When oenophiles say they love Napa Cabs, it is a bit deceiving. Why? Because Napa, the appellation, is comprised of 16 sub-appellation AVAs. Each of the Napa Valley AVAs has distinct terroir attributes and nuances due to ancient volcanoes that once existed here. Pre-historic seabeds which enveloped the area, prolific tectonic activity, undulating valleys, and multi-leveled elevations. Vineyards are also planted in all aspects, depending on whether they sit on the West side of the valley or the East side or need to follow a hillside’s contours. A mountain Cab will not be the same as a valley-floor Cab, and likewise, a Cab from the southern end of the valley will not be the same as a Cab from the Northern end.
Additionally, the winemakers at each winery have their techniques and practices that profoundly influence the wines’ outcomes. One thing is for sure . . . these 16 AVAs are the domain of some of California’s leading fine and rare wine names. Let’s take a tour of Napa Valley’s AVAs and explore the most sought and exclusive wineries and vineyards within each district . . .
Los Carneros District AVA:
Located at the farthest southern end of the valley and sharing its borders with Sonoma County is the Los Carneros District AVA. The boundaries of this growing district come right to the edge of the bay itself. Known for producing both crisp and balanced wines, it is no wonder that this appellation is known for growing grapes that go into sparkling wine production. Within this district, one will find the seat of one of the most notable vineyard names within the Napa Valley, Hyde Vineyards. The afternoon marine winds from the San Pablo Bay and Petaluma Gap keep the sustainably farmed Hyde Vineyards a full 10 to 20 degrees cooler than the rest of the Napa Valley and produce some of the most coveted Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Gris. Look for the Hyde Vineyard designation on the labels of the highly exclusive wineries of Kistler and Abreu.
Stags Leap District AVA:
Heading up the famed Silverado Trail Highway to the Northeast is the famed Stags Leap District, known for some of the most famous Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards anywhere on Earth. The coarse volcanic soils and diurnal variations of Stags Leap give its Cabernets a characteristic balance between age-worthy structure, velvet tannins, ripe fruit, and bold intensity. Its landscape is unmistakably volcanic, with jagged outcroppings of ancient rock jutting up in spire-like formations. The turning point for the appellation came in 1976 at the Judgment of Paris. This event was a blind tasting held in Paris. Nine French judges awarded first place to the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon – beating out such illustrious French producers as Mouton-Rothschild and Haut Brion. A few wineries crafting superior Stags Leap Cabernets are Shafer, Stag’s Leap, Stelzner, Regusci, Cliff Lede, Shafer, Baldacci, Clos du Val, Chimney, Malk, and Pine Ridge.
Oakville District AVA:
Perhaps the most well-known of Napa’s AVA is Oakville. It sits in the valley’s heart and extends West to East across a two-mile swath from 500 feet up the Mayacamas Mountains, across the valley floor, to 1,000 feet up the Vaca Mountains. This AVA is a powerhouse of the biggest names in California Cult wineries. The soils of Oakville are notoriously complex, and it is the intricate nature of the geology which drives the outstanding outcomes of the wines created from this AVA. It is no wonder that the reigning “cult” producers hold court in this region. Producers like Harlan Estate, Dalla Valle, Screaming Eagle, Futo, Robert Mondavi, and Opus One call this AVA home. The terroir is viticultural perfection and has spawned a culture of meticulous growers and visionary winemakers that work in perfect harmony to craft spectacular wines.
Located on the farthest Northeastern side of the Vaca Mountains, to the east and well above St. Helena, Howell Mountain is the first established sub-AVA of Napa and one of the most prestigious. This higher elevation region produces mountain wines with signature concentrations of full-bodied flavor and robust tannins. Howell Mountain sits above the fog line. Because of its altitude, evening temperatures on Howell Mountain are generally warmer, and daytime temperatures are much cooler, thus leveling out the spikes in heat that tend to be more exaggerated on the lower Napa Valley floor. This results in small, concentrated grapes that ultimately produce more robust, complex, yet well-balanced wines. Some of Napa’s most esteemed wineries in this district – La Jota, ADAMVS, Clif Family Winery, O’Shaugnessy, Outpost, Cade, Davis Estates, and Dunn all have their vineyards and wineries on Howell Mountain.
