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Napa Valley AVAs

by Staff Writer - A. Heinzman | June 30, 2011

California’s Napa Valley may lay claim to be the most recognizable and famous wine region concerning New World wines. This can be seen in the fact that even individuals with limited wine knowledge recognize the Napa Valley name as synonymous with quality winemaking.

Winemaking got its start in the Napa Valley in 1838. It was during this time that George Yount planted vines he obtained from the vineyard of Mariano Vallejo. Around 1841 George Yount produced his first vintage of wine. From this time forward steady improvements were see with grape growing and winemaking in the Napa Valley.

Like most other wine areas, the combined effects of Phylloxera and Prohibition hit Napa Valley hard. Conditions were slow to improve after Repeal, however Napa was destined for greatness. After the 1976 Judgment of Paris--where California wines rated the best in each category--Napa Valley was finally recognized as a wine area that could meet or exceed the quality of old world wines.

Today the Napa Valley has grown beyond the simple ideas of quality wine production. Almost all acreage has been developed for winemaking, and due to the intense market value of the Napa name, real estate prices are at an all time high. Keeping these points in mind it is easy to understand that the Napa Valley is more than just a wine region. It is a symbol of the celebration of wine and wine making. As such, many wealthy individuals have invested time and money into winemaking endeavors within Napa Valley. This condition has led to the Napa Valley reaching an interesting point of wine market saturation. With the sheer amount of wineries found within the Napa Valley, it is next to impossible to taste a wine and declare that it came from the Napa Valley.

With the adaptive nature and political environment surrounding the wine industry, American Viticulture Area (AVAs) are constantly changing and being updated. Napa Valley is not exempt from this condition. Today some of the various AVAs found within the Napa Valley include Los Carneros, Wild Horse Valley, Howell Mountain, Stags Leap District, Mt. Veeder, Spring Mountain, Rutherford, Oakville, Diamond Mountain, St. Helena, Chiles Valley, Yountville, Atlas Peak and the Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley.

Concerning AVAs located within the Napa valley, the Los Carneros AVA and the Wild Horse Valley AVA are the only overlapping AVAs. The Los Carneros AVA was the first AVA to be defined in California, and received its certification based on climate characteristics rather than political boundaries. As a result, roughly half of the Los Carneros AVA is located in the Napa Valley while the other half is located in Sonoma County. The fact that the Los Carneros AVA is an overlapping region--combined with the fact that legal stipulations require only the producing AVA to appear on a wine label--led to the Los Carneros AVA gaining recognition independently from the rest of Napa Valley. Many Napa winemakers resented this situation. As such, legislation was introduced to require that the Napa Valley name be present on the wine labels of wines produced within the Napa Valley. This legislation combined with the fact that all other Napa sub-AVAs are non-overlapping has helped to further promote Napa wines.

Due to the geographical location of the Los Carneros AVA, both the weather and soil conditions create a unique Terroir. The temperature found within the Los Carneros AVA is on the cool side when compared to the rest of the Napa Valley. This is due to the moderating effects of the Pacific Ocean. Despite the cooler climate, the Los Carneros AVA does share in the abundance of sunlight found within the rest of Northern California. The soils found within the Los Carneros AVA are unique and show clay and loam characteristics. This leads to poor drainage and the requirement for drip irrigation. In this environment, the grape varieties of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are popular, however the specific Terroir can make growing quality grapes challenging.

While the Los Carneros AVA is known for its Chardonnay the Stags Leap District AVA is known for its Cabernet Sauvignon. Out of all the AVAs found within the Napa Valley, the Stags Leap District AVA Terroir is ideally suited for the production of high quality Cabernet Sauvignon. The topography of the Stags Leap District AVA routes breezes from San Pablo bay inland resulting in a decrease in temperature. In addition to this, the soil is that of clay loam that is unique to the Stags Leap District AVA. The Stags Leap District AVA can be found approximately 6 miles north of the city of Napa.

The Oakville and Rutherford AVAs are two famous AVAs located around the towns of Oakville and Rutherford. Oakville and Rutherford are famous for their high quality Cabernet Sauvignon but are also known as being the location of some of the most famous wineries in the United States. Names such as Beaulieu, Inglenook, Bella Oaks and Robert Mondavi have each produced exceptional wines in Oakville and Rutherford. The fame surrounding the wineries of the Oakville and Rutherford AVAs has resulted in winemaking becoming an expensive endeavor.

The Mount Veeder AVA is an area contained within the Napa valley along the Mayacamas Mountains. Created in 1990, the Mount Veeder AVA is an interesting example of how politics have evolved in the creation of AVAs. In this example, the Mayacamas Mountains extend beyond the Napa Valley into Sonoma County. While the Mayacamas Mountains located in Sonoma county share many of the same characteristics of the Mayacamas Mountains found within the Napa Valley, the politics of protecting the Napa Valley name dictate that the AVAs of the Napa Valley are to be contained to the Napa Valley. Cabernet Sauvignon is the grape of choice with local conditions creating a unique tasting experience that can be described as pungent with a somewhat rich texture.

While most AVA names reflect a known geographical location, the Spring Mountain AVA is interesting in that no mountain with the name of Spring Mountain actually exists. Rather, the Spring Mountain AVA is located on the steep terraces of the Mayacamas Mountains in the northwestern point of Napa Valley. The Terroir of the Spring Mountain AVA is unique and Cabernet Sauvignon is the grape of choice. Wines produced from Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are rich in tannins and dark hued.

When looking at Napa Valley AVAs on a map, the Diamond Mountain AVA appears to be an extension of the Spring Mountain AVA. The only separating feature between these two AVAs is a creek known as Ritchie creek. However, when comparing wines between the two regions, differences can easily be detected. Wines produced in the Diamond Mountain AVA have a scent and taste of rich dark chocolate with soft tannins. Differences in the wines can be attributed to soil types with the Diamond Mountain AVA being composed of mainly volcanic soil. Again, the grape variety of choice is Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Howell Mountain AVA located within the Vaca Mountain range of Napa Valley is an excellent example of wine diversity among mountain grown vineyards. Conventional thinking would state that with similar characteristics found between the Spring Mountain AVA, the Mount Veeder AVA and the Diamond Mountain AVA, wines produced from the Howell Mountain AVA should be similar to these other AVAs. As we have seen in the description of the Diamond Mountain AVA, subtle differences in Terroir lead to differences within the wines. Wines produced in the Howell Mountain AVA are no exception and can be characterized as having a watery texture, being as easy to drink as a glass of water.

The remainder of AVAs found within the Napa Valley include St. Helena, Chiles Valley, Yountville, Atlas Peak and Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley. The St. Helena AVA is located near the town of St. Helena and is the area where the father of Napa Valley wine, Charles Krug, opened his winery in 1861. The Chiles Valley AVA is located within the Vaca Mountains on the northeast side of the Napa Valley and was founded in 1999. The Yountville AVA is located near the town of Yountville and it was here that George Yount planted his vines in 1838. The Atlas Peak AVA can be found northeast of the city of Napa while the Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley AVA can be found in the southern end of the Napa Valley. The climate of the Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley AVA is very similar to that of the Los Carneros AVA.

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