Updated: Nov 27, 2021
Napa Valley is an American Viticultural Area in the larger North Coast AVA of California. Napa Valley also contains several sub-appellations of premier quality for grape growing. It is certainly one of the most pedigreed areas of wine production in the United States. Grapes have been produced in Napa since the 1830's and the first winery was opened in the 1860's. Today there are over 400 wineries in Napa County. The valley itself is long, narrow and runs from the San Pablo Bay north to the Calistoga AVA. The Mayacamas Range separates Napa Valley from Sonoma County to the west, and the Vaca Range runs the eastern side of the valley. The two ranges are critical in the role of generating the climate of the valley, protecting and distributing the cold air that rolls in from the Pacific Ocean.
In the south, Los Carneros AVA, which is shared with Sonoma County, has a relatively cool climate, due to proximity to the cool air coming off the cold waters of San Pablo Bay. The Coombsville AVA and Wild Horse Valley AVA, also share this climate, summer temperatures in these AVA's can be as much as 10 degrees cooler than the rest of Napa Valley. The ranges funnel this cool air, and morning fog up the valley, creating a cooler climate, especially in the morning until the fog burns off. Down here Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the main grapes produced, often for sparkling wines.
As we move further north in the valley, we see different grapes planted to vine. In Mount Veeder AVA, Atlas Peak AVA, Howell Mountain AVA, and the Stags Leap District AVA, where elevation allows the grapes to sit above valley floor fog, we see Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay produced as the main grapes. The picture of me and the guys at Cliff Lede Vineyards in Stags Leap District is from this trip. Still further north, where the fog either doesn't creep, or burns off early in the morning we see the valley floor planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Sauvignon Blanc. Yountville AVA, Oakville AVA, Rutherford AVA, and St. Helena AVA represent these valley floor "golden real estate" areas.
Surrounding the valley we have the Oak Knoll district in the south, and in the north Diamond Mountain and Spring Mountain District AVA's. These vary in elevation, and therefore vary in grapes planted to vine as the climate is conducive to many options. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Riesling in Oak Knoll for example.
As we reach the northern end of the valley, we get to Calistoga AVA. Calistoga is one of the warmest of the Napa AVA's, but its proximity to the Chalk Hill gap allows cool breezes to temper the heat in the evening. Here there is Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Malbec, and Syrah planted in addition to the Cabernet Sauvignon.
Napa Valley has such tremendous diversity in terms of what wines are produced, that I recommend classes like 3 Cabernet Sauvignons, sourced at different climates or elevations, or a selection of 3 wines from one smaller AVA. Learning the variances in Napa wine production requires multiple samples from multiple appellations, it is difficult, yet rewarding work! Let me help you work your way through it. Book a class.