Valley cats: UK sommeliers head to Napa Valley for a taste of California

Drinks: Drinks
Location: North America, USA

A team of UK sommeliers waxed down their spittoons, primped up their bushy blonde hairdos and headed to Napa to surf the waves of Cabernet, followed by Peter McCombie MW

California’s Premiere Napa Valley is an auction, preceded by a trade-only barrel tasting of auction lots. It’s the cornerstone of the Napa Valley Vintners (NVV) fundraising and promotional activities, and this year they’d invited a small group of UK sommeliers to visit the valley in the run up to the auction.


While five days in Napa might seem like a picnic, the Californians had a full on agenda. Each day saw themed seminars and tastings, covering varietals like Cabernet and Chardonnay, and Hillside and Valley Floor appellations, along with vineyard visits and an opportunity to dine with winemakers.

Napa’s influence is firmly at the top end of the wine spectrum. It makes only 4% of Californian wine but this narrow strip of a valley accounts for around a third of Californian wine value. Still, its 14 Napa Valley American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) are mostly not well known in the UK. These appellations owe as much to politics as viticulture, just as their European equivalents do.

For example, adjacent parts of AVAs Oakville and Rutherford have more in common with each other than they do with their counterparts across the valley, within each appellation. In fact, two of the most interesting seminar/tastings were those comparing the valley floor appellations and mountain and hillside appellations.

The valley floor appellations, eg Oakville and Rutherford, have more fertile soils, poorer drainage, greater warmth and available water – from an underground aquifer. The hillside appellations, eg Stags Leap District and Howell Mountain, are cooler, less frost prone and need irrigation.

‘It has to be hillside. Just look at

the Stags Leap District – the best

region in Napa?’ – Ronan Sayburn

Given the ‘right on’ image of Californians, it was not surprising to find environmental and local community programmes encouraged by NVV, such as the Napa Green Certified Winery scheme, whose members are expected to demonstrate a commitment to conserving water and energy, reducing waste and preventing pollution, with the broad aim of reducing the carbon footprint of wine production. A visit to the Boys & Girls Club of Napa Valley saw presentations on what NVV and individual wineries are doing to support the local community, including migrant workers. The work being done to address these environmental and social concerns clearly impressed our sommeliers.

‘Down and Dirty in the Winery’ saw sommeliers spending a morning helping the winemaker in the cellar. For some this was a chance to walk the vineyard or barrel taste. For others, a blending tasting was a highlight of the visit. One of the most popular sessions was ‘Pioneers of the Valley’ featuring Dan Duckhorn, John Shafer and Walter Raymond.

It was fascinating to hear from winemakers who had an historical perspective (Raymond is a fourth generation vintner, with Beringer blood in his veins) and instructive to taste Napa wines with serious bottle age. Shafer suggested that the pioneers had been enamoured with European styles, but had failed in attempting to recreate them. While most of the cult producers were absent from the NVV programme, the pioneers argued that what they did was good for Napa’s reputation.

There has been a stylistic shift, Shafer maintained – and one that reflects both climate reality and consumer preference.

Earlier in the week Mondavi’s Mark de Vere MW had pointed out that while Napa has Bordeaux-like degree days in summer, it has more sunshine and less rain around vintage. According to Chris Phelps of Swanson, this means ‘you need to get to 15% alcohol to get physiological ripeness’ – something that can be problematic for Europeans.

‘I learnt a lot about the work the

vintners do for the environment’

– Gearoid Devaney

Napa winemakers agree that there is an American palate and that it’s different – variously described by winemakers as ‘sweet’ or ‘lush’. De Vere spoke for many when he noted the ‘US wine press is perhaps inclined to rate a vintage overall, a rating which reflects their own bias towards bigger riper styles, but other vintages are perhaps more interesting’.

Our sommeliers had the distinct impression that some Napa palates are more aligned with European palates, even while commercial reality demands they pay attention to the US critics.

While the cliche about Napa Valley wines being big, ripe and expensive may hold some truth, the UK sommeliers found that there was more to them than that. As Ronan Sayburn pointed out: ‘Maybe the UK trade focuses too much on how expensive they are rather than how good?’

So prime minister, let me ask you again…

After five days, the sommeliers get to grips with some of the big issues in Napa


Does vineyard location make a difference in Napa?

