Special Napa, California Wine Report:

Grand Crus of Napa Valley

By John Szabo, MS

This feature was commissioned by Napa Valley Vintners.

On Main Street in St. Helena at the northern end of Napa Valley, the scent of wine, and prosperity, is everywhere. You’ll see fashionable boutique after quaint antique shop, bakeries, cafés, restaurants, tasting rooms, gourmet food shops, a specialty chocolate shop, a high-end cycle shop, a fancy olive oil dispensary, in short, all the amenities and luxuries expected in a small affluent community. Virtually every shop front displays a bottle of wine, or several. Sought after labels, magnums, double magnums and even more aspirational sizes, are prominently positioned as window dressings: these props are the hook to get you to buy truffles or olive tapenade or a new handbag. It’s as though everything in Napa Valley, from the business of sustaining life to the business of enjoying it, centers on wine. And it does.

But it’s also a place of generational family business and hard-working grape growers, those fortunate enough to have gotten in before land prices skyrocketed.  And it’s precisely this mosaic of people, as wildly varied as the patchwork of soils that underlie the hills and valleys of the region, and the collisions between varying winemaking philosophies and the creations they occasion, that make the Napa Valley fascinating.

It’s easy to see what attracted early settlers here, and what makes the vines they brought happy. Even in January, the sharp mid-winter sun still casts warm light across the valley, first awakening the Mayacamas Mountains with its gentler morning rays before turning its attention towards the Vaca Range with its more energetic afternoon glare. Cheerful yellow mustard flowers light up the rows between vines, as though to signal to the vines that another growing cycle is soon to begin. Meanwhile up in the hills, the sun fights its way through the thick overhead canopy cast by massive redwoods, alders and oaks, and bonsai-perfect, life-sized models of Douglas Firs and myriad pines, before finally dappling its light on the lower lying shiny red wood of the Manzanita trees and fragrant Laurels.

For all the fashionable talk of ‘cool climate pockets’, the Napa Valley is a warm and pleasant place to be year-round. People, and vines, clearly like it here in this dry Mediterranean climate, where the growing season sees very little rain and sunshine and warmth are rarely lacking. Vines grow happily the rich soils of the valley floor, washed down from the hills over millennia by the Napa River.

Chic St. Helena
Chic St. Helena

Gold in the Hills

But the most compelling wines, those you might call the grand crus of Napa Valley, come from the benchlands at the foot of the mountains and hills above the valley floor, from the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains that define the western side of the valley and the Vaca Range bordering the east, where volcanic soils meet other formations in a seemingly haphazard mash-up. These “mountain wines”, grown on poor, stony soils have a markedly different character and quality than valley floor wines. They’re denser, darker, quite often more tannic, yet more evenly ripe at lower alcohol, and age magnificently. The vines themselves grow more slowly, they struggle and naturally yield less fruit per acre. For a vine it’s probably hell. For a winemaker, and wine drinkers, it’s much closer to heaven.

Unofficial Classifications

No official vineyard or producer classification exists in Napa Valley as there are in many old world winegrowing regions. And nobody wants one. This is America, the land of freedom and individualism, free markets and healthy competition. Yet over its 150-year winegrowing history, certain vineyards in Napa have naturally risen to the top, consistently outperforming and giving rise to superior wines that command top dollar and motivate long waiting lists for an allocation. Price is perhaps an even more reliable classification than an ossified appellation hierarchy that allows for complacency and underperformance. Not so in the fluid world of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.

Great vineyards don’t exist without people to plant and farm them, and the financial ability in Napa to hire top expertise and harness next gen technologies is virtually unparalleled. Yet skill and the ability to draw the best out of any vineyard aside, there are certain parcels that lend themselves more easily to greatness. They have the natural conditions – the microclimate, soil structure and chemistry, sun exposure, drainage and aspect that are perfectly suited to the variety planted. These are the true grand crus, those that need only a gentle guiding hand to yield great wines.

I spoke to some key players in Napa to learn which vineyards have earned at least unofficial grand cru status, what characteristics they share, and also what makes them unique and capable of commanding prices into the hundreds of dollars for a single bottle.

