Napa Valley

Jun 9, 2023by Andrew Lowry

by Andrew Lowry

*Wine labels are tricky! If you're interested in knowing a little more about the wine you are drinking from Napa, scroll all the way to the bottom for labeling laws set forth by the TTB. If not, let's get into what Napa Valley is all about!

What's an American Viticultural Area?

An American Viticultural Area (AVA) is a wine-growing region within a larger State AVA (e.g. California). In order to receive AVA status, the winemakers of the region must petition the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, stating how their land is different than the larger grape-growing area. Things like soil type, water table, microclimate, elevation, and even tradition can be reason to create a smaller AVA within a larger AVA. We know — it is kind of confusing. 

Does wine get better when it is from a smaller AVA? Good question. No. Maybe. Yeah? Depends. A wine from a small, specific AVA should have, at the very least, a sense of place. So if you like Cabernet Sauvignon that comes from Rutherford, Napa Valley, for example, chances are that other Cabs from that AVA will share a common flavor profile and you will probably enjoy them too. 

BUT a fantastic winemaker can go to great lengths and pick all the best Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in the entire state of California to make the world's best wine...and legally it can only be labeled as 'California Cabernet Sauvignon'. So, a producer's reputation for making great wine time and time again means MORE than the AVA the winemaker sourced its grapes from.

Where is Napa Valley?

Napa Valley is a 45-minute drive northeast of San Francisco. It is a narrow, 30-mile-long valley (obviously) bordered by Mount St. Helena to the North and San Pablo Bay to the South. Fun fact, Mount St. Helena is an active volcano. Another fun fact: Napa is just under a mile wide at its narrowest point near the town of St. Helena.

Some Napa Valley History

Napa Valley is the homeland of The Wappo, an indigenous people of Northern California, and 'Napa' is a bastardization of a Wappo word that no one really knows the meaning of. 

But Napa Valley as a wine-making region really started with a man named George Calvert Yount, a wild west explorer and fur trapper/hunter/manliest most interesting man on the Earth. Like all men do, he wanted to have a huge chunk of land all to himself where he could place all of his grand things, and Napa Valley fit the bill. In 1835, the land he wanted was now owned by the Sonoma Pueblo and its governor, General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. Lucky enough, Yount was a friend of theirs, and the general granted Yount the 12,000-acre Caymus Rancho. In 1839 he took vines from the Sonoma Pueblo and planted them on his ranch making these the first wine grapes planted in Napa Valley!

1846: Mexico hands over Alta California to America.

Then in 1848, California became a popular place to source a really pretty element called gold that no one really had any use for at all but looked really cool. And so all these people flooded to California with all their really great business ideas and they were all rich with gold and thankfully there were a few of them who wanted to put their money into making wine!

The first pioneers of Napa Valley winemaking started coming in the 1860s and they were: Buena Vista (1857), Charles Krug (1861), Schramsberg (1862), Beringer (1876), Inglenook (1879), Chateau Montelena (1882), Christian Brothers (1882 — now the Culinary Institute of America at Napa), Mayacamas (1889), Rossini (1889), and Beaulieu Vineyard (1900). 

We are certain you have heard of at least one of these wineries before. 

And now we fly through the years...

1890s to 1950s: Dark Age of Napa Valley with phylloxera, WW1, Prohibition, The Great Depression and WW2. What a time to be alive. And we think we have it rough now. Btw, check this out for a reality check: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/you-were-born-1900-mike-loudermilk/

1890: Phylloxera Pandemic hits and destroys 90% of all vines in Napa — like 10,000 acres of vines (Phylloxera is a louse that feeds off of a grape vine's roots and kills it.)

January 17th, 1920: Volstead Act (Prohibition) hits and stays for 14 awful years, sacramental wine (wine for religious purposes only) keeps some wineries alive

December 5th, 1933: Prohibition ends. Yay! Cheap jug wine is being pushed out to the masses by Gallo (now the largest winemaker in the world).

