Through Fires and Floods, America’s Two Most Cherished Wine Regions Continue To Set The Pace

I love Napa Valley in late winter and the spring, when the hills, a parched straw color for most of the year, are lush green from the winter rains and cool temperatures. And that is exactly how I found it on my most recent trip this February, with picturesque green hills rising above the grapeless, valley-floor vineyards.

Of course, a little sunshine also helps to warm the weary traveler’s soul—especially when said traveler is fresh off a five-hour flight and bonus hour and a half drive. The rare mid-70s temps and sunny skies were a fortuitous start to a vacation that promised to be a departure from my Napa trips of old. Unlike past jaunts, where I might have made an appointment at one or two wineries but for the most part winged it, this trip was meticulously planned and equipped with stops at some of the top producers in both Napa and Sonoma. It turns out that you can teach an old oenophile new tricks, for just when I thought I knew all there was to know about these two great wine regions—first as a consumer and later as an official member of the wine trade—I learned a little more.

After a five-day trip to Napa and Sonoma valley, visiting some of the top producers in both regions and speaking intimately to their owners and winemakers, here are my observations.

Concept Wines vs. “Des Vins Qui Vous Plaisent” (“Wines That Please”)

Cliff Lede Cellar

The topic of “concept wines” vs. “des vins qui vous plaisent” (French for “wines that please you”) came up in a variety of ways over the course of my touring and I’m glad it did. If there was one thing virtually all of the winemakers I met with had in common, it was the desire to make “pleasing,” enjoyable wines that represented the nuances of their specific vineyard sites. Though many winemakers will maintain that they are not influenced by the opinions of wine critics, there is no denying that they pay attention to scores—or at least they did.

To be fair, leading wine critics like Robert Parker and Wine Spectator (my former employer) have done wonders for the wine industry by providing such data in a user-friendly fashion. Tasting every potential wine to find your palate’s favorite is clearly not an option for most consumers, so the ratings and tasting notes of critics can serve as a very helpful guide for shoppers. Some do believe, however—and I am among this group—that the numeric 100-point scale that critics employ has run its course. And with nary a mention of scores throughout my entire trip, it seems to be less of an issue for winemakers as well.

As Americans become more educated on wine—and we have no doubt become more educated—our reliance on scores becomes less. Wine drinkers know what they like more than ever and that’s a great thing. Winemakers in turn can concentrate on doing what they do best—making great wine, vintage after vintage, vineyard site to vineyard site, with whatever mother nature has bestowed upon them. Alas, the quest for the next 100-point “cult” wine seems to be a blip on their radar. Making wines that are born in the vineyard, each one unique and void of preconceived notions of what it should be, is alive and well in Napa Valley.

When It Comes To Winemaking Style—Every House Is Different

Cliff Lede Fermenting Room  

Growing grapes and making wine are two completely different things. While all the winemakers I met with shared a belief in making wines based on what their vineyard site provided them, the vineyard sites on their own only go so far in determining the style of the wine. Once the grapes are picked, it is up to the winemaker to “make” the wine. And while I agree with the old adage “great wines are made in the vineyard,” there are plenty of winemaking decisions that come AFTER the grapes are picked that can have lasting effects on the wine. Winemakers have a creative license to do what they want with their artwork and everyone has a different style.

“There seems to be a trend of re-discovering classic winemaking, classic winemaking families, time-tested terroir, all the men and women who have been making wine up here with passion and humility for over a generation,” says Kevin Morrisey, winemaker of Ehlers Estate. “Consistent, reliable, packed with decades of discovery, care and experience, these wines made by the Napa Valley ‘old-timers’ are the real deal.  The flashy comers and goers are losing a lot of steam and there seems to be a newfound respect and appreciation for the classics, so that’s exciting to me, because those are the wines I like to make, drink and collect.”

