Finding ideal sites for making wine in California is not as easy as many believe. The Pacific coastline can be too cold for ripening grapes and the flat inland expanses can be blisteringly hot. In between the two, however, are the “baby bear” locations, those “just right” valleys with optimal soil aspects, temperatures and cooling marine breezes and fogs.
At the top of the list of California winemaking hotspots is the Napa Valley, which stretches across a tiny valley less than 60 miles northeast of San Francisco. At its narrowest point, Napa Valley is only one mile wide and in length, the entire valley is only 33 miles (in comparison, the Central Valley extends 300 miles from the San Joaquin Valley up to the Sacramento Valley). In fact, Napa only accounts for 4% of all California grape production, but ask the average citizen in Missouri or New York, and they’d likely guess otherwise.
What Napa Valley lacks in size and production, it makes up for in uncompromising quality and diversity. The fact that a series of volcanic eruptions millions of years ago left the valley with almost three dozen different soil series, belonging to eight of the world’s twelve major soil classifications, only buoys the valley’s reputation. It’s a geologic potpourri that, combined with the dozens of microclimates within the valley, has resulted in the valley’s division into 14 different sub-appellations, stretching from Carneros in the South to Diamond and Howell Mountains in the north. For the majority of Napa Valley, classic Bordeaux grapes – Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, & Petit Verdot – thrive. Carneros in the south, with its cool marine winds and shallow clay soils, is a hotbed for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Temperatures rise as you move north, and the areas around Calistoga (which is awaiting AVA approval) and even St. Helena, are prime breeding grounds for juicy, jammy Zinfandel.
The limitless possibilities for winemaking have drawn iconic winemaking and winegrowing pioneers from Robert Mondavi, Joe Heitz and Baron Phillip Rothschild to current stars like Philippe Melka, David Abreu, and Aaron Pott to this goldmine region. The wines they help create are some of the most polished and complex in the country.