Towering high above the summer fog line on the Western side of the Vaca Mountain Range sits the Atlas Peak AVA. This is Napa’s highest elevation growing district and arguably the most rugged. The elevation keeps it about 10-15 degrees cooler than the valley floor, which results in wines with a higher acidity than other Napa Valley appellations. Yet, the most prominent feature of this terroir is the dry, volcanic soils, which make the vines struggle during the growing season. Striving for water and nutrients, the grapes produce an intense concentration of flavors and a deep minerality. As a result, prestigious vintners from the premier wineries of Napa clamor to use the Atlas Peak grapes in their blends. The most notable vineyard of the appellation is the meticulously farmed Stagecoach Vineyard. Stagecoachconsistently grows top-tier, premium examples of mountain fruit sold to the wineries of Napa. Look for the Atlas Peak grapes in the wines from Krupp Brothers, Paul Hobbs, Acumen, Robert Biale, and Miner Family Wines. For those who enjoy the most potent, bold red blends coming out of Napa, the mention of Atlas Peak is what to look for.
This Northernmost AVA of the Napa Valley is a grape grower’s dream come true. A total of 30 miles North of the shores of the San Pablo Bay, the temperatures in the summer can reach a sizzling 100 degrees Fahrenheit for days on end. So, what makes this a wine grower’s wish granted? It is the incredible diurnal shift. It is not uncommon to have the cooling Pacific breezes come in from the west during the evening hours and drop the temperatures into the 45 to 55-degree range. This allows for acid retention and optimal structure and age-ability in the grapes. Calistoga is home to some of the valley’s most outstanding producers, including Baldacci Family, Amici Cellars, Davis Estates, Eisele Vineyards, Kenefick Ranch, and Twomey Cellars. Because this terroir is perfect for growing red blend grape varieties, that is precisely what you’ll expect to find!
Chiles Valley District AVA:
This higher elevation valley nestled to the Northeast of Napa was once an 1844 land-grant ranch owned by Colonel Joseph Ballinger Chiles. He was a rugged pioneer from Missouri who built a grist mill on the creek running through the valley’s center. His old ranch, Rancho Catacula, is now home to Napa’s most petite AVA, the Chiles Valley District. This isolated valley is surrounded by higher mountain tops, which means the climate is more continental than the Napa Valley to the West. The AVA’s most successfully grown grape varieties are the big, bold, and tannic Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. There are some extremely old-vine plantings of Zinfandel here since this protected valley has historically remained pest-free. Vintners hoping to supply their wines with the structure, tannin, and complexity of mountain fruit often utilize the grapes of the Chiles Valley District.
Conveniently located just 10 minutes to the east of downtown Napa is the newest AVA in the region, Coombsville. Like the other AVAs of the Napa Valley, Coombsville growers focus primarily on the Bordeaux varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petite Verdot. The AVA is set in a bowl surrounded by a ring of mountains that help contain the cool morning fog and the subsequent afternoon breezes coming off the San Pablo Bay, which lies just a few miles to the southwest of the Coombsville vineyards. Daily average high temperatures can be as much as ten degrees cooler during the hot growing months than most other appellations. The Coombsville AVA has a long list of outstanding producers, with notable names such as Palmaz, Silverado Vineyards, Favia, Faust, and Paul Hobbs. The wineries and vineyards of this eleven-year-old AVA are, without exception, small producers, family-owned, and thriving.