There is also more diversity within Napa and Sonoma than ever before—particularly Napa, which does not have as many microclimates as Sonoma, but still manages to produce a number of different varietals in many different styles. Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, has a wide range of styles depending on where the grapes are from—south to north, hillside to valley floor. Stag’s Leap District Cabernet, for example, has much softer tannins than the Cabernet grown further up the valley in the hotter temps of St. Helena or Calistoga. Despite being separated by mere miles, Spring Mountain Cabernet is much different from the Cabernet grown on the valley floor. This is due to the vine structure of hillside vineyards and their access, or lack thereof, to water. And through the evolution of farming and work in the cellar, producers are more capable than ever of seeing how their techniques and winemaking decisions have influenced their product 10-30 years later. They are making smarter decisions today based on a greater historical perspective and have an awareness of the great vineyard sites like never before.

Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc

Gamble Family Vineyards “Heart Block” Sauvignon Blanc

While microclimates allow their Sonoma neighbors to the west to grow a wide variety of grapes right on their own estate, Napa Valley estate vineyards concentrate primarily on Bordeaux varietals for reds (mainly Cabernet, Merlot and Cabernet Franc) and Sauvignon Blanc for whites.

Sauvignon Blanc, sometimes to people’s surprise, actually thrives in Napa Valley (the chardonnay on the tasting list at a Napa Valley winery is likely from Carneros or Sonoma and not from their actual estate). Yet for a long time, it played the role of warm up wine—a palate cleanser or amuse bouche—before the featured wines. Not anymore. Across the board, vintners are no longer making Sauvignon Blanc for a little extra cash flow. They are investing it in big time—from farming, to specific clones, to barrels and concrete eggs.

“The great wines of the world are produced from a relatively small number of varieties of Vitis vinifera, with Cabernet Sauvignon being one of the most renowned grape varieties for producing world class red wine,” says Remi Cohen, VP and GM of Lede Family Wines (Cliff Lede).

Interestingly, genetics research has discovered that Cabernet Sauvignon is the “offspring” of a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, meaning Sauvignon Blanc is a genetic “parent” of Cabernet Sauvignon.  Therefore, it is not surprising that Cabernet Sauvignon shares some of its qualities with Sauvignon Blanc.

Concrete Egg Fermenting Tanks (Cliff Lede)

“Cabernet Sauvignon remains king in Napa, but there is plenty of room for other royalty, including Sauvignon Blanc,” says Tom Gamble of Gamble Family Vineyards. “The acreage for Sauvignon Blanc is actually decreasing, but all that means is that Sauvignon Blanc planted for vin ordinare is reduced, and plantings by passionate growers for winemakers driven by quality will remain, thus lifting the overall reputation of Sauvignon Blanc.”

Case in point: Gamble Family Vineyards’ “Heart Block” Sauvignon Blanc, which sells for $90 (only to club members). Gamble—whose family has been farming Napa Valley for a century—attributes the uniqueness of this particular wine to a slew of preparatory features. These include multiple harvest dates, multiple clones, slow native yeast fermentations, secondary fermentation, and diverse and highest quality barrel selection.

“It’s hard to put into words the profound sensory experience Heart Block provides, but let’s try,” says Gamble. “The intense aromas and flavors are redolent of sweet treats: toffee apples, crème brulée, honeycomb, apricots and citrus marmalade.  Yet this wine is bone dry, supported by lots of acidic citrus notes and a rich, creamy texture.  More savory elements of white pepper, lime peel and flint add to the layers of flavor and help to frame the long, persistent finish. This wine matures well and actually improves with 6 to 8 years of aging.”

Merlot and the “Sideways” Effect—Is It Still In Effect?

Ehlers Estate Merlot

There is no question that the 2004 cult classic “Sideways,” in which Paul Giamatti’s character Miles Raymond has a love affair with Pinot Noir while loathing Merlot—had positive effects on the former and the opposite on the latter. While Pinot Noir is clearly still enjoying its time in the limelight, Merlot seems to be elbowing its way back into the fold. Yes, the two varietals can co-exist in popularity post-Sideways. However, these aren’t your easy-going, 1990s style Merlots. Napa Merlots have matured into their own; no longer thought of solely as a blending wine or an opening act for Cabernet Sauvignon. The Merlot I tried from Ehlers Estate (off Route 29 in St Helena), for example, exhibited the kind of round, chewy tannins you would expect from a Napa Valley Merlot. Yet its core of dark fruit flavors could have easily been mistaken for Cabernet and would certainly benefit from age like it’s Bordeaux brother.

