Napa Valley is one of the smallest winemaking regions on the globe, yet its geographic diversity is unmatched by other wine regions worldwide. In this 30-mile by 5-mile district, there are nearly 500 wineries growing an array of grape varietals. The landscape is composed of half of the world’s soil types – from volcanic rock to soils of marine origin – resulting in Napa being named the first American Viticultural Area (AVA) in California. An AVA is a legal designation for a wine grape-growing area in the United States with regional distinction. I was recently in the breathtakingly beautiful valley of Napa and experienced firsthand the distinct attributes an AVA can impart in a
bottle of wine.
Conn Creek is a boutique winery in the sub-AVA of Rutherford, offering a hands-on experience to blend your own bottle of wine! Leave it to me, of course, to wear all white on the day I get to drink wine from a barrel and make a wine concoction. Luckily, my clothes survived. The blending room was lined with oak barrels, each filled with a Cabernet Sauvignon wine made from grapes of a single sub-AVA. Napa has 16 sub-AVAs (See full listing on right). Conn Creek sources the grapes in the same year and ages the wine for the same period of time to serve as a constant. This allows consumers the opportunity to distinguish flavors of the sub-appellations they would otherwise be unable to discern in a blend.
All of the wines in the blending room were delicious in their own way. The southern Carneros clay soil produced wine of dark, sweet cherry and juicy plum flavors. The northeastern Howell Mountain sandstone gave the wine a toffee and sour olive essence, while the central Yountville gravelly loam and alluvial soil produced a pleasantly herbal wine. The southwestern Mount Veeder, which is sandy as a result of formerly being a seabed, delivered an intensely bold and silky wine with an earthy spice. The sub-AVA I found most intriguing was Diamond Mountain, whose reddish, volcanic soil created a wine reminiscent of cold brick, slate, and minerals. I wrote in my notes: “I don’t know why I like it, but I do!”
While shopping for wine, it is common to find a bottle specifying 100% of a given varietal, for example, 100% Pinot Noir from Napa Valley. However, while the percentage denotes the amount of a grape varietal harvested from a general region, it is not necessarily an indicator of the specific mountains and valleys within that general region. Oftentimes, winemakers consciously blend the same varietal from multiple sub-AVAs to capture in one bottle the varying aromas, tannins, and levels of acidity the total region has to offer. Neither technique is superior; it is simply the winemaker’s preference to showcase a varietal from a particular zone or highlight the varietal’s flavor possibilities in a broader spectrum.
Quite a few barrel tastings later, it was time to gather my notes and decide which wines to combine for my personal blend. Ah, the fun part! Some people poured a bit of every barrel into one bottle; some tried various combinations before finalizing their masterpiece; and some simply chose their single sub-AVA favorite. I filled a glass beaker with wine from seven sub-AVAs in different proportions and named my wine “DANI Seven Mountain Blend 100% Cabernet Sauvignon”. The event was completed by drawing your own label and corking the bottle to take home as a custom-made souvenir. As I await the perfect occasion, my delicious blend rests patiently in my wine cooler.
Napa Valley AVA sub-appellations
(Listed in ascending order
of legal designation)
1. Los Carneros
2. Howell Mountain
3. Wild Horse Valley
4. Stags Leap District
5. Mount Veeder
6. Atlas Peak
7. Spring Mountain
10. St. Helena
11. Chiles Valley
13. Diamond Mountain
14 Oak Knoll
17. Pope Valley – Pending official AVA status