Recently, we had a dear friend visit us from Atlanta. A South African native, this was his first trip to Napa and Sonoma. Having spent much of his younger years wandering around Stellenbosch and Constantia in the Western Cape, he was familiar with the concept of wine gardens (what you and I call vineyards). As he drove through the American equivalent, he was blown away by the similarities shared with his homeland. More than anything, he was surprised by the size of the region. Before his visit, he had assumed that Napa was just one, simple place. One small valley. As in: here’s the town and here are the vineyards. He didn’t expect to find town after town, vineyard after vineyard, and (more tellingly) appellation after appellation. Thrown in between two mountain ranges on either side of the valley (Mayacamas to the west and Vaca to the east), the nuances of the geography and growing regions of the Napa Valley change drastically wherever you go.
Over a bottle of wine, he asked us about the geography and brief history of these various appellations or, as we came to share with him, AVAs. AVA is a term thrown around a lot these days. It stands for American Viticultural Area and accounts for a specific wine-growing region. In a nutshell, it is a legally defined geographic area where grapes are grown. Napa Valley, as a whole, is an AVA, but within the Napa Valley AVA, there are 16 (yes, 16!) sub-appellations. Confused yet? Don’t worry; we’ll help you make sense of this.
As with anything designed to describe specific traits (think Georgia peaches, Vermont Cheddar, or Idaho potatoes) there are rules that protect AVAs. For a wine to qualify under an AVA banner, it has to meet specific requirements set forth by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. If we were growing a Cabernet in the valley and wanted to label it a Stag’s Leap Cabernet, we would need to ensure that 85% of our juice (grapes) came from the Stag’s Leap AVA.
Some may argue that AVAs are just another way to combat wine fraud by means of designating wine origin. Others may be more contentious and say that it’s a marketing ploy. But for those of us who live here, AVAs make simple, logical sense. In a valley that is over 30 miles long, microclimates exist everywhere you look. And so, by default, the geography of this area truly does create a myriad of authentic and unique growing regions.
For example, the Western slopes of the valley are flanked with dense forestry, while the Eastern hills are more arid and sparsely covered. Up valley, you can get 50-degree temperature swings in a 24-hour period, whereas other parts of the valley have much smaller shifts. Even the dense morning fog (created by the marine layer traveling east off the Pacific Ocean) affects every square foot of the valley a bit differently. Some vineyards are packed with fog well into the late-morning, while other areas see it burn off more quickly. What’s more is that variations in microclimates aren’t the only thing to consider. Add to this the variability of soil composition (volcanic, porous, rocky, etc.), and you have a lot to deal with before the first vine even goes in the ground.
Given all of this, the valley’s climate and soil patterns are fickle and varied at best, frustrating and challenging at worst, and sometimes confound even the most seasoned veterans. Essentially, you can have vineyards just a couple miles apart that produce vastly different grapes. Place, in this sense, means everything. It means that you can have vineyard plots that produce stellar Chardonnay just down the road from plots where Chardonnay would be hard-pressed to grow at all, let alone flourish. Or that two clones of the same Cabernet can be grown on two separate vineyards, just miles from one another, and produce vastly different grapes. Different microclimate, different soil, entirely different ball game.
Taking all of this into account, you can see why producers in different parts of the Valley want their grapes recognized separately of others. Given these distinctions, we figured that before we start traipsing throughout the valley showcasing our interviews and tours, a brief tutorial on the various Napa Valley AVAs was in order.
So, without further adieu, we give you a crash course on the geography of the Napa Valley and its corresponding sub-appellations.
The Towns (from South to North):
Land of transition and contradictions. A little bit small-town Americana, with a side of rough ‘n tumble, complemented with a topping of budding prosperity.
Miami Beach Lite. A little flash, a pinch of pretense, and a whole lotta fun.
The quintessential one-store town. Seriously. One store: Oakville Grocery.
Should just be called the “Rutherford Grill Town.”
Drive a Range Rover? Then come on down!
Cowboys and laborers unite. The closest you’ll get to yester-year.
AVAs (in alphabetical order):
Atlas Peak AVA
Located in the Eastern ranges of the Vaca Mountains, this AVA benefits from higher elevation and volcanic soil.
Produces legit Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, among others.
Home to: Atlas Peak Winery (dduuurrrrr!) and Pahlmeyer.
Known for its bedrock and volcanic soil, it has high temperatures in the day, with significant temperature drops at night (sometimes as much as 50+ degree temperature shifts).
Produces award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Syrah, among others.
Home to: Chateau Montelena, Araujo Estate, Clos Pegase, Bennett Lane, and twenty other renowned wineries. Also known as: home to the 1973 label that changed the game (when in doubt, watch Bottle Shock).