“Merlot is an amazing varietal, capable of making beautiful, full-bodied, complex wines,” says Kevin Morrisey of Ehlers Estate. “But it needs stellar soils, and it needs a long, warm, mild growing season and attentive farming. I don’t think we’re going to make interesting Merlot if we’re cutting corners on any of her basic needs. The folks who have always been committed to making fine Merlot are still at it. Some of them have been doing it a long time, and those wines are worth seeking out. Merlot is always worth tasting, and if it’s awesome, there’s a pretty good chance that everything made by that house or winemaker is going to be terrific.”

The “Petaluma Gap”—Sonoma’s Newest and Perhaps Most Revered AVA

Cline Cellars Petaluma Gap Vineyard  

While gnawing on a perfectly cooked Ahi Tuna Steak with Shitake Mushroom Butter in the basement wine cellar at Stark’s Steak & Seafood (a timeless outpost in Santa Rosa that’s equally as popular with locals as it is with visiting wine tasters), the topic of best Pinot Noir AVAs (wine growing regions) in the U.S. came up. One local wine critic, whom I later found out was the somewhat renowned wine columnist Dan Berger (columns in the LA Times, Associated Press and Santa Rosa Press-Democrat dating back to 1976), declared that there are three AVAs in a league of their own: the Russian River Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands and Petaluma Gap.

Wait a second, I thought. What about Carneros? Or Santa Maria? Or Willamette in Oregon? I pressed him on Carneros, which I thought deserved to be in the discussion. Carneros, which straddles both Napa and Sonoma from the south, is one of California’s oldest, most reliable Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grape growing regions. Berger countered my argument, explaining how the Petaluma Gap’s topography combined with its ability to pull much more cool air and fog in from the Pacific than Carneros can off the San Pablo Bay is what renders it superior. Cool air and fog are vital to Pinot Noir, allowing for greater hang time of the grapes.

Pfendler winemaker, Justin Harmon, elaborates: “The Petaluma Gap provides a uniquely advantageous opportunity to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir under cool-climate conditions, while still retaining distinct California character. Due to the profound influence the Pacific Ocean impresses upon the region by way of both wind and fog, The Gap’s vines are afforded the opportunity to slowly ripen their fruit under clear California skies each day, all while persistent, cooling Westerly winds temper the AVA’s daily high temperatures.  This balance of sunshine and cool temperatures allows for an exceptional balance of sugar accumulation and phenolic ripeness in the grapes at harvest time.”

Now, I knew of the town of Petaluma (it’s actually quite famous for it’s barnyard stench, compliments of the many farms). I knew the “Gaps Crown” vineyard in the Sonoma Coast region. Heavy hitters like Kosta Browne and Gary Farrell make some of their best Pinot Noir from this vineyard. But I was not aware of an AVA by the name of Petaluma Gap. As it turns out, the Petaluma Gap (aka Petaluma Wind Gap) was just designated as an official AVA on December 7, 2017, thus making it Sonoma’s newest American Viticultural Area (AVA) and partly accounting for my oblivion. Superior critics like Berger, however, have known this area and coveted wines from it for years.

Needless to say, the 2015 Pfendler Pinot Noir and 2015 Pfendler Chardonnay that accompanied our meal were stellar, food-friendly wines with great balance and acidity—a hallmark of this region. Expect to see more great Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays coming out of this newly acclaimed area.

 Sonoma’s Many Microclimates

Pfendler’s Sonoma Coast Vineyard

A microclimate refers to the climate of a small area that differs from its surrounding area. Generally speaking, the more microclimates you have in a wine region, the more varietals you can grow. Sonoma has myriad microclimates—more than just about any major wine region in the world—allowing its growers to harvest more than 60 different varietals across 18 AVAs. Moreover, the multitude of microclimates allows vintners to experiment with different styles within a single varietal—warm vs. cool climate Syrah, for example. Pinot Noir, in particular, benefits from this climatic diversity, ranging from the more austere, earth-driven, Burgundian style typical of Sonoma Coast, to the more lush, fruit-driven style found in Russian River.

