Thursday, October 4, 2012

Exploring Wine: Napa Valley AVA

Map created by me and is not to scale

Napa Valley AVA is the most famous wine area in the United States. It's also one of the oldest areas, first grape vines planted in the 1860s, and most saturated with over 300 wineries. You can't drive more than a few minutes down St Helena Highway (the main drag) without being overwhelmed with options. It's like oenophile Mecca. So I went there and here's what I learned.

Napa Valley is flanked by mountain ranges on two sides, San Francisco Bay on the South, and Mount St. Helena to the north. The area is a historically suitable climate for farming and the culture there is still focused on the land. Wine making took off in the late 19th and early 20th centuries but between prohibition and a deadly outbreak of phylloxera (a plant disease which can infect grape vines) the industry came to almost a complete halt. By the 1960s and 70s though, the vineyards started growing again and attracted many entrepreneurial minded businessmen, eccentrics, and wine lovers, including Robert Mondavi. Now the industry is thriving and is one of the go-to destinations for wine lovers around the world. Those lucky enough to live in Napa full time enjoy a comfortable outdoorsy lifestyle that revolves around farming, bocci ball, and drinking wine. There is little rain, lots of sun, and cool evenings. I didn't want to leave! 

When people talk about wine from Napa Valley they are taking the Napa Valley Appellation or AVA. An appellation is simply a geographic growing region that is governed by rules that are overseen by a government body. These guidelines are generally used to produce better quality wines and regulate the industry standards. In France, the appellation system includes rankings but in the United States the American Viticulture Areas or AVA only define growing regions. 

You can tell where the wine in your bottle was grown based on the AVA labeling. For instance, in order for a bottle to say "Napa Valley" on it, 85% of the grapes must come from the Napa Valley AVA (this is true throughout the country). If a bottle says "California" then 100% of the grapes must come from California, but not necessarily a particular AVA. There is a lot of back and forth and some controversy surrounding the labeling laws, but as a consumer I find them helpful when I'm trying to decide what to purchase at the store.

All the mountains and valleys create a bunch of little microclimates, which give Napa the ability to be a suitable growing area for many different types of grapes. However, since this is an overview, when you are ordering wine at a restaurant or choosing at the store, you can't go wrong with a cabernet sauvignon or a chardonnay. These are the two most widely planted and successfully grown grapes in the Napa Valley. When I was there I also tasted a few very nice sauvignon blancs, merlots, zinfandels, pinot noirs, and syrahs that I really enjoyed. So if you are feeling adventurous, try one of those too. 

Here is a list of the sub appellations in Napa, which correlates to the map above. I'll be referring to the map when I talk about more specific wineries and varietals in the weeks to come.
1. Calistoga
2. Diamond Mountain District
3. Howell Mountain
4. Spring Mountain District
5. St. Helena
6. Chiles Valley District
7. Rutherford
8. Oakville
9. Mount Veeder
10. Yountville
11. Oak Knoll District
12. Stags Leap District
13. Atlas Peak
14. Los Carneros
15. Wild Horse Valley
16. Coombsville

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