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Alexander Valley and Napa Valley Cabernet: My remarks at the Cabernet Academy



I gave a little talk yesterday to a group of wine buyers yesterday at Stonestreet, as part of Taste Alexander Valley. I’m posting my remarks in two parts, because it’s rather longish. Here’s part 1.

I’ve been asked to talk about Napa Valley and Alexander Valley and how Cabernet Sauvignon from those two areas differs. But first, a disclaimer: As some of you may know from my writings, especially on my blog, I’ve argued for many years that these supposed regional differences between varieties are not as pronounced nor as concise as some wine writers portray them. After all, these both are large appellations: Alexander Valley is 66,000 acres, while Napa Valley is six times bigger, at 400,000 acres. Pauillac, by contrast – the Bordeaux commune – is only 3,000 acres.

Moreover, both Alexander and Napa are marked by mountain ranges that contain incredibly complex soils, all jumbled up by the San Andreas Fault System: my old friend, the wine writer Bob Thompson, once called them “a slagheap.” So we can see that the terroir in Napa and Alexander Valley is not easy to define. Add to that stylistic differences in winemaking techniques—from harvesting decisions to fermentation and oak — and it’s clear that defining regional characteristics is tricky, at best. It’s easy to discern a regional style when you already have a preconception of what it is, and you’re not tasting blind. However, after tasting well more than 100,000 wines, most of them blind, during my career, I can tell you that it doesn’t always work that way. Our very notion of regional styles in Cabernet Sauvignon was, in fact, a product of Bordeaux, where it used to be easy to state (as Oz Clark did) that Pauillac is “intense blackcurrant fruit with heady cedar and pencil-lead shavings” while Margaux is “rarely heavy and has a divine perfume.” Yet even the great Alexis Lichine wrote, of Pauillac, that “the wines do not possess much generic similarity.” And nowadays, a riper winemaking style, coupled with global warming, has clearly leveled the playing field between the Bordeaux communes, and the same is true here in California.

Well, that was my disclaimer: Having said that, there are distinctions to be made between Alexander Valley and Napa Valley. So let’s explore them.

Here at Stonestreet, we are now, as I’m sure you know, in the heart of Alexander Valley. The mountains to the east (which most non-Californians would call “hills”) are the Mayacamas, which rise to 4,700 feet, although most of the vineyards are below 2,700 feet. On the other side of the Mayacamas is Lake County and Napa Valley.

The legal A.V.A. here is Alexander Valley, which is silly, since there are so many mountain vineyards. There have been attempts in the past to appellate the mountains themselves, but so far these attempts have not been successful.

Historically, Cabernet Sauvignon in Alexander Valley has been grown on the valley floor, mostly in the southern part, along Route 128, on either side of the Russian River. SHOW MAP In the 1980s, vineyards began to creep up into the eastern hills, as wine prices rose and wineries could afford to develop these vineyards, which involve high set-up costs. In Napa Valley, mountain vineyards were installed earlier than in Alexander Valley, mainly because the money was there.

Alexander Valley and Napa Valley thus are two classic California coastal valleys, parallel to each other. They both run in a southeast-northwest orientation. Both would be far warmer than they are were it not for the influence of maritime air, which comes in from the Pacific and from San Francisco Bay, neither of which ever warms up much beyond 60 degrees even in high summer. Napa Valley gets fogs and winds from Carneros and also from gaps in the Mayacamas, such as one near Calistoga. Alexander Valley gets its maritime air from the Russian River Valley to the south, from the river itself, and also through gaps in the coastal hills, including the Petaluma Gap. Both valleys grow progressively warmer as you move towards the northwest: Cloverdale is Alexander Valley’s hotspot, while Calistoga is Napa Valley’s.

