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Can Napa Valley be understood like Bordeaux?


I had nothing to read the other day, so I looked through my wine library and spied a book I hadn’t opened for years: Hugh Johnson’s “The World Atlas of Wine” (fifteenth edition, 1984), one of the greatest wine books of our time.

I was a newbie then, absorbing every ounce of learning I could about wine, and that book helped me enormously. So I pulled it off the shelf and opened at random to page 86: the section on Pauillac.

Who doesn’t remember their introduction to Bordeaux and the four communes of the Médoc, plus Graves (or Pessac-Léognan): Margaux, Saint-Julien, Pauillac and Saint-Estephe? For me, it was a revelation, an intellectual journey into the mysteries of terroir, which Mr. Johnson described with such clarity. The wines of Saint-Estephe, he wrote, “have more acidity, are fuller, solider, often have less perfume, but fairly fill your mouth with flavor,” attributing this to the fact that “as the gravel washed down the Gironde diminishes there is a stronger mixture of clay found in it.” In Margaux, by contrast, “there is very little” clay; that commune has “the thinnest [soil] in the Médoc…the result is wines which start life comparatively ‘supple’, though in poor years they can turn out thin. In good and great years, however, all the stories about the virtues of gravel are justified.” And so on.

It all made perfect sense: a predictable and historic hierarchy of qualities based on location and soil type. When I had spent some years studying the communal differences in the Médoc (and not just via Hugh Johnson, but Alexis Lichine and many other writers, all by the way in agreement with each other), it was only natural for me to look at the five towns strung along Highway 29 in Napa Valley and wonder if terroir conclusions could be drawn. I thought it probable, not so much in terms of soils, as of climate. Yountville, being closest to San Pablo Bay, would be coolest, with temperatures gradually escalating as you proceeded northwest (i.e. inland) from Oakville and Rutherford through St. Helena to Calistoga.

Now, though, I wonder if it’s all that simple. There are so many complicating factors. Napa Valley is a much more complex place than the Médoc. For one thing, Bordeaux doesn’t have mountains to factor into the equation. Oakville, for example, goes up to the 500 foot contour line in the Mayacamas, and the higher you go, the more dramatic are the distinctions between valley floor and elevation. In Pauillac, the highest elevation, I believe, is 100 feet (at Mouton). And in Napa Valley, the soil choice is not simply between clay and gravel, an easy equation. Because of the San Andreas Fault and plate tectonics, “There exist an amazing 33 different soil series in the Napa Valley representing six of the 12 soil orders that comprise modern soil taxonomy. In other words, in an area just 30 miles long and five miles wide, half of the soil orders that exist on the planet can be readily found,” in the words of the Napa Valley Vintners.

To make matters yet more complicated, we have the maritime air and fog that arrives in Napa in unpredictable ways, not just from the southeast via San Pablo Bay but through various gaps in the Mayacamas from Sonoma County. For example, as I report in my upcoming article on the Calistoga appellation in Wine Enthusiast, there is data suggesting that St. Helena is actually warmer than Calistoga due to such a gap, thereby tossing the cool-in-the-southeast, hotter-in-the-northwest theory into the trash. And purely anecdotally, I can tell you I’ve watched the dashboard thermometer in my car for many years as I’ve driven south from, let’s say, St. Helena to Yountville during the summer months and seen the temperature increase.

Another reason why it’s so complicated to define communal differences in the five towns (which are now AVAs on their own) is because winemaking styles vary significantly. There are those who pick earlier and make lighter wines–Corison, for example–and those who prefer a fatter style: Araujo and Hall, among many others. Even in Pauillac, the experts always scratched their heads over the fact that Lafite, which is just a stone’s throw from St.-Estephe, is more “Margaux-like” than Mouton, in the south, which is more “St.-Estephe-like.”

I don’t doubt that scholars will try to define Napa Valley communal patterns, including me. I think it can be done on a macro level, in the same way we can make vintage assessments on a macro level. On the micro level, though, which is what really counts, generalizations generally break down (which is itself a generalization). Which is good news for mavens and journalists: we’ll be talking about this for the next 100 years.

  1. I also cut my teeth on Hugh Johnson’s book, but I wonder if 40 years later the predictable, hierarchical, communal analysis of Bordeaux might be more nuanced. As you noted, Steve, the car thermometer can belie some of the reductionist theories. I also find it instructive to notice the windmills, which show the complexities of wind direction. While I am sure Napa is more complicated than Bordeaux, it would be interesting to hear from someone who has intimate experience with both areas. Maybe Denis Malbec will check in with that…I know he is a fellow edible mushroom forager, which has us quite focused on nuances of topology!

