Experiencing Wine. . .Napa Valley

Experiencing Wine. . .Napa Valley

By Jim Marsili

By Jim Marsili

Wine Sommelier

The California wine experience, without doubt, offers the world an exciting array of quality and diversity. While my obvious affection for Sonoma was made evident in previous articles, it would be very closed-minded of me to think that Sonoma holds all the cards. My tastes are one thing—subjectivity rules.

Even if the Napa Valley did not produce some of the world’s finest wines, it would still be considered a mandated visit and a crown jewel of northern California’s highlights. Kissed with bay fog at the valley’s southern tip, which borders the San Pablo Bay and continuing 30 miles north to the base of Mt. St. Helens, the valley ranges only from one to five miles wide and is protected by low mountains on the east and west. The geographic and meteorological factors create a series of weather patterns, or microclimates in the Napa Valley. While one can depend on fair, sunny days and cool evenings throughout the spring, summer and fall, the temperature can vary as much as 10-12 degrees from one end of the valley to the other. Rugged hills and winding roads on three sides of the valley give way to the flat valley floor. Both hills and floor are dotted with breathtaking chateau-like wineries and homes of local stone built before the turn of the century. It is all surrounded with acre after acre of world-renowned vineyards.

The valley can be traveled by the two main roads that run its length, from Napa, a town of 53,000 at the southern end, to Calistoga, a tiny village known for its mineral springs and mud baths, at the north end. Highway 29, the more traveled route, passes through a string of small villages and therefore gives access to a greater number of wineries, restaurants and lodgings. The Silverado Trail runs parallel to Hwy. 29, and offers the absence of these businesses and the asset of lovely views as it winds along the eastern edge of the valley. Before we tour, maybe I can clear up some confusion regarding appellations or microclimates.

In the late 1970s, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms decided to allow viticultural areas to be used as appellation of origin on wine labels. Wineries realized the information would be valuable to wine lovers, allowing them to better identify a region where wine-grapes are grown. American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) are geographic areas distinguishable by soil, climate and/or history. Those elements can yield characteristics to an area’s crop, imparting identifiable characteristics to the wine.

The Napa Valley Viticultural Area has gained a worldwide reputation for growing premium wine varieties. Under the warm afternoons and cool evenings of the mid-valley, Bordeaux varietals—cabernet sauvignon, semillion and sauvignon blanc–grow best. In the cooler Carneros region (a region shared by Sonoma as well), Burgundian varieties—pinot noir and Chardonnay—flourish. To help wine consumers identify grapegrowing regions, the state legislature requires that any AVA totally surrounded by, in this case, the Napa Valley wine appellation, can only use its name in conjunction with Napa Valley on a label. Thus we find, for example, Stag’s Leap District and Napa Valley appearing on wine bottles in which at least 85 percent of its grapes are grown in the Stag’s Leap appellation.

Within the Napa Valley AVA lie 12 of these “sub-appellations.” Each has been approved or is pending approval by the federal government as possessing distinct characteristics.

Next month, we tour this patchwork of climates and geology.

Until that time.

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