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Napa Valley reinvents the grape

Since the subject is wine, the French naturally have a word for it: terroir, to mean the combination of soil and climate peculiar to each vineyard. The Americans have a word, too: Napa.

It's not quite that simple, but the small valley north of San Francisco has grown grapes for almost 150 years. It became ground zero for the wine boom of the 1970s. Within its 30-mile stretch, Bordeaux cabernets thrived. So did Burgundian chardonnay, home-grown zinfandel, German whites and a host of lesser wines. Napa said it all.

Much has changed in the vineyards and the world. Neighbor Sonoma now rivals Napa. Other parts of California and the United States have won respect, and foreign competition grows steadily. Napa's production has shrunk in a string of short vintages and mostly by infestation of the louse phylloxera, which has forced growers to pull out half the vines in the valley. (Many areas, including the famed Martha's Vineyard of Heitz Cellars, had to sit out several vintages while new vines took hold.)

Yet Napa still is the first name in American winemaking, judging by the wines poured last week at an annual benefit for Abilities of Florida. In a hangar at the Jet Executive Center in Clearwater, 40 touring vintners gave wine lovers the richest grand tasting Tampa Bay has enjoyed in years, including their priciest reserve bottles and the fashionable new California-Italians.

One thing that was as clear as the richness of the newly released '94 reds is that Napa's prominence, combined with short supplies, has made its grapes, real estate and wines even more precious. Prices for the best cabernets can climb close to $40, and even zinfandel and sangiovese grown in Napa can top $20.

Those who looked closely and tasted widely saw more change, and new names and new grape varieties on wine labels and maps. That's a result of a re-exploration of Napa's geography by new growers looking for unclaimed pieces and old growers rethinking while replanting phylloxera-damaged vines.

"You have to be farming for quality now," said Tom Shelton of Joseph Phelps Vineyards. That means careful consideration of how and what to plant, sometimes realizing grapes were in the wrong place.

The valley stretches north from the coastal plain at the top of San Francisco Bay and upland between two ridges that rise to 2,000 feet. In it are dozens of soil types and microclimates of different temperature, humidity, rainfall and sunlight.

Increasingly, Napa winemakers, even big operators such as Robert Mondavi, boast about specific parts of Napa, down to single vineyards: the cool, foggy Carneros in the south for pinot noir and chardonnay, Stag's Leap and Howell Mountain on the eastern ridge for reds, and the Rutherford Bench in the valley, where cabernet has an aroma so rich it's called "Rutherford dust."

Others are winning new reputations for old vineyard areas, like the cabs and zinfandels growing on rugged slopes of Mount Veeder on the west ridge. Italy's Antinori found near-Tuscan conditions for its Atlas Peak winery in a mountain valley high on the east side where beef cattle once ranged.

Down lower, southeast of the town of Napa, the fashionable wines of Jayson Pahlmeyer come from land he was stuck with when he couldn't get zoning for a subdivision. Other wineries have planted vineyards in empty coastal flatlands east of Carneros.

Most of the changes are a product of what some growers now refer to jokingly as "my friend phylloxera." In most areas they replant the same, most profitable, varieties of cabernet, chardonnay and merlot, but use better strains of the grapes, new techniques of planting and new blends from different vineyards.

Meanwhile, less profitable grapes such as riesling and chenin blanc are disappearing, and even sauvignon blanc is becoming scarce.

On the plus side, many wineries are experimenting with other varietals. At Joseph Phelps, winemakers admitted that the vineyard closest to the winery never had really made great chardonnay or cabernet, so the new vines there grow viognier, one of the white Rhone grapes.

Others deliberately sought out land that had grown neglected varieties. Swanson bought its first vineyard land because it had old vines of syrah and petite syrah, to make red wines of the Rhone and Australia.

The biggest rush is to Italian varieties, back to the literal roots of many of the early vines and families of the area. In the past few years, more than 60 California wineries made sangiovese, the grape of Chianti, many of them in Napa. For instance, that wine plus pinot grigio and barbera will soon appear under this label: La Famiglia di Robert Mondavi.

Such change is a sign Napa may seem old, but it is still maturing.

"We're still so young," said Julie Williams of Frog's Leap, "We've got a long way to go, but we're going to catch up with the diversity that is the reality of the world."

Here's how the current diversity tasted to the palate of this reporter:

Affordable whites: A short list to start with in Napa, but at $10 or less St. Supery's melony, well-balanced sauvignon blanc and Pine Ridge's delightful chenin blanc should be on it. A rare steal for a few dollars more is a clean, crisp chardonnay from Heitz Cellar, better known as a cab giant.

Cabernet, merlot and red blends: Duckhorn's '94 and Freemark Abbey's '91 and '93 again deliver rich color and soft tastes, but blockbuster reds were Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill, Joseph Phelps Insignia, Pahlmeyer Red Table Wine and Pine Ridge Andrus Reserve. Merlot of the show: Beringer's '93 vintage from Howell Mountain, better than chocolate.

Chardonnay: Clos du Val Carneros and Merryvale Reserve rarely disappoint and don't in '95; new names to remember are Barnett, with a rich Burgundian style, and Chateau Woltner, with a whole family of single-vineyard chards.

Pinot noir: The '94 Carneros pinots, especially Bouchaine and Saintsbury, are full of cherries and spice; try newcomers Truchard and Crichton Hall, too.

Sangiovese: To taste how Napa translates Chianti, Robert Pepi's Colline di Sassi is tops, followed by Atlas Peak and Signorello. Best Cal-Ital hybrids crossed with cabernet were Shafer Firebreak and Silverado.

Zinfandel: Thick, jammy Frog's Leap and a smoothie from Mount Veeder Winery were premium versions, but Veeder neighbor Chateau Potelle's V.G.S. was most zinful of all.