1938: Fine wine is making a comeback, but baby steps

1943: Mondavi family buys Charles Krug

1966: Robert is fired and he moves to Oakville and starts Robert Mondavi Winery

1970s: back to nature movement and Napa flooded with entrepreneurs looking to get into winemaking

1970s: Napa is gaining a lot of popularity in California, and many of the names you now know start in this decade

1976: And then BOOM! The Judgement of Paris (Chateau Montelena's Chardonnay and Stag's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon win in a blind tasting over many famous Chateaus from Bordeaux, France). HUGEEEE. Now Napa is THE go to destination in America to enjoy wine. BTW we will talk much more about this at a later time.

1981: Napa and Sonoma receive AVAs (Napa was the second in the United States. The first? Augusta, Missouri!)

1985: Phylloxera returns! But this time with a silver lining. Yeah, $450 million in damage, but Vignerons take this as an opportunity to replant with the best grapes for their soil and at the correct densities. So, apparently, after 40+ years of that, they have recouped their losses.  

2004: Robert Mondavi bought out by Constellation Brands for $1.36 billion in cash.

2006: Re-tasting of The Judgement of Paris (30 years later) and Napa wins. Again. LFG...

Napa Valley Fun Facts:

Just 4% of overall wine in California, but represents 20% of the total value of California wines produced. Meaning? Very expensive stuff.

Gavin Newsom has stakes in multiple wineries in Napa.

475+ wineries in Napa, 92% family-owned, plus 700 farmers who mostly sell grapes to wineries.

1000 different wine brands in Napa.

Napa Valley lies between the Vaca Mountain range to the east and the Mayacamas to the west.

44,000 acres of vines in Napa Valley — that's like 44,000 football fields.

80 different varieties of grapes grown in Napa (42 red/38 white).

As of 2021, on average, it costs $500,000 to buy one acre of land in Napa Valley - the most expensive agricultural land in America.

Napa is suffering from climate change. We'll chat about this shortly.

Cabernet Franc is the most expensive grape to buy in Napa, not Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Oakville Grocery in Napa Valley, founded in 1881, is the longest continuously operated grocery store in California (we've been here and it is a must-do!)

Napa Valley Sub-AVAs

There are 16 sub-AVAs within Napa and Napa is an AVA of North Coast which is an AVA of California (you love this stuff, huh?):

1. Atlas Peak
2. Calistoga
3. Carneros (shared with Sonoma AVA)
4. Chiles Valley
5. Diamond Mountain District
6. Howell Mountain
7. Mount Veeder
8. North Coast (Napa falls within this larger AVA)
9. Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley
10. Oakville
11. Rutherford
12. Spring Mountain District
13. St. Helena
14. Stags Leap District
15. Wild Horse Valley (shared with Solano Valley)
16. Yountville 
We recommend buying wines that mention a sub-AVA, unless from a super high-quality producer in the list of producers below. 
 

We will also be writing blogs about each of these sub-AVAs in the future.

What does Napa Valley wine taste like?

Tasting wise, Napa is split into the Eastern valley (Howell Mt., Stags Leap District, Eastern side of Rutherford and Oakville) and the Western valley (Diamond Mt. Spring Mt. Mt. Veeder, St. Helena, and Western side of Rutherford and Oakville). The east is very ripe and full-bodied due to the intense afternoon sun, and the west is more light and refined (but still a bold Napa at heart) because it only sees the gentle morning light, and it is also heavily forested which shades the grapes.

But overall, Napa is a fruit bomb! Napa Valley, generally speaking, is a warm wine-growing region. The warm weather allows the grapes to achieve full ripeness (even over-ripeness), and these ripe fruit flavors make their way into the wine. Ripe grapes also mean high sugar content and high sugar content means high alcohol content. So Napa wines tend to be on the upper end of the ABV spectrum at 13-15%. (Don't worry, all of the sugar is converted to alcohol so the wine doesn't actually have any sugar in it.) Essentially, there is nothing to hate about Napa Valley wines. But what is there really to love?

