California special: Napa Valley's quiet revolutionaries

Julie Sheppard

Julie Sheppard

29 July 2016

Not all Napa wines are steroid-pumped, point-seeking monsters. Julie Sheppard goes in search of the growing number of producers who are putting balance and elegance before ego and bombast

When you’re looking to add balanced, elegant wines to your restaurant list, Napa Valley isn’t necessarily the first place that springs to mind. Pompous Cabernets with a squillion Parker points? Oh yeah. Icon bottles with alcohol levels as big as their price tags? Bring it on. But a sophisticated wine that’s versatile enough to match with a range of dishes? Hmmm...

Perhaps it’s time for a rethink. The cult of the monster Cab still has its acolytes, but a new generation of winemakers is favouring more restrained styles – while an old guard has been quietly making wines that way for years.

Tom Farella arrived in Napa in 1977. ‘I’ve stuck to my guns about making balanced wines right from the start,’ he says. It’s the same story at Burgess Cellars, founded in 1972, where Steve Burgess comments: ‘We’ve kept our
style of wines the same; we’ve never made overripe wines.’

Both Farella and Burgess talk of making wines that express terroir and of natural stylistic differences due to terroir. But Napa is one of the smallest wine regions in the US. The valley floor is only 30 miles long and five miles across at its widest point, with 18,250 hectares under vine (slightly smaller than Burgundy). Can there be enough variety in terroir to account for one region producing two wildly different styles of wine?

‘Hillside versus valley floor is the critical difference,’ says Christopher Howell, winemaker at Cain Vineyard & Winery. ‘There’s a good deal more diversity here than in some classical wine regions of France.’ A look at a map confirms his statement. The flat valley floor is bordered by hills such as Howell Mountain, where vineyards are planted at elevations up to 670m, and on the benchlands inbetween.

Add in differences of exposure, plus 33 soil types – from rich alluvial flood plain soils on the valley floor to volcanic rock; proximity to the Pacific coast and the individual micro-climates, and you wonder whether it’s possible to pin
down Napa’s natural terroir at all.

Terroir aside, other factors contribute to the final style of a wine, such as deciding when to harvest. ‘The question of how ripe to pick is just personal choice; it depends what you’re looking for,’ says Howell. ‘It’s a choice to look for wines with energy and freshness.’

There’s a good deal more diversity here than in some classical wine regions of France

Christopher Howell

It’s also a choice to look for riper wines and higher alcohol. ‘I focus more on pH than alcohol levels. Alcohol just happens,’ states Russ Weis, GM of Silverado Vineyards. ‘Ultimately, the wine you make has to be delicious.’ Weis believes that a succession of warmer vintages in Napa contributed to the popularity of ripe, high-alcohol wines. ‘The 1990s lulled us into a false sense of no vintage variation,’ he says.

A significant change came with the 2011 vintage, which was cooler in general and made more elegant wines. ‘It was a tipping point in terms of style,’ says Andrea Robinson MS, who lives in Napa.

‘For me as a winemaker it was a big deal: my 2011s are a much fresher style,’ agrees Bradley Smith of Silenus in Oak Knoll, which is ‘the coolest AVA in Napa after Carneros’. The combination of cool AVA and cool vintage was clearly a revelation for him.

Style or substance?
‘My favourite vintages are always the longest and coolest,’ says Corison Winery’s Cathy Corison, who moved to Napa in 1975. She’s a firm believer that making elegant, ageable wines in Napa is a stylistic choice. ‘I’ve never made a wine over 14% alcohol and I’ve never had to de-alcoholise a wine,’ she explains. Though she does admit that when she first started making European-style Cabernet, she was scoffed at by other Napa winemakers.

‘Corison was a laughing stock – and so were we,’ says Steve Matthiasson, who produces the elegant Matthiasson Linda Vista Vineyard Chardonnay. ‘This is the style of wine that Napa makes,’ he says simply. ‘High-acid, age-worthy wines.’ Matthiasson is a member of In Pursuit of Balance, an organisation set up in 2011 to debate the question of balance in California Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Its ‘Manifesto of Balance’ recalls the overripe, oaky Chardonnay style of the 1980s and the resulting Anything But Chardonnay (ABC) backlash. ‘California Chardonnay is enjoying a renaissance,’ it states. ‘The resultant wines, which are moderate in alcohol and flush with acidity, do what great wines do: give a clear translation of time and place.’

This brings us back to the issue of Napa’s natural terroir and which style of wine best expresses it. But an equally relevant question is what style consumers prefer to drink. And, in the on-trade at least, we know what the answer is.

Napa wines

Antica Napa Valley, Atlas Peak Berkmann Wine Cellars, 020 7670 0972
Cain Vineyard & Winery, Spring Mountain Justerini & Brooks, 020 7493 6174
Corison Winery, St Helena Roberson Wine, 020 7381 7870
Diamond Creek Vineyards, Calistoga Armit Wines, 020 7908 0600

Main photo of Howell Mountain: Bob McCleanahan

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