As you travel up the heart of the Napa Valley visiting wineries in procession, Opus One, Nickel and Nickel, Robert Mondavi, Turnbull, Cakebread, Sawyer, St Suprey, Peju, BV and on, you will notice something; they pour the same varieties of wine. Beyond that, the flavor signatures of the wines will not vary that widely, especially when the grapes are coming from the vineyards just outside the tasting room.
Of course, not all of the grapes come from right there in Oakville and Rutherford; both St. Suprey and Peju pull most of their grapes from over the mountains in Pope Valley (still officially in Napa) which is higher and hotter, and offers a distinctly different terroir. But they are located right there on Highway 29 because that is the route that the tourists follow.
Beyond that the wine lists will be very similar, with a Chardonnay and possibly a Pinot Noir, normally from Los Carneros, near the Bay, and then a heavy reliance on the Bordeaux varietals, all built around the Cock of the roost, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa’s essential grape.
The two biggest players, Chardonnay and Cab Sauv maintain their dominance for several reasons. They are popular, full flavored wines. The grapes command the best prices. The vines are BIG producers, often double other varietals. They are tough, easy to grow grapes, resistant to many problems that would devastate other vines. Because of these advantages banks will loan wineries more money when secured by vineyards growing these two superstars.
Even with these advantages these two are not the most planted grapes in California; that distinction goes to Pinot Grigio, a late comer to the game, but a very popular one. But Pinot Grigio is not widely planted as a premium and ultra premium grape. That distinction is for Cab Sauv and Chard. There is a lot of wine made in California that goes into jugs and boxes.
Agriculturally Napa is a mono-culture, they grow grapes, and other than some cattle that is their only agricultural product. For the wine tourist the onslaught of tasting the same grapes can become monotonous because the palate becomes dull and bored. So finding wineries that use different grapes becomes important and that takes some searching.
The other day I was at the James Cole Winery in the Oak Knoll district of Napa and the tasting ended with an Ice Wine. As far as I know it is the only one in Napa, although the grapes come from Canada. It simply doesn’t get cold enough to produce one, but it was a nice change. In the middle of the sea of Cab Sauv that makes up Rutherford the Rubicon Winery preserved their traditional Zinfandel vineyards, a grape normally found up north in Calistoga. It makes a wonderful addition to their list.
While we are talking about Calistoga, the Summers Winery there pours their Charbono, and old Italian grape that they cultivate, with its great, full bodied flavors. Casa Nuestra just off the Silverado Trail in St. Helena offers a wonderful selection of rarely made grapes in their thoroughly eccentric tasting room.
The Goosecross winery in Yountville is great for the wide variety of grapes they turn into wine, despite being a small place. But the family has been there a long time and they know where the good grapes are hidden. While Bouchaine in Los Carneros focuses on their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, they also offer the rarely seen Pinot Menieur that normally is blended into sparkling wines. It is a unique flavor
Increasingly smaller wineries are seeking out these less common grapes as a way to set themselves apart from the crowd, and of course, they are a challenge for the wine maker, a chance to explore other flavors and results. When you visit Napa, you can do that too!
Hint: In our Smart Phone Apps and Books we list the winery’s most popular grapes, and point out any that produce unusual wines, but smaller wineries often bring in a wine for one or two years based on the limited availability of those grapes.
Ralph & Lahni de Amicis are authors of the Amicis Winery Guides, and owners of Amicis Tours. They are authors of over twenty books on health, design, business and travel. Their iPhone Apps, The Napa Valley Wine Tour, and The Sonoma Winery Tour are a tour guides approach to these beautiful area, complete with 1000’s of photos and insights. Their articles and products can be found on the sites http://www.amicistours.com and http://www.spaceandtime.com
Call 707-235-2648 for Tours, Books & Seminars Copyright Ralph & Lahni de Amicis 2013 All tasting fees, hours, wine lists, etc are subject to change.