    Here a just a few things I have found in Napa that are quite interesting:
    Rainfall totals drop quite a bit between Napa and Yountville…maybe the double rainshadow created by Mt. Veeder being in the lee of Sonoma Mountain? Thanks to Mike Bobbit we now understand the intrusion of marine air is not just from the Bay, but perhaps more intensely via the Petaluma Gap, in turn affecting gaps in the Mayacamas (again, watch the windmill patterns)! But in an off-shore wind pattern, it’s another story–that’s when Calistoga is truly the hot spot. Soils are a complete jumble due to uplifting and sublimation: I know of one vineyard here in the Diamond Mountain District that goes against the norm by having endless, rich, loam, with standing water down about 8 feet late in the summer. And to boot it is at the top of the ridge around 2,000 feet; it is thought to be uplifted river deposits that originated when a huge primordial stream drained Northern California to the Bay, instead of the Coast, before the Mayacamas lifted these up. One vineyard we work with is strewn with rounded rocks, which we always interpreted as the result of wear from an ancient stream, or maybe a coastline–but a geologist told us they are really “core rocks” resulting from lava flows eroded by rain over eons.

  2. Bill, it is Deborah Elliot-Smith’s hypothesis that the Russian River once through there down to San Pablo Bay before it was diverted west below Healdsburg (due to a mudslide). That’s how those big rounded rocks ended up there–the RR carried them. Then the land was uplifted. I wrote about all this in my book A Wine Journey along the Russian River.

  3. Steve. Good point.

    There are still some folks who remember when much of those bordeauxs were easily affordable too.

    I think it will take more time before the same type of knowledge you describe will be as usefull as it is pertaining to bordeauxs.
    Some folks still refer to the US as The Colonies and like to remind us that our culture is not very old.

  4. Jonathan Swinchatt says:

    I’m the guy who told Bill Dyer the rounded rocks were volcanic “core stones”, but it turns out that they are actually older alluvial fan deposits. And Elliot-Fisk’s hypothesis on the Russian River is not taken seriously by most geologists, As to the loam on Diamond Mountain, it might be weathered volcanic tuff or sediments deposited by rivers and streams during the 5 million years during which the Sonoma Volcanics were being erupted. Eruptions were not continuous and in the interim periods normal Earth-surface processes—river and stream erosion and deposition for example—continued unabated. Deposits of alluvial sediments are found throughout the Sonoma Volcanics. Where widespread, as in northern Coombsville and at Quintessa, they are termed the Huichica Formation. As to Napa’s 33 soil types, one should remember that some are defined on the basis of slope angle, so the number of soils that are texturally different is smaller.

  5. Steve,
    I’d be really interested in seeing the “data suggesting that St. Helena is actually warmer than Calistoga”.
    Do you know where I can find it?

  6. gdfo, if the US is still the Colonies then California is still Mexican territory!

  7. One of the things I have always appreciated about the Rutherford Dust Society tastings is that wines are served by area so that we taste Silverado Trail wines by themselves, West Rutherford Bench wines by themselves and a couple of other groups. There are distinct and identifiable differences that show up because of soil and exposure variations, and they, like the Hugh Johnson generalizations, can be observed generally.

    And, you make a really good point about winery variation. Corison simply makes a different style than Paul Hobbs even though both (Hobbs not exclusively, of course) work with grapes from the western bench. Their wines will be different. But even very ripe wines like Hewitt and Staglin still exhibit very special benchland charactacteristics and those characteristics are simply different from what one gets from wines across the valley floor regardless of the fact that they bear the same commune name.

    That has been my long-standing bitch with the decision to designate AVAs by commune in the Napa Valley. The variations are too great to allow even the kinds of generalizations of the type that you have referenced from Hugh Johnson.

  8. Bill Dyer’s comments about Diamond Mountain are also instructive. There are major differences in moisture and soil type, as I understand it, within the AVA. There is apparently a line or fold in the hills (Bill can clarify this in far more precise terms than I can) at which the moisture disappears and things to the north are drier, dustier and less rich. So, even in an AVA that seemingly follows one hill line in one part of the Valley, thare are more gradations than one typically gets in the Left Bank of Bordeaux.

  9. Charlie, yeah I know that these appellations don’t make much sense, but I’ll defend them. They’re better than nothing and are useful launchpads to more precise appellations (not that I want to see another “Bench Wars” in Napa Valley).

  10. Peter: the edition of General Viticulture (Winkler) I have, dated 1974, shows St. Helena having 3170 heat units versus Calistoga with 3150. It doesn’t seem to say over how many seasons the data was collected, and I think I recall later editions do not uphold this ranking. But my point was that the perception that it alway gets warmer as one goes north in the valley is at least open to question, that it is more complicated than that. I recall in an earlier post you referenced the weather stations in the two towns as reflecting change over time that might relate to the urbanization effect. At the time I looked around on the internet and did not easily find links to these stations, so if you have those links they would be appreciated.

