As the largest wine producer in the United States, California contains about 80% of the country’s vineyard acreage and makes almost 90% of the wine. But it may come as a surprise that Napa Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA)-- the most renowned wine region in the U.S.--is also one of the smallest and most diverse in the world. While only producing 4% of California’s wine, there are over 475 wineries in Napa County!
In the land where Cabernet Sauvignon dominates, clearly there is no shortage of opportunities for enological discovery. And to help wade through the wine equivalent of Disney World, I have selected several standout wineries that will ensure a diverse and authentic experience.
My current picks are solid examples of California winemaking tradition, fascinating educational experiences, and the future of winemaking.
For Napa Tradition
Known as the father of California wine, Robert Mondavi established his winery in 1966 with the goal of making California wines competitive with the best wines of Europe. Originally planted in 1868, his To Kalon vineyard is recognized as one of the finest first growth vineyards in the world. No visit to Napa is complete without paying homage to his legacy and tasting the Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blancs that Mondavi elevated to world-class status. www.robertmondaviwinery.com
As one of California’s oldest wineries, Stags’ Leap Winery produces Cabernet Sauvignon wines from Napa’s famed sub-AVA of the same name. Established in 1893, the historic property and vineyards are a testament to California’s classical winemaking style, which is still relevant today. Learn about the uniqueness of the Stags Leap District, the winery’s role in helping to sustain California’s wine industry during Prohibition, and the “apostrophe catastrophe.” www.stagsleap.com.
For Napa Education
Take a deep dive into mountain winemaking by visiting the luxurious Lokoya Estate in St. Helena and tasting four distinct Cabernet Sauvignons from Napa Valley’s most celebrated mountain appellations. During this meticulous and fascinating experience, novices and collectors alike will learn how the micro-climate from these vineyard sites results in wines that are the purest expression of terroir, or sense of place. www.lokoya.com
A boutique winery in the Stags Leap District, Quixote produces not only acclaimed Cabernet Sauvignon, but also some of the best Petite Sirah wines in the world. Petite Sirah is an extremely rare grape and the winery provides one of the few chances in Napa—and the globe—to learn about this unique and other varietals that Napa produces exceptionally well. Art and design aficionados will also be impressed by the whimsical winery—the only structure built by artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser in the Americas. www.quixotewinery.com
For Napa Innovation
A start-up winery is a rarity in Napa, as the trend has leaned towards big brands incorporating suppliers. For outstanding wines and a true grassroots experience, visit Aonair Winery in the Conn Valley. Founded by Napa local Grant Long, whose entrepreneurial instincts were culled by working in the wine industry, the small production winery creates wines that are rich, complex, and display the true character of the Napa’s volcanic soils. Long’s innate ability and personal attention from grape to glass showcase the future of Napa winemaking. www.aonairwine.com
As vineyard real estate is scarce in Napa, sub-AVA designation becomes an important distinction with wineries competing for market share. As Napa’s newest AVA, Coombsville production mirrors Napa a whole with a focus on Cabernet-based wines. However, due to the region’s unique terroir, tannins are softer and flavors more earthy than some of Napa’s more established AVAs. Located within Coombsville in Napa’s southeastern hills, Porter Family Vineyards produces mainly Cabernets and Syrahs. At once hi-tech and artisanal, visit the winery to discover why Coombsville is poised to become the region’s next great district. www.porterfamilyvineyards.com
These recommendations are only a sample of the wine education experiences to be had in California wine country. Reach out to Erlinda at firstname.lastname@example.org and let her help you discover what’s new in Napa, Sonoma, and the rest of the winemaking world. And stay tuned for Erlinda’s next column for her picks in Sonoma.