Diamond Mountain AVA:
Located at the far northwestern edge of the Napa region, the 2,200ft peak of Diamond Mountain is technically on the Sonoma County side of the Mayacamas Mountain range. The mountain’s micro-climates, the exposures, the steep hillsides, and volcanic soil make the vines struggle a bit, resulting in tiny berries with concentrated flavors. The porous volcanic soils allow the vines’ roots to cool down quickly once the evening hours arrive, which helps preserve acidity in the grapes. The rugged terrain of Diamond Mountain has kept the larger growers at bay, yet there are some outstanding wineries here, such as The Vineyardist, Lokoya, J. Davies, and Pride Mountain. Sourcing from the smaller growers on the mountain, many of Napa Valley’s exceptional producers incorporate the Diamond Mountain fruit into their blends. Look for Diamond Mountain fruit on the labels of Cliff Lede, Dakota Shy, Haber Family, Hall, Martin Ray, and Mueller.
Mount Veeder AVA:
Mount Veeder adjoins the bayside Los Carneros AVA to the south. Its mountain vineyards are blessed with the amalgamation of cooling breezes from the bay fog, a southeast aspect, and high elevation volcanic soils. This combination of factors provides a longer growing season, resulting in tiny berries, robust fruit characteristics, and fine-grained tannins. Up the long, winding road to the top of the mountain sits what has long been considered the most storied and significant winery of the Mount Veeder AVA, Mayacamas Vineyards. Lokoya is another exceptional producer specializing in wines coming from all the mountain appellations of Napa, and this includes, of course, the incredible Cabernet Sauvignon of Mount Veeder. If you are a fan of structured, aromatically intense, and textural wines with extraordinary aging potential, look for the wineries using Mount Veeder fruit, such as Mt. Brave, Robert Craig, O’Shaughnessey, and Hall – indicating Mount Veeder on the label.
Oak Knoll District AVA:
Fondly referred to as “OKD,” this district is considered the “sweet spot” of the Napa Valley. It is situated north of the town of Napa but towards the southern end of the valley and bordering the Los Carneros District AVA. This is where the alluvial flow of the ancient Napa River fanned out towards the sea. Millions of years ago, volcanic gravel deposits were left behind, which descended from the mountain tops. The resulting soils are perfection for growing grapes, forcing the vines to dig deeply in search of water, which causes the vines to produce small, highly concentrated berries. When seeking the most outstanding wines of OKD, look for Trefethen Family, Robert Biale, Matthiasson, Eleven Eleven, and Boyd. There is simply a multitude of extraordinary wines coming from this versatile district of the Napa Valley.
Smack dab in the geographic center of the Napa Valley is the Rutherford AVA. This is the heartland of Napa’s viticultural history and is often thought of as Napa’s “premier cru.” The warm days give way to cool evenings, a fluctuation that allows the fruit to ripen at a slow, steady pace. But what truly makes this AVA unique is the soil, referred to as Rutherford Dust. The “dust” is not dust but soil that is gravelly, sandy, and loamy – all derived from a bed of sandstone of three ancient alluvial fans coming from the mountain that flows off both the western and eastern side of the valley. Some of Napa’s most famous and prestigious wineries call Rutherford home, such as Alpha Omega, Joseph Phelps, Beaulieu Vineyards (BV), Frank Family, Caymus, Davis, Estates, and Grgich Hills. Rutherford is an iconic daydream.
St. Helena AVA:
Ideal growing conditions caught the attention of early winemaking pioneers who founded Napa Valley’s first commercial wineries here in the St. Helena AVA. Most notably, Charles Krug, who in 1861 founded his infamous Krug Winery, the first to exist in the valley. St. Helena remains a hotbed of world-class talent in winemaking. What draws the best of the best vintners to this illustrious place? It is the vineyards located on mountain benchlands to the west and east of the valley, the ancient alluvial fans of soil, and the consistent sunshine during the growing season. This region is known for signature big and bold California Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel, and Sauvignon Blanc. Many of Napa Valley’s most distinguished wineries and growers have their base here, such as Rombauer, Vice, Versa, Vineyard 29, Spottswoode, Sequum, Morlet Family, Hall, and Melka – and this is to name a few!