The average American wine drinker, for the past 20 to 30 years, has preferred fruity tasting and high alcohol wines. Napa Valley fits the bill. We like the taste of Napa wines, but there are better wines to be had. By allowing the grapes to sit on the vine so long to achieve over-ripeness, winemakers are covering up the amazing true colors of the grape with jammy, preservey, stewed fruit, and syrupy flavors. Sure this tastes great, and we love to have them from time to time, but we really want to show the other side of wine.

Best Napa Valley wines to drink now! (according to Karen MacNeil)

Btw, Karen MacNeil wrote a book called The Wine Bible and it is, in fact, a Bible-length book about wine that we have read three times. We kinda like wine...and she likes wine too...and she is a pretty respected person in the wine industry, and since we haven't tasted every top wine in Napa (because we aren't part of the wealthiest 1% in America), we just have to kick it to her for recommendations. 

Whites

1. Schramsberg, "J. Schram", Vintage Brut, North Coast, 85%/15% Chard/Pinot Noir
2. ADAMVS, Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, 100% Sauv Blanc
3. Accendo, Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, 70%/15%/15% Sauv Blanc/Semillon/Sauvignon Musque
4. Kongsgaard, "The Judge", Chardonnay, Napa Valley, 100% Chardonnay
5. Stony Hill, Chardonnay, Napa Valley, 100% Chardonnay
6. Robert Mondavi, Fume Blanc Reserve, To Kalon Vineyard, Napa Valley, 100% Sauvignon Blanc
7. Vineyard 29, Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, 100% Sauvignon Blanc

Reds

1. Detert, Cabernet Franc, Oakville, Napa Valley, 85/15 Cabernet Franc/Cab Sav
2. Corison, Cabernet Sauvignon, Kronos Vineyard, Napa Valley, 100% Cab Sav
3. Crocker & Starr, Cabernet Franc, St. Helena,  Napa Valley, 100% Cab Franc
4. Memento Mori, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 100% Cab Sav
5. Colgin, IX Estate, Napa Valley, 70/15/10/5 Cab Sav/Cab Franc/Merlot/Petit Verdot
6. Realm, "MOONRACER", Stags Leap District, Napa Valley, 90/5/5 Cabernet Sauv w/ Petit Verdot, and Merlot
7. Continuum, Sage Mountain Vineyard, Napa Valley, 50/30/10/5 Cab Sav/Cab Franc/Petit Verdot/Merlot
8. Lail Vineyards, "J. Daniel Cuvee", Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 100% Cab Sav
9. Kongsgaard, Syrah, Hudson Vineyard, Napa Valley, 100% Syrah
10. Shafer, Hillside Select, Stags Leap District, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon
11. Ovid, Napa Valley, 60/25/10/5 Cab Sav/Cab Franc/Merlot/Petit Verdot
12. O'Shaughnessy, Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mt., 85/5/5/3/2 Cab Sav/Merlot/St. Macaire/Malbec/Petit Verdot
13. Scarecrow, Rutherford, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon
14. Harlan Estate, Oakville, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot (sometimes) blend

Sweet

1. Far Niente, Dolce, Napa Valley, 80/20 Semillon/Sauv Blanc

Top Napa Valley Cab Producers (according to Karen MacNeil)

Lol, this is a literal paragraph. The paragraph of producers. 

Araujo, BOND, Colgin, Corison, Dalla Valle, Diamond Creek, Gargiulo, Grace Family, Groth, Harlan Estate, Heitz, O'Shaughnessy, Ovid, Quintessa, Rudd Estate, Scarecrow, Screaming Eagle, Shafer, Caymus, Arkenstone, ADAMVS, Accendo, Bevan Cellars, Brand, Cardinale, Chappellet, Chimney Rock, Cliff Lede, Clos du Val, Continuum, Cornell, Crocker & Starr, Dana, Detert, Dominus Estate, Dunn, Eisele, Far Niente, Favia, Futo, Gallica, J. Davies, Joseph Phelps, Keplinger, La Jota, Lail, Larkmead, Lokoya, Long Meadow Ranch, Louis M. Martini, MacDonald, Matthiasson Winery, Mayacamas, Melka, Memento Mori, Morlet Family, Nickel & Nickel, Opus One, Outpost, Paradigm, Peter Michael, PlumpJack, Pott, Pride, Progeny, Promonotory, Realm, Reverie, Ridge, Robert Mondavi, Schrader, Silver Oak, Snowden, Spottswoode, Staglin Family, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Tench, TOR, Tres Perlas, Turnbull, Vine Hill Ranch, Vineyard 29