Chiles Valley District AVA
East side, y’all, with warm days and cooling evening fog.
Produces solid Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, among others.
Home to: A handful of small wineries including, but not limited to, Nicelini Winery, Volker Isele and more.
The most recent sub-appellation of the Napa Valley AVA, it traverses from sea-level near the town of Napa to nearly 2,000 feet in elevation in the Vaca Range.
Produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and others.
Home to: A collection of talented and small family-owned properties.
Diamond Mountain District AVA
Located in the Mayacamas range, this AVA benefits from a high elevation, as well as volcanic and porous soil.
Produces noteworthy Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, among others.
Home to: Castello di Amorosa, Diamond Creek Vineyards and Zazlea Springs Vineyards.
Howell Mountain AVA
Overlooking the valley floor – and nestled in the sharp ridges of the Vaca Range – this AVA has cooler temperatures and excellent drainage.
Produces renowned Cabernet Sauvginon, Cabernet Franc and more.
Home to: CADE, Robert Craig Winery, and many, many more.
Los Carneros AVA
Occupying the southernmost hills of Napa Valley, this AVA has a cooler climate with long-lasting marine layers.
Produces consistent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, among many others. Oh…and did we say, sparking wines?
Home to: Domaine Carneros, Ceja, Cuvaison, and loads more.
Mount Veeder AVA
Straddling the Mayacamas Mountains, this AVA has volcanic soil, steep angles, and excellent drainage.
Produces rockin’ Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, as well as Petite Verdot.
Home to: Hess Collection, Mount Veeder Winery and more.
Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley AVA
Located in between the towns of Napa and Yountville, this AVA benefits from cooling morning marine layers due to its proximity to the Bay.
Produces Merlot, Pinot Noir and Riesling, among many other varietals.
Home to: Signorello, Darioush, and many more.
Centered around the town of Oakville (remember, the one-store town?), this AVA is flat and low-lying, and complemented further by gravel soil.
Produces: It’s all about Cabernet and Merlot.
Home to: Some of the biggest “names” in the industry are here. Cardinale, Far Niente, Harlan, Opus One, Screaming Eagle, Silver Oak, and more. You get the picture. Essentially, the message is to put on your big boy pants and then go big or go home.
Centered around the town (we use the word “town” very loosely here) of Rutherford, this AVA has marine sediments composed of gravel, loam and sand.
Produces: It’s all about the Cabernet Sauvignon! Other varietals grow well here, but damn, is the Cabernet off the charts.
Home to: Caymus, Round Pond, St. Supery, Staglin, Quintessa, Hall, Elyse, Peju, Provenance, and…well…we could continue, but you get the idea. You’re always just a stone’s throw from genius.
Spring Mountain District AVA
Located in the mountains west of St. Helena, the steep hillsides produce tiny yields, totaling less than 2% of Napa Valley’s entire wine production.
Produces: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Verdot and a handful of other varietals.
Home to: Spring Mountain Vineyard, Newton Vineyard, and a few other distinguished winegrowers and wineries.
St. Helena AVA
This AVA occupies the flat lowlands surrounding the town of St. Helena and leading up to the southern edge of the Calistoga AVA.
Produces: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and some groovy Italian varietals.
Home to: The very first winery in the Napa Valley – Charles Krug, y’all (established 1861)! Additionally, other familiar names such as Trinchero, Del Dotto, Spottswoode, Duckhorn, and more populate this area.
Stag’s Leap District AVA
Known for its clay sediments and loam, this volcanic soil nurtures award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon (case in point: the 1976 Judgment of Paris, where the 1973 Stag’s Leap Cellars Cabernet took top spot for red wines).
Produces Cabernet Sauvignon. We’re aware that there are other varietals, but come on, do you really care about them when this is Cab country?
Home to: Shafer, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Chimney Rock, Regusci, and many, many more!
Wild Horse Valley AVA
A tiny sliver of land in the southeastern portion of the valley, this AVA benefits from a unique combination of more hours of sunshine and a cooler climate than the rest of the valley.
The name of the game here is Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Home to: A collection of small, family-owned vineyards and a smattering of hearty livestock.
The valley floor surrounds the town of Yountville, resulting in this AVA. The first vineyard was planted here in 1836 by the town’s founder, OG Mr. George Calvert Yount.
Produces: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and more!
Home to: $300-a-plate dinners at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry as well as wineries such as Domaine Chandon, Bell, Lail, y más!
Visually, how do these all line up? We’ve poached a helpful map from the Napa Valley Vintner’s Association that can be found here. Overwhelming to take this all in at one? Most definitely. But once you’re here, you’ll understand how unique each of these regions are. Just like the people who populate this valley, no two appellations are alike. Similar at times? Yes. But distinct enough to deserve their own merit? Absolutely.