Minnis didn’t like the question, arguing he didn’t really have an answer, preferring to see it as more of a question to start a debate: ‘Valley versus hillside is a little simplistic’. Both Bal and Devaney also sat on the fence, with Bal finding ‘excellent wines from both… as well as some not so good’, but both conceded, if pushed ‘valley [floor]for immediate drinking, hillside for keeping’ (Bal) and ‘the hillside wines scored higher overall’ (Devaney).

But Sayburn was in no doubt: ‘It has to be hillside – just look at the Stags Leap District – the best region in Napa? Apart from on the gravel benches the valley floor seems too fertile.’


Napa Valley wine has long had a reputation for being too expensive to sell in the UK.

Bal does not ‘really have a problem selling wines from Napa’, while Californian specialist Minnis
admits his visit has given him ‘a better understanding of the pricing factors’.

However, Devaney thinks there may be some misconceptions about Napa in relation to pricing and quality. ‘Some sommeliers/winebuyers choose to ignore Napa as a fashion statement eg “I don’t list wines with high alcohol”, irrespective of the fact that the wine might be beautifully balanced with lots of fruit and structure to support the alcohol.’


Worldwide producers are using their environmental and ethical efforts as marketing tools. Napa is no different, but is there substance?

Devaney was ‘fully expecting to see high quality wine but was impressed with all the other work that they do and how they worked together to achieve their goals… I learnt a lot about the work the vintners do for the community and environment.’ For Bal, this, too, was ‘something new’, while Minnis was pleasantly surprised by ‘the sustainable farming practices, indeed [by]how many are organic [and]the contribution to the locals – indeed almost “socialist” policies.’


Like, peace and Merlot, man, as our somms turn on, tune in and drop out


Head sommelier, The Greenhouse

Favourite winery: Shafer.

‘They have always made excellent wines, they don’t make too many different styles… keeping things simple.’


Duckhorn Merlot 1987 ‘Like an old St Emilion… amazingly complex and in great condition.’

Shafer Hillside Select 1984 (magnum) ‘Aged very well in this format.’

Duckhorn Merlot 1974 ‘Showed how well these wines will age, still very fresh.’

Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 1993 ‘The first time I tried a Dunn (plus I was in the French Laundry at the time!)’

Raymond Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ‘Super powerful blockbuster but still very elegant.’


Head sommelier, The Fat Duck

Favourite winery: Darioush.


Raymond Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ‘Purity of fruit, balance and price made this a best for me. Very Screaming Eagle-like on the nose.’

Darioush Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ‘Very well balanced, well

presented and not too heavily extracted, plus still at a relevant price point.’

Duckhorn Merlot 1987 ‘Shows that Californian wine can age.’

Oberon 2007 (barrel sample) ‘Really fine and balanced and I can say it would age and develop into something special. I liked this one a lot.’

Stags Leap Cellars (barrel sample) 2007 ‘Another one for the long term.’


Proprietor, Hotel TerraVina

Favourite wineries: Shafer and Darioush.


Shafer Hillside Select ‘It did age so majestically’

The Darioush Cabernets: ‘They had great elegance and were not heavy.’

Cabernets from Raymond, Viader, Palmaz and Tor Wineries.


Sommelier, Winelife Ltd

Favourite winery: ‘I could not single out just one winery.’


Hillside Select 1994 Shafer (magnum) ‘I have loved these wines… What a treat to be served this classy example of what Cabernet do!’

Stanley Ranch Pinot Noir 2007 Saintsbury ‘It was great to taste some top Pinot in amongst the blockbuster Cabs.’

Heitz Cellars Martha’s Vineyard 1997 ‘An excellent wine from a legendary vineyard and a great year.’

Viader Proprietary Blend 2004 ‘A wine I had not tried before and was very impressed with.’

Cliff Lede ‘Poetry’ Stags Leap District ‘Another wine I had not tried but it was intense and a real show stopper.’


Owner, Calistoga Southside with Sideways Wine Store (Edinburgh)

Favourite winery: Palmaz, for visual impact, Shafer for quality, St Supéry for good prices.


Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet ‘Just jumped out of all the wines we tasted that day.’

Cain V 1995,1996 and 1997 ‘Wonderful to try the different vintages and with food.’

Duckhorn Merlot 1987 ‘Standing up wonderfully and tasted in great company.’

Newton Unfiltered Merlot ‘Gorgeous and reasonably affordable’

St Supéry Moscato ‘You should always have a dessert wine on your list!’

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – May / June 2009

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