But elevation plays a crucial role in temperature. With every hundred feet of altitude, you lose about one degree on a summer day. On the other hand, due to a temperature inversion, it’s not as chilly in the mountains at night as it is on the valley floor, which is affected by radiational cooling. Mountains, then, are more consistently moderate places to grow grapes. Above 1,000 feet or so, they also are usually above the fogline.

Soils also change with altitude. The lower in elevation you are, the more granular the soil gets. The valley floor is largely the product of sedimentary runoff from the hills and flooding from the Russian and Napa Rivers. The soils are deeper, richer and more fertile, which is why both valleys used to grow things like plums and nuts. The higher up you go, the drier and poorer the soils are. Whatever rainfall does fall runs off almost instantly to the valley below, leaching out elemental nutrients, both organic and inorganic. These soils can barely hold humidity. The grapevines thus have to struggle to survive. We’re all familiar with this phrase, and we all understand that struggling vines produce more concentrated, interesting fruit than well-nourished and well-irrigated ones.

So is there a difference between Cabernet grown in Alexander Valley and Napa Valley? Yes, in general. Napa Valley is one mountain range further inland than Alexander Valley, so it’s a bit warmer. Thus, you’d expect Napa Cabernet to be a little riper than Alexander Valley Cab, and that has in fact been my experience. In general – on average — Alexander Valley Cab is slightly more herbaceous than Napa Cab.

But terroir – understood as the combination of physical factors such as climate and soil – is only a part of why wine tastes the way it does. The other part is the human factor – what the great French enologist, Emile Peynaud, calls Cru. When you add human activity to terroir, you end up with Cru. I would argue that the human factor in Napa Valley plays a more important role than it does in Alexander Valley. For example, the modern tendency is to let Cabs get ultra-ripe, in the Parker style. This has particular relevance in Napa Valley, Parker’s Happy Hunting Ground for Cabernet Sauvignon; since the 1980s, as we all know, Napa Cabs have been getting riper, as the wineries chase those high Parker scores.

This phenomenon is less true in Alexander Valley. Vintners just don’t feel the same pressure – from critics or consumers – to make big, lush, ripe, splashy, extracted Cabernets. Therefore, in a very real sense, Alexander Valley Cabernet is more of a wine of terroir than Napa Valley Cabernet. This statement is, I realize, controversial. We’ve all heard much of a new direction in California wine that’s less ripe and supposedly more “elegant” and “balanced.” I would suggest that this new style is not so new in Alexander Valley. I’ll return to this topic later.

* * *

Let’s focus in more closely on Alexander Valley. The most celebrated Cabernets, for the most part (certainly the most expensive ones) are grown on the foothills, slopes, benches and mountains of the eastern side of the valley, which is the western face of the Mayacamas. There is, as I said, a lot of Cab planted down on the valley floor These are the wines that established Alexander Valley’s reputation – along with Zinfandel. But I think it’s fair to say that the Cabernets that have raised Alexander Valley’s profile are those from the higher elevations.

In fact, for the most expensive Cabs, we have to turn to altitude — and in some cases, quite a bit of altitude. In addition to the temperature distinctions I referred to earlier, there’s also more intense solar radiation in mountains. We tend to overlook solar radiation in discussions of terroir, possibly because our notion of Cabernet terroir was formed from Bordeaux, where elevation plays almost no role.

The role of solar radiation on grapes is only partially understood. High-altitude grape skins are thicker, in part because the fruit tries to protect itself from intense sunlight. This, along with the poor, dry soil, makes mountain grapes more tannic. Research suggests that these mountain tannins are qualitatively different from the tannins of valley floor grapes. They’re softer and rounder, giving the wines plenty of structure, yet they also possess a suppleness that makes them appealing even in youth.

There’s also evidence that, at high altitudes, the sun’s UV rays are better able to penetrate the skins of the grapes despite their thickness. This has an obvious implication for the pips, which are more easily ripened.

