Vineyards makes full-bodied, dramatic wines. Newer wineries with tremendous potential include Quixote and the eponymous Cliff Lede Vineyards, whose owner recently opened the area's only hotel, the tiny Poetry Inn.

Mount Veeder

It used to be easy to spot a Cabernet from Mount Veeder: It was the wine with the hard green (unripe) tannins. The problem was that some parts of the district were simply too cool for Cabernet grapes to fully ripen. This problem is now pretty much a thing of the past. Cabernets from Mount Veeder are still intense and structured, but today's winemakers have been able to craft wines with finer and riper tannins. One reason is that they are growing Cabernet in the warmer areas, leaving the cooler places to grapes like Merlot and Syrah, which require less heat.

Nevertheless, Mount Veeder is still well known for Cabernet and does produce a few great ones, such as Lokoya's—an intense wine that needs time to open. The Hess Collection Cabernet is more approachable. (Hess owns more vineyard land in Mount Veeder than any other producer.) Another venerable Mount Veeder producer, Mayacamas Vineyards (built in 1889, and known under that name since 1941) still turns out earthy, rich Cabernets that can age forever, while Mount Veeder Winery makes a big, muscular, Bordeaux-style blend.

Other Mount Veeder wines to look for include Provenance's outstanding, concentrated Merlot from Paras Vineyard (also the source of Jade Mountain's smoky Syrahs), and tiny new Lagier Meredith Vineyard's Mount Veeder Syrah.

Yountville

Although the first Napa Valley vines were planted in Yountville in 1836, the area only earned AVA status in 1999. That's only one of several surprising facts about Yountville. Another is that its biggest winery, Domaine Chandon, doesn't make any Yountville-appellation wines. Finally, while Cabernet Sauvignon is the most important grape of Napa, Yountville produces a range of wines, everything from Chardonnay to Zinfandel. Even so—and despite the fact that the climate here is actually a little cool for heat-loving Cabernet—the appellation's best-known wines are Cabernet-based.

Christian Moueix's Dominus is one of these. Firm and even a bit austere in some vintages, Dominus is also classic Yountville Cabernet: elegant and balanced, neither a fruit bomb nor a tannic monster. A few newer Yountville wineries, like Gemstone, Rocca Family Vineyards and Keever Vineyards, are turning out more generous wines. The newest Yountville entrant, Kapcsándy Family Winery, is particularly promising: The 2004 Cabernet-Merlot blend, made by the famed Helen Turley, is concentrated but also elegant.

Oakville

Oakville is the Malibu of Napa Valley, home to all the newest stars. The older celebrities—Robert Mondavi Winery, Silver Oak Cellars and Opus One—still have many loyal fans but have been overshadowed lately by new luminaries like Harlan Estate, Dalla Valle, Screaming Eagle, PlumpJack and Rudd Estate.

Oakville's appeal is easy to understand: Its Cabernets are powerful wines with a strong sense of place. That clear Oakville character is a surprise, considering the enormous size of the AVA, which stretches from the western side of the valley and the Mayacamas Mountain range across the valley floor to the east side and the edge of the Silverado Trail. There are differences between east- and west-side wines (the former are ripe and dramatic, the latter more graceful), but most Oakville Cabs have a remarkably similar aroma, a subtle minty-cedary character.

The concentrated wines of Harlan Estate and Bond, Bill Harlan's new project, are among the best of the west side, as is Far Niente's dense, fleshy 2001 Cab. Screaming Eagle is one of the most sought-after Cabernets from the east side, though Dalla Valle wines are also among the best. Other outstanding east-side Cabernets include Joseph Phelps's Backus Vineyard bottling and Nickel & Nickel's Stelling Vineyard Cabernet.

Howell Mountain

Howell Mountain was the first subappellation in Napa Valley to earn AVA status (in 1984). Unlike the mountain appellations on the west side, which start at a 400-foot elevation (some vineyards barely rise above Highway 29), the Howell Mountain AVA, in the eastern Vaca Range, begins at 1,400 feet, above the fog, meaning warmer mornings and cooler afternoon breezes.

While Howell Mountain is known for Cabernets, it is also home to some notable Zinfandels. The Cabernets are concentrated and structured, and many have a subtle herbaceous character that ranges from cedar to dill to black olive, while the Zins are intense but, thanks to the climate here, rarely overripe.

Dunn Vineyards, with its powerful, tannic Cabernets, first brought attention to Howell Mountain in 1979. Beringer Vineyards is also a significant presence and renowned for its Bancroft Ranch Merlot and its three single-vineyard Howell Mountain Cabs. Other top Cabs include those of Cornerstone Cellars, Lokoya (which makes several mountain appellation wines), Robert Craig, O'Shaughnessy Estate and Howell Mountain Vineyards. Ladera Vineyards is a promising newcomer. The best Zins, brambly and elegant, come from Howell Mountain Vineyards, a partnership between the owners of Beatty Ranch and Black Sears Vineyard; the peppery Black Sears bottling is the star.

Laurie Daniel travels regularly to the Napa Valley for her weekly wine column, which is published in several California newspapers, including the San Jose Mercury News. (Additional Where to Go information reported by Erika Lenkert.)

Published June 2005
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