“Climate in the various regions of Sonoma County is defined by access to the flow of air from the Pacific Ocean—often visible as fog,” says renowned winemaker David Ramey of Ramey Wine Cellars.  “Along with Chile and South Africa, the coast of California is marked by an upwelling of deep ocean waters which chills the air above.  Wherever there is a break in the coastal mountain range, that cold air can be sucked in by the warmer, rising air of the Central Valley.  The more interior regions of Sonoma, blocked by hills, are thus warmer—the Alexander and Sonoma Valleys—while those with unimpeded access to marine breezes are cooler—Carneros, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, and the newly created Petaluma Gap AVA.  This is the reason for the tremendous success of Sonoma County across a broad range of grape varieties. Early ripening varieties, such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, do better in cooler spots closer to the ocean. Late ripening varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, benefit from the extra warmth of the interior valleys and hillsides.”

My Favorite Wines From The Trip

Frank Family Vineyards

I have always enjoyed Cliff Lede wines and consider them to be one of the most consistent producers in Napa Valley. Their Cliff Lede 2016 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($25) is no exception. It is quintessential Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc—lively and fruit driven (stone fruits and citrus), backed by great acidity and balance. A benchmark for consistency, this wine has never disappointed me. The Gamble Family Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc was also a hit. Whereas most visitors to the winery are probably chomping at the bit to taste their single vineyard, Heart Block Sauvignon Blanc, they are likely leaving with a few bottles of the Gamble Family Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc ($25). Inspired by the Loire and Graves regions of France, this everyday wine is a better deal and you might even prefer it.

The Ehlers Estate Merlot 2015 ($55)—a rich, terroir-driven Merlot featuring dark fruits, tobacco and thick tannins—was both powerful and elegant and a reminder of how well this varietal can do in Napa Valley. Frank Family Vineyards’ “Patriarch” ($225) Cabernet Sauvignon is not in many peoples price range—mine included—and thus not the type of wine I find myself writing on frequently. But I would be remiss to leave out what was perhaps my favorite red wine of the trip. One might expect 100% Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon to be on the muscular side, with time needed in the bottle to mellow out, but this wine was pure elegance in a glass, with perfectly integrated tannins and wonderful fruit that lingered on a very long finish. Also, rumor has it that it recently received a very high score from a very influential wine critic—if you’re into that kind of thing.

Complexity in a wine cannot be made in the fermenting tanks and barrels. It requires a long growing season with plenty of hang time in the vineyard. The “Petaluma Gap” is ideal in this capacity—providing an extended growing season thanks to sunny yet cool afternoons. Pfendler Vineyards 2015 Chardonnay ($38) and 2015 Pinot Noir ($45) are textbook “Gap” wines—the beneficiaries of this unique growing region. They are also highly versatile wines that should be enjoyed with food. The same can be said for David Ramey’s wines—particularly his Chardonnays. If I had to recommend one it would probably be the 2015 Ramey Chardonnay Russian River Valley ($40) which has everything you want in a California Chardonnay—great depth of flavor, backed by plenty of acid and a long finish. I also feel obliged to point out his 2007 “Ritchie Vineyard” Russian River Valley Chardonnay. Normally I am not a fan of aged Chardonnay—especially from California—however this one was brilliant, with flavors redolent of butterscotch and creme brûlée with some fleeting acidity. It is not easy to make Chardonnays with longevity in California. Kudos to Mr. Ramey.

Last but not least, I loved the sparkling wine offerings from Frank Family. It may not be their core competency but I think it’s a testament to the diversity and willingness to experiment with new ideas that is prevalent in Napa and Sonoma today. Frank Family has been recognized in national publications for leading the effort of “grower-champagnes” in the United States—Marylin Monroe used visit the winery from time to time to get her fill of bubbles. All four of their sparkling offers—Blanc de Blancs, Rose, Rouge and the Lady Edythe Reserve Brut were all delicious and would work well at any type of cocktail or dinner party. My favorite? Frank Family Vineyards Sparkling Rose ($55). It was their welcoming wine (quite literally) with a lasting impression.