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Another Napa appreciation, from the air


I had the privilege of taking a helicopter tour of the central Napa Valley the other day. We departed from the Melanson winery, which is above the Silverado Trail high in the Vacas, swept all around that area, then headed over the Stagecoach Vineyard down into Chiles Valley because Chuck, my intern, was with us, and he wanted to photograph the winery where he’s sales manager, RustRidge. From there, it was back over east Oakville, just above Screaming Eagle where the Oakville Cross Road hits the Silverado Trail. Our superb pilot, Greg Melanson, wanted to know if we wanted to see Spring Mountain. Of course! So we saw the beautifully tiered, terraced vineyards that dot that mountain, all the way up to Cain, then swept over St. Helena, soared over Howell Mountain, and came back to our point of origin.

I mention this only because seeing Napa Valley from 1,000 feet up (or whatever we were–it might have been a little higher), and from so many different points of view (as opposed to a fixed one, say a turnout on a mountain road) affords the rare opportunity of understanding the valley’s geographic situation in a way nothing else does. A map will show the proximity to the Carneros and San Pablo Bay; seeing downtown San Francisco directly for yourself, from a point exactly above the Napa River, gives you a much truer appreciation. You can see the lowness of the land that funnels down from the Napa Valley floor all the way to the Golden Gate. We know how cold San Francisco is on any given summer day; we know the winds carry that chill straight up to the valley, creating the cool nights and foggy mornings without which Napa Valley would be too hot for world-class viticulture.

However, the wind on that perfect day (blue skies, clement temperatures, near-perfect visibility) came not from San Pablo Bay but from the northwest. It was cool and refreshing, the kind of breeze a human seeks on a hot summer day, and it came from the Russian River Valley. How could that be? From the helicopter we could clearly see a gap in the mountains, up toward Calistoga, that had to be the breeze’s source. So I understood that Napa can be cooled, not just from the south, but from the west.

Our trip also afforded us the opportunity to witness once again Napa’s walls of mountains, the Mayacamas on the west, the Vacas on the east. We were fortunate that one of our fellow passengers was Tim Mondavi, who knows the lay of the land in Napa perhaps better than anyone alive. He was so helpful in pointing out geographic curiosities, but even he–born and reared in these parts–shook his head in amazement at the complexities of terroir. If it were only the valley floor, I suppose Napa would be comprehensible, the way the Médoc, say, is comprehensible. But Napa has this insanely crazy patchwork of slopes, hills, ridges, mountains and high valleys of every orientation, making the work of the geo-mapper challenging to the utmost.

That Napa Valley, with all its physical complexities, is an appellation at all is due to political, historical and cultural factors, many of them arbitrary and the result of compromises. This is true of Burgundy and Bordeaux, also, but at least those two old duchies had the benefit of a millennia or more of political and religious organization that more or less established their boundaries. Napa Valley–the current construction–did not. In itself it’s largely meaningless, as a plethora of mediocre wines bearing the valley’s name attests. It’s not until you zero in on the smaller appellations–Spring Mountain, Oakville, Mount Veeder–that much can be truly said about common characteristics across multiple wineries. But even then, “commonality” can hide particularity. The ultimate appellation, as Tim Mondavi said and as I have long maintained, is the brand and vineyard.

Above Pritchard Hill, with Lake Hennessey below.

  1. Steve, very much loved the tour. is sooo inviting, as I love birds, horses, peace, and wine.

  2. This word you use Steve … “commonality” its a good one in the wine world.

    Thanks for the tour…Wine on Board? HA

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