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Los Carneros AVA

by Staff Writer - A. Heinzman | February 09, 2012

Of the various AVAs found within California's Napa Valley, the Los Carneros AVA is perhaps the most interesting. This observation comes from the conditions concerning the creation of the Los Carneros AVA. Geographically and legally the Los Carneros AVA stands apart from the remaining AVAs found within the Napa Valley.

The Los Carneros AVA is unique when compared to additional Napa Valley AVAs. The main characteristic responsible for the uniqueness of the Los Carneros AVA is that the Los Carneros AVA was created based on climate characteristics rather than political boundaries. As a result of this distinction, the territory making up the Los Carneros AVA falls in both the Napa Valley and Sonoma County. In the world of winemaking--in particular Napa winemaking--the creation of the Los Carneros AVA created major resentment among many Napa Valley wine makers. The main reason for this resentment has to do with maintaining the market value of the Napa name. Wine professionals do not dispute the logic of the creation of the Los Carneros AVA. It makes sense from a viticultural point of view to create an AVA that is based on climate characteristics. However having an AVA that straddles political boundaries creates a delicate situation that can be seen with wine labeling. Los Carneros produced wines can simply state that they were produced in Carneros with no mention of the Napa Valley. This has led to the Los Carneros AVA receiving massive publicity for its wines while at the same time detracting publicity from the Napa Valley itself. As a result of this phenomenon a number of Napa Valley wine makers successfully pressed the California legislation to pass a law stating that all future AVAs within the Napa Valley display the Napa Valley name on the wine label. This in effect has forced all additional AVAs found within the Napa Valley to be completely contained within the larger Napa Valley AVA and not extend beyond. As the Los Carneros AVA precedes this law, wines produced in Carneros are exempt from this rule.

Los Carneros was one of the first California AVAs to be christened by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms. In 1983 the AVA of Las Carneros--Carneros is a Spanish word for sheep--was created. By this time Los Carneros already had a rich history with winemaking. Today the Los Carneros AVA plays an important part in the production of Napa Valley and Sonoma County wines.


The Los Carneros AVA adjoins the San Pablo Bay and is divided between the Napa Valley and Sonoma County. The AVA of Los Carneros contains approximately 90 square miles of land contained within the rolling hills of the Mayacamas mountain range. Elevation of land suitable for vineyards varies from 400 feet and lower. Many vineyards can be found at elevations close to sea level. Like any other wine area, specific geographical characteristics govern soil and weather conditions.


Compared to the Napa Valley and Sonoma County, the soils found within Los Carneros can be described as unique. Due to the close proximity of the sea and the near sea-level elevation of Los Carneros, it is of no surprise that the soil composition of Los Carneros is that of clay and loam. The geographical makeup originally being a pre-historic seabed is the main reason for this soil structure. Having a soil structure high in clay content can be challenging when developing land for agriculture and grape growing is no exception. The main reason for this is poor soil drainage; clay soils will not release water readily. Some might look at water retention as an asset in an often drought stricken California. However the negative aspects of poor soil drainage far outweigh the positives. Irrigation is still required for yield maximization and is mostly contained to drip style irrigation.


The climate characteristics found within Los Carneros are also governed by specific geographical characteristics. As it the case with grape growing, sunlight exposure and ambient temperature dictate the characteristics of the produced wine. With the Los Carneros AVA's close proximity to the San Pablo Bay comes a cooler climate than what is found further inland. Fog is also present within the Los Carneros AVA. Due to these weather patterns, the Los Carneros AVA falls within a regional classification known as Region I, the same region found within the vineyards of Burgundy and Germany. However even with this cool climate wines produced from Las Carneros grapes have qualities not found within European counterparts. One wine critic has described a quality of being able to "taste the sun". The main reason for this has to do with sunlight intensity. Even though temperatures are cooler in the Los Carneros AVA, the angle and intensity of the sun's rays are stronger than what you would find in Burgundy and Germany. This difference translates into more sun exposure with wines being leaner and sporting an elegance that can be missing from other Napa and Sonoma wines.

Many Napa Valley wine growers may resent Los Carneros being granted its own AVA, but the fact of the matter is that the Los Carneros AVA is a major asset to the Napa Valley. This can be seen in the fact that Los Carneros is considered Napa Valley's cash cow. The events that have led to this conclusion can be attributed to the market value of the Napa name. With the Napa Valley gaining fame for its wines, Napa Valley growers have to turn somewhere for grapes to produce these wines. Certainly vineyards contained within the Napa Valley itself are available, but with demands for Napa wines increasing year by year, wineries want to satisfy demands for their wines. Due to Los Carneros overlapping into Napa County, Napa wineries can purchase Carneros grapes for the production their prized wines. Napa wineries will still produce wines from their own prized vineyards but the nature of the overlapping Los Carneros AVA also allows Napa wineries produce additional wine under a Napa Valley label.

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The characteristics found within the Los Carneros AVA have led to certain grape varieties becoming increasingly popular. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Noir are popular varieties among others. Another variety that Los Carneros offers is Chardonnay. Chardonnay production in the Los Carneros is a big business due to the nature of neighboring Napa Valley wineries. Almost all of Napa valley is ideally suited for the growing of red grape varieties. Due to the cash cow nature of the relationship between Los Carneros and the Napa Valley, wineries in Napa that are unable to grow Chardonnay grapes can still produce Chardonnay wines under a Napa label. While this may seem like an ideal set-up, the soil composition of Los Carneros can be unforgiving when growing a site-revealing grape such as Chardonnay. Due to this fact--and while it is true that many Napa Chardonnay wines are of high quality--many Napa produced Chardonnay wines lack the intensity that can be found in truly great Chardonnay wines.

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