Small yet mighty: why Napa rules

RUMA SINGH On the many reasons why Napa Valley is worth a visit

Small but mighty. Someone described Napa Valley in these words to me, once, and they echoed in my mind as I drove in from San Francisco.

It is true, that Napa lacks the obvious size and grandeur of Bordeaux with its historic châteaux UNESCO villages, the breathtaking majesty of the steep vineyards of Priorat or the Mosel, or the natural lush beauty of Tuscany. But Napa is widely regarded as one of the world’s most premium wine regions, and, as I discovered on my recent trip, rightly so.

Small in size: Napa is a mere 30 miles in length and less than five miles across — eighth the size of Bordeaux. Vineyards bracket the only two really serious roads that Napa has: Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. In fact, there are traffic jams on these roads on weekends – so this Bangalorean felt right at home. Over the five days I was there, I learned to recognize famous winery signages, and townlets as I zoomed up to Calistoga and down again to Coombsville. The eponymous Napa River is tinier still – no expanse of water like Bordeaux’s Gironde, just a trickle in some parts.

New region: Napa is a relatively new wine region – it came into existence post the California Gold Rush in the 19th century, and found true recognition after 1976’s Judgement of Paris which propelled its wines into the limelight. The winners, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (for its Cabernet Sauvignon) and Chateau Montelena (for its Chardonnay) are thriving still, with scores of tourists lining up to pay homage, buy merchandise and book tastings.

Terroir: But what makes Napa so unique and special is its location, its soils, its topography — terroir, if you will. It is bookended by mountains— the Mayacamas protect Napa Valley from the Pacific’s chill, while the Vaca stands between Napa and the blisteringly hot Central Valley. The dry Mediterranean climate (with the option to irrigate) ensures grapes thrive here as in few other regions. Add to the mix complex soils — volcanic, sedimentary, alluvial — and altitude, and you have a smorgasbord of delights for grapevines to flourish in.

Grapes: Does Napa grow only Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay? Yes and no. There is no doubt that Cabernet dominates and, as many Napa winemakers pointed out to me, “Cab is King!” It fetches big bucks and dominates premium wine regions; Napa, doubtless, does a fantastic job. But many winemakers are dabbling in many other varieties: Sauvignon Blanc thrives (and deserves a headline for itself) as does Cabernet Franc (hugely promising here.) Of course, there is, Merlot and in the cooler south, Pinot Noir. I also tasted excellent Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Malbec and — get this — Barbera, Falanghina, Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Roussanne, Counoise, Trousseau Gris, Ruche, Valdiguie, Petite Sirah, Negrette, Albarino… the list goes on. Of course, many of these grapes are grown in tiny quantities, but some are gradually finding their way into blends at the hands of avant-garde winemakers.

Location, location, location. Just an hour’s drive from San Francisco, Napa is as conveniently located as can be. It is a small town, but it has everything you might need: quaint wine bars, good restaurants, supermarkets and even a Target. Not to mention the trendy, boutique Oxbow market where you can buy local goodies like Napa olive oil and quaff wine with oysters.

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Food in Napa covers everything from superfine dining (I was told that people who cannot score a table at Chef Keller’s French Laundry pose outside for their Insta) — to what were arguably the best burgers this side of the Atlantic at a queue-up joint called Gotts Roadside. If you get here, order the kimchi burger with fries and thank me later.

Autumn in the vineyard. Many estates are small covering just a few acres

Wine estates — big names, small sizes. Most estates are small by many world standards, many covering just a few acres in a property filled with trees and fruit orchards. Since Napa Valley became a notified AVA (American Viticultural Area) in 1981, it has doubled down on laws to keep the area green and sustainable, with some of the strictest land use and environmental regulations of any wine-growing region in the world.

Being fairly new and very modern, Napa is understandably advanced in the use of technology in both the vineyards and winery. Almost every vineyard I visited had giant antifrost fans set up for contingencies and hi-tech weather systems, while winemakers spoke to me of experimenting with clones and rootstocks for optimal results in the vineyards. Sustainability, organic and biodynamic viticulture are not mere catchphrases here but practised earnestly and the results show. I have rarely seen vineyards as lush as in Napa, with old vines interspersed with parcels of precocious, strong young vines, all offering healthy fruit.

The wines: Ah, the best part. At almost every winery I visited I was stunned by the quality of the wines. The Cabernet Sauvignons showed structural excellence and complexity, minus the overripe fruit and lashings of oak of the past. The whites, always in the shadow of the Cabernets, deserve a far higher place in the quality pecking order — still archetypical Napa with lush fruit, hints of oak or lees ageing but without the butter bomb tag. Some Sauvignon Blancs, especially, were good enough to induce weeping. The prices might do that too! At the wineries I visited, most Cabernet Sauvignons ranged from $250 to $400 per bottle ex-winery. Whites were rarely under $100.

With production fairly small, premium Napa wineries follow the Club or exclusive allocation system to sell their wine. Loyal clients sign up for a share of each vintage in bi-annual dispatches direct from the winery, meaning sales are by invitation only. This is a smart strategy that rewards consumer loyalty and ensures sellout vintages, except for a few bottles retained for high-end ‘library’ tastings conducted at the winery.

Wine tourism: For the visitor seeking adventure, there are more touristy activities such as the Napa Valley wine train, which chugs up and down the valley, allowing tourists to drink in the scenery along with their wine. And there are the hot air balloon rides, offering bird’s-eye views over the lush vineyards as the sun rises. All of which makes Napa worth a visit. Or three.