If you read all of those, good for you! Also, we are sorry. Next time you see a Napa Cab you want to get, see if it is in the paragraph of producers above!

Lowry Wine Co.'s take on Napa Valley.

First off, we think any wine lover should make a trip to Napa! It is loads of fun! It is beautiful and exciting! The wines are amazing! Just expect to spend a decent amount of money, because it's Napa (we get into this below). We went in 2021 and had the time of our lives (travel blog to come out soon).

Okay, Napa Valley wines are good. There is no denying that. And Napa doesn't just make great Cabernet Sauvignon, although that is what they are most known for and probably their best product. Napa really can produce good to great wines from like 80 different grapes because Napa is a huge grape-growing region, all things considered. In the south, nearest San Francisco, it is quite cold (about 10 degrees colder than the top of Napa Valley), and can produce great Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. 30 miles away to the north, and away from a cooling body of water, things heat up quite a bit, just enough for it to be perfect growing conditions for Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Merlot. So yeah, great wine all around...

...But we'll pass 9 times out of 10. Because we are all about QPR. That is Quality to Price Ratio. Napa sucks at QPR. It sucks at QPR because it has been ultra-hyped since the Judgement of Paris (see below for the history section). We aren't saying the hype isn't justified — because it is — we are saying that for most people, Napa is just not a good bang for the buck. You can buy wines that are just as tasty, albeit, they don't taste the same, but they are similar, and like half the price. Take, for example, Knights Valley just north of Napa but not actually in Napa, or Washington Cabs from Columbia Valley or Walla Walla.

We will be making a post about what all goes into pricing a wine at a later time, but check this out:

In a bottle of Napa Cabernet, you are paying more for the price of the land the grapes are being farmed on, and the mortgage of the winery that is crafting the wine, than you are paying for the actual grapes in the wine. 

It costs $500,000/acre on average in Napa. That is A LOT. 

According to Forbes, in France, the average cost for an acre of vineyard land is just over $60,000. The only region to match Napa in price is Champagne. And we all know Champagne is crazy expensive. So why do we buy Napa Cab? Well, why do we buy Champagne? Because they are excellent marketers and somehow they have gotten their names into our brains, and so when faced with a wine list at a restaurant, or pushed against a wall of wines in a wine shop, we see Napa and we snatch it and run and they steal our lunch money and we are none the wiser. 

That's why Lowry Wine Co. was founded! Our goal, our mission, is to expose our community to other, more affordable, just as fantastic wines, from lesser-known regions, so we can heighten your wine-drinking experience, and save you money.

Don't get us wrong. We will sell Napa wines. But they have to be at a good QPR. There are some out there, but they are hard to find, and we can't wait until we get to show them to you!

The End!

Thanks for reading! This is the end of our blog. Below is the labeling laws section that we mentioned at the beginning of the blog. Kind of fun to know if you want to read more. 

Also below this are some notes we had on the most popular AVAs in Napa, but we want to do a full blog on each one of those, so read it if you want, but be warned, it is unedited word vomit. Really just mentions what producers are in what sub-AVA.

Cheers! 
Madi and Andy

Labeling Laws

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) sets forth the following laws for winemakers to follow:

1. If a wine label advertises a grape varietal (e.g. Cabernet Sauvignon), only 75% of the wine must be of that grape.

2. If a wine label advertises a state (e.g. New York), only 75% of the wine grapes need to be sourced from said state. NOTE: California, Oregon, and Washington have opted for the standard to be 100%. LWC approves.