    Charlie: I do not know of a line or fold in the DMD with a separation as you describe. I think these separations are due to topographical exposures, and also different soil types (e.g. volcanic tuft is dry, light and fluffy) and the soil variations seem very scattered–they don’t seem to separate out by elevation or direction. It’s all a big melange!

  11. Tom Ferrell says:

    The NOAA weather stations are numbered and referenced by longitude, latitude,and elevation. I bought a disk a few years ago that has all the stations and historical data. At that time it was difficult to determine the exact location and required a digital topo map, but now with Goggle earth it should be easy. If I can find the disk I look up the station data and post it. St. Helena’s station was moved from in town out to the outskirts, down next to the city’s waste water ponds. Calistoga’s was at the airport if I remember right. Calistoga’s was poorly maintained, often missing data.

    As Bill knows I had a dozen weather stations spread over a single 850 acre property just outside St. Helena that ranged from 400 to 1600 feet in elevation. Heat units ranged from 2700 units in the canyon vineyard blocks where the cold onshore flow coming across the Santa Rosa plain and over Spring Mountain drained to the valley floor, to 3400 units on the exposed ridges with some Southern exposure. These divergent stations could be in sight of one another. For that reason temperature and climate seems too complicated for any sort of rational classification of the Napa Valley.

    Regarding “Quién es el más caliente, Calistoga o St. Helena” I found myself comparing St. Helena and Calistoga a few years back when I was trying to extrapolate data from the town sites to replace missing data from some of my vineyard stations. I did it by comparing the data I had with the two public stations and getting a factor to apply to their data. As I recall, I expected Calistoga to be warmer than St. Helena, but I found the data to be so similar that I used the same factor off both towns readings.

    Soil seems to make more sense. Elevation as well. Vineyards like Aruajo, 3 Palms, Spottswood, Coppola, and BV1 have something in common which is a location in an alluvial fan at the mouth of a canyon or similar geological formation where deep gravel or gravely loam suits Cabernet (and most late ripening reds.) If we could get everyone to grow the same grape variety we could figure this thing out.

  12. Bill, I’ve been told that increasing urbanization in St. Helena (pavements, parking lots, housing, retail, cars, etc.) is heating St. Helena up, in a case of human-created warming.

  13. Steve, I am still trying to wrap my brain around your piece on “sub-appellate!”

  14. Tom Ferrell says:

    Bill/Steve Here’s the location of the new site for the Calistoga weather station. It has been here since 2001, probably moved with changes at the airport.
    Stn Name: CALISTOGA
    Latitude: 38.59611 (38°35’45.996″N)
    Longitude: -122.60139 (122°36’05.004″W)
    Elevation: 400.00 FEET (GROUND)

    What cracks me up is, according to Google Earth, they moved it from the airport to the Old Faithful Geyser! You gotta love climate scientists. Bet they are pondering that spike in humidity and temperature every few hours. Probably have a name for it…Calistoga intermittent warming anomaly.

    Saint Helena’s has been moved eight times. Right now, according to Google earth, it is right in the center of St. Helena at the City Planning Dept. Probably outside next to an asphalt parking lot and the buildings air conditioning condenser. Note the difference in elevation between St. Helena and Calistoga sites.

    38.50667 (38°30’24.012″N)
    -122.47139 (122°28’17.004″W)
    225.00 FEET (GROUND)

  15. Marlene, you ain’t seen nothin yet. Much more to come on this topic.

  16. Bill,
    The URLs for the (Calistoga & Saint Helena) pages at WRCC are listed below. From these pages you can retrieve GPS coordinates, long-term (1906-2010) and normals (1971-2000) data, for both stations.
    From my files, I have the following (Winkler-HDD) numbers:
    St. Helena: (1907-2010) – 3,272 heat units (HUs); (1971-2000) – 3,507 HUs.
    Calistoga: (1906-2010) – 3,543 HUs; (1971-2010) – 3,464 HUs.
    BTW, do you have any data from Diamond Mountain and/or Spring Mountain?

  17. Yes Steve, and some folks think that California IS a mexican territory now.

    The point is that the wine history is longer in Bordeax than in Ca. It has taken time and also some pressure from the winegrowers in France to make those regions what they are. The wine culture in CA. is not as old as the wine culture in Bordeaux. It will just take time the CA appelations to fall into place or for winegrowers or legislators to force them into place.

  18. As Steve states, the variations in soil compositions are incredibly more varied throughout the Napa Valley than that of the Medoc. This morning,having driven past a couple of the big new Red NV Appellation signs, that de-mark the boundry of Rutherford and Oakville, [down the trail – up the highway] I reflected on the similarities and differences of that ditch that separates St. Julien & Paulliac. Mr. Olken once made the effort of detailing, more precisely than was realized, the ‘appellations’ of the Napa Valley a good number of years before the legal process was realized. Would be nice to review that again.

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