Elevation also allows grapes to more easily achieve a balance of sugar ripeness and the expression of varietal character. In wine, we often speak of “sweet spots,” and this concept applies to mountain vineyards. Too low down, and sugar accumulation may outpace the full expression of varietal flavor. Too high up, and the temperature is too cool, leading to sharp, green wines. In the Mayacamas, the sweet spot seems to be between 400 and about 2,400 feet.

  1. Excellent, insightful discussion.

  2. Bob Henry says:


    Regarding this statement:

    “Research suggests that these mountain tannins are qualitatively different from the tannins of valley floor grapes. They’re softer and rounder, giving the wines plenty of structure, yet they also possess a suppleness that makes them appealing even in youth.”

    Just to be clear: the pronoun “They’re” refers to . . . “mountain tannins” or “tannins of valley floor grapes”?

    Excerpt from Wine Enthusiast Magazine
    (May 2013):

    “Dissecting Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon;
    Napa’s signature grape beautifully reflects the variety of its many subappellations.”


    BY Steve Heimoff


    The Mayacamas boasts three AVAs. What they have in common is elevation. Temperatures become cooler the higher you go (it can be 10˚F warmer on the valley floor on a summer day), and runoff produces water- and nutrient-poor soils, despite significant winter rains.

    The resulting wines are MORE TANNIC, but often are more concentrated and ageworthy.

    Its proximity to San Pablo Bay makes Mount Veeder the coolest of the western mountain appellations. The AVA extends to 1,820 feet above sea level, while the western boundary is the Napa-Sonoma border.

    Mount Veeder Cabernets have a purity that’s equal parts concentration and balance. Many off-mountain wineries bottle Mount Veeder Cabernets. Perhaps the patriarch of local brands is Hess, with Yates Family coming on strong.

    After an appellation-free gap west of Rutherford comes the Spring Mountain District. Directly west of St. Helena, it rises to 2,600 feet in elevation and is considered a cool-weather climate, although “cool” is relative. The soils and orientations are all jumbled up, the result of repeated tectonic activity.

    Two vineyards that exemplify the mountain are Vineyard 7 & 8’s Vineyard 7 and the Wurtele Vineyard, from which Terra Valentine makes a small-production Cabernet of GREAT INTENSITY and ageability.

    Adjoining Spring Mountain to the north is the Diamond Mountain District. Although it’s warmer than its mountain sisters to the south, nighttime temperatures fall off considerably.

    For many years, its Cabernets were AMONG THE HARDEST AND MOST TANNIC OF ALL, the result, perhaps, of steep slopes or the day-night temperature swings. But with modern methods of tannin management, vintners now produce wines of greater suppleness.

    Von Strasser and Diamond Creek set the pace, producing monumental wines of precision and longevity.


    Howell Mountain is the elder (1984) of the Vaca’s two mountain AVAs. It’s hotter and more arid than anything in the Mayacamas, as rainfall falls off rapidly from west to east.

    The Cabernets are TANNIC AND INTENSELY CONCENTRATED. They possess superb structure, almost guaranteeing ageability. Among the premier wineries are La Jota, Sbragia’s Rancho del Oso and Arkenstone.

    . . .

  3. John Roberts says:

    Great speech! I agree, its obvious to anyone that has sampled a great deal of Sonoma and Napa wines that mountain wines are most often more tannic and concentrated, and often provide more pleasure both in the near and long term.. that’s not to say an elegant Rutherford or Alexander Valley Cab cannot be delicious and thought-provoking..

    Looking forward to Part 2! Don’t stop blogging!!

  4. Bob Henry, thanks for posting Steve’s previous comments about Napa’s western mountain districts. We think a lot about tannin management, and consider this key to making Cabernet Sauvignon in the Diamond Mountain District. How we do so seems like a good subject for our own blog, and will see what I can come up with.

  5. Steve,

    As always… appreciate your words, and continued learning. I’ll add Cru to today’s list. As in, throughout Sonoma and Napa there is a Motley Cru that helps keep things interesting and diverse.

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