3. If a wine label advertises an American Viticultural Area (AVA) (e.g. Rutherford, Napa Valley), only 85% of the wine grapes need to be sourced from said AVA.

4. If a wine label advertises a vineyard along with an AVA (e.g. To Kalon Vineyard), then 95% of any named grapes used must be sourced from the said vineyard and the vineyard has to lie completely within the AVA mentioned.

5. If a wine label advertises 'estate bottled', it means that 100% of the grapes used must have come from the AVA listed AND that the company (e.g. Robert Mondavi) grew the grapes, made the wine, and bottled the wine. Additionally, it means that Robert Mondavi owns the land on which the grapes were grown and that all of its facilities — the vineyards, the winery, and its bottling plant — are located in the AVA listed.

6. If a wine label has a vintage date (e.g. 2015), then 95% of the grapes used to make the wine must have been harvested that year.

7. And finally, if a wine label doesn't mention a grape varietal, like Opus One (a very expensive and very delicious wine), the winemaker is free to use any grape she wants and as many different grapes as she wants.

Top Napa Valley AVAs

Atlas Peak AVA:

Marchese Piero Antinori started making Sangiovese here and now owns the winery, Antica. Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay dominant.

Calistoga AVA:

AVA was created in 2009, but one of Napa's oldest regions. Home to Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. Chateau Montelena, Araujo Estate, Storybook Mountain Vineyard. Enjoys a huge diurnal temp shift due to Knight's Valley to the west.

Diamond Mountain AVA (western side):

400-2,200 Ft. Von Strasser. Tannic Cabernet Sauvignon that requires aging. Diamond Creek Winery.

Spring Mountain AVA (western side):

Lokoya, Pride and Barnett, ridge's york creek (zin), Cain, Newton, Stony Hill (chard), Spring Mt. Vineyard

Howell Mountain AVA (eastern side):

Dunn Vineyards (father of winemaking on Howell Mt.), ADAMVS, La Jota, O'Shaughnessy, Robert Craig, Outpost, Cade, Ladera, Beringer. Cabernet Sauvignon. 1400 ft. +

Mount Veeder AVA (western side):

Mayacama's home (Hess Collection). Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Jackson Family Wines' Lokoya too, Pott, Progeny, Mt. Brave, Lagier Meredith (syrah), Rudd (sauv blanc). Ridgetop AVA with Mount Veeder its center on the west side.

Oakville AVA:

ToKalon Vineyard (shared by Robert Mondavi and Andy Beckstoffer), Martha's Vineyard, wineries: Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle, Far Niente, Groth, Opus One, Scarecrow, Bond St. Eden, Vine Hill Ranch, Heitz, Promonotory, Robert Mondavi, Rudd, Gargiulo, Ovid, Silver Oak. Slightly cooler than Rutherford, but hotter than Stag's Leap or Yountville lending to elegant cabs

Rutherford AVA:

Cabernet Sauvignon. Beaulieu Vineyard Nos. 1 and 2, Staglin, Inglenook, Bella Oaks, Sycamore, Caymus, Quintessa, Dana, Grgich Hills, Cakebread Cellars +

Stags Leap District AVA:

Southeast Napa. Cabernet and Merlot. Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Stags' Leap Winery, Clos du Val, Cleff Lede, Chimney Rock, Pine Ridge, Shafer, Silverado Vineyards, Sinskey + Near perfect growing environment for red grapes.

Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley AVA: 

Cool southerly wine-growing region of Merlot and zinfandel. Trefethen, Robert Biale, Lewis Cellars, Monticello Vineyards

Yountville AVA:

Home to Domaine Chandon of Moet and Chandon and Dominus Estate. Also home to a plethora of amazing restaurants in the small town of Yountville (e.g. French Laundry)

St. Helena AVA:

The narrowest part of the valley at under a mile. Corison, Spottswoode, Charles Krug, and Crocker & Star


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