Spring Mountain District AVA:
Nestled among the redwoods and firs are the vineyards of the Spring Mountain District. Located within the Mayacamas Mountain range to the west of St. Helena, Spring Mountain is named for the many natural springs that dot its landscape. This is the coolest and wettest of the Napa AVAs, with summer fog often spilling over the mountain’s western ridge-line in waterfall-like patterns and down onto the slopes and vineyards. It can be challenging to farm the vineyards due to the steep hillsides. As a result, the vineyards are planted on terraces contouring the high elevation slopes. While most of the AVA is planted with Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux red varieties, there are also plantings of grape varieties not typically found in the warmer Napa appellations. Because of the excellent climate conditions and higher altitudes, Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Noir are grown in the Spring Mountain vineyards. In recent years, many of the vineyards of Spring Mountain were devastated by wildfires; however, this has given rise to growers and wineries remerging from the ashes to rebuild and incorporate green-designed wineries and completely organic, sustainable vineyards. There has been an earnest movement to restore, protect, and enhance the mountain’s regional watershed, streams, and wildlife environment. Many of the top winemakers of Napa utilize the grapes harvested from Spring Mountain due to their distinct minerality, crisp acidity, and structured finesse. Napa’s premier mountain grape specialist, Lokoya has a Spring Mountain blend; however, many wineries produce outstanding red and white wines from this AVA. Look for wines from Spring Mountain Vineyard, Juslyn, Frias Family, Castellucci, Barnett Vineyards, Vineyard 7 & 8, Philip Togni, and the indomitable Newton Vineyard. With only 2% of the Napa region’s total grape production, this AVA is small, but it is mighty with its beautifully balanced wines.
This appellation surrounding the town of Yountville is named after George C. Yount, who in 1836 was the first permanent settler coming from the East coast to settle in the Napa Valley. He was given an enormous land grant and established himself as a highly successful farmer. His legacy continues throughout the valley long after his death, as his granddaughter married another well-known farmer of the area, Thomas Rutherford, for whom the town and appellation of Rutherford are named. What was once his vast rancho is now the Yountville AVA, stretching from the edge of the Mayacamas Mountains in the West to the Vaca Mountains in the East. The place where Yount’s home stood is now Dominus Estate Winery. This is one of the cooler AVAs of the Napa Valley due to its proximity to San Pablo Bay, which brings the afternoon breezes and evening fog. Today, the Yountville AVA is known for producing some of the area’s most exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon blends coming from premier wineries. It is no wonder that these wines command the world’s highest respect and hefty price tags. The wines being produced from the heavily Bordeaux-influenced varieties receive the highest possible accolades from well-known wine critics year after year. These terroir-driven wines balance full-bodied ripeness with integrated acids and weightless tannin structures. Serious wine collectors flock to the wines of Kapcsandy Family, Dominus Estate, Ad Vivum, Gemstone, Grgich Hills, Hoopes, Pina Cellars, and Rocca Family. It is said that when George Yount first laid eyes on this area, he felt it was Paradise. Not much has changed, as it continues to be Napa Valley’s viticultural Promised Land.
Wild Horse Valley AVA:
One of the tiniest and earliest sub-appellations of the Napa region is Wild Horse Valley. Sitting at the far southeastern end of the region, this AVA is blessed with an ample water supply, volcanic, well-drained soils, and rocky landscapes. Yields in the rocky soils are low, so growers focus on growing grapes with intensely concentrated fruit flavors of high quality. The location means daily cooling breezes from the west coming off the Pacific Ocean and across the Los Carneros District. As a result, the area is known for producing exemplary Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and other cooler-climate varieties. The most notable vineyards here are located in the AVA’s northernmost reaches and owned by the superstar viticulturist Kenzo Tsujimoto. The Wild Horse AVA primarily serves as an area for winemakers to supply their blends with grapes of this unique terroir, balanced in acidity and tannin.