Napa Valley Map
Napa Valley Map

Natural Assets

Referring specifically to Cabernet Sauvignon, which accounts for over half of all vineyards in Napa Valley and easily the valley’s flagship variety, celebrated winegrower Paul Hobbs believes there are broad macroclimates that are better suited to the grape. Some parts of the valley are too warm, others too cool. Napa is only roughly 50 kilometers long north to south and no more than about 10 kms wide east to west at the widest point. But there’s tremendous diversity in that north-south line. In the southern end of the valley, in the appellation of Carneros, for example, it’s widely considered too cool for Cabernet. This is where Hobbs instead sources his Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, two varieties that do well in Carneros’s cooler, fog-bathed vineyards and heavier, more water retentive clay soils.

It’s like filleting a cow, you know, the hooves aren’t that tasty, you want to be very particular about which part of the Black Angus you eat” – Paul Hobbs

“It’s like filetting a cow”, he continues, “you know, the hooves aren’t that tasty, you want to be very particular about which part of the Black Angus you eat.” Tom Hinde, winemaker at Taub Family Wines, also considers climate when selecting sources for the various vineyard-designated Cabernets he produces, getting even more specific about what he considers the climatic prime cuts of the valley. “South [of the Oak Knoll District] is too cool for us”, he says, “and north [of St. Helena] is too warm.” Typical summer daytime temperatures range from about 27ºC at the southern end of the valley to over 35ºC in the far north, a massive difference from a grapevine’s perspective. Hinde thus focuses on the central part of the Napa Valley, the 15 kilometer stretch between St. Helena, Rutherford Oakville and Yountville.

East-west across the valleys also shows marked difference, obvious even to casual observers. “If up on the west side up against the Mayacamas Mountains” says Hobbs, “that’s a whole different ball game, different soils, sun exposure, etc., vs the east side.” That west side of the valley is noticeably cooler and greener, thanks to its eastern-facing flanks that welcome the gentler rays of the morning sun and lie in shade during the hottest parts of the afternoon. The flora is conspicuously different, with tall, moss-covered redwoods and pines contrasting with the ground-hugging, scruffier shrubs of the hotter west-facing side of the valley. “If you’re on the east side, you’ve got more scrub oak and it’s more desert-like,” says Hobbs. East and west-side Napa cabernets can be quite different, if equally compelling in their own ways, a filet mignon vs. a bone-in ribeye.

Complicating things somewhat, climate also varies by elevation, which in Napa Valley rises from about 230m to almost 800m for some of the highest mountain vineyards. And while higher generally means cooler in most places, it’s not always so in northern California. Because of the regular fog intrusion from the Pacific Ocean and San Pablo Bay that floods into lower lying areas, in some spots, higher can be warmer. Vineyards above the fog line get longer sunshine hours than those below, which must wait until the morning sun burns off the fog to see their first rays of light.

And due to the meteorological phenomenon known as a temperature inversion layer, when a layer of cooler air is trapped near the ground by a layer of warm air above the surface, higher elevation vineyards can also be warmer during the nighttime. This helps to advance ripening, though can also be detrimental for hanging on to balancing acids. So, it’s not quite as simple as a basic north-south or east-west equation. All things considered, Napa Valley has a tremendous number of microclimates.

Napa Morning, Vaca Range
Napa Morning, Vaca Range

More Rocks, Less Dirt

But after the right climate zone has been pinpointed, the selection process turns critically downward, to the soils. Napa counts no fewer than 33 different soil series that have been mapped, making the choices vast. Hobbs describes a convergence of factors that yield great cabernets: “Well drained soils are paramount. Cabernet sauvignon in particular loves to have dry feet, so rocky, gravelly soils tend to be ideal, and low fertility. When you’re in Napa Valley, you want to stay away from the Napa River where there are richer soils with more organic material.”

Virtually every winegrower agrees. Chris Tynen, winemaker at Cliff Lede, says, “There’s something special about all of Napa, but within this great appellation there are certain little sweets spots that stick out as original, which just consistently make great, distinctive wine year after year. Poetry [Cliff Lede’s top vineyard] is one of those vineyards. We have very rocky, shallow soils. Even our old vines are still very small. The vines struggle, the berries are very small, and that concentration of fruit is passed along to the wine.”

Hinde, like Hobbs, agrees on the general characteristics of the best medium in which to grow cabernet. “We like well-drained soils, where grapes struggle a little more and set a little less crop.” Low yielding grapevines produce more concentrated fruit. But lower yields don’t mean lower farming costs. It means more expensive grapes per ton, and thus more costly wines. Greatness, here as elsewhere, comes at a price.

White ash soils of Volcanic Hill, Diamond Creek
White Ash Soils of Volcanic Hill, Diamond Creek

Shared Greatness

Some of Napa’s great vineyards are shared by several producers, such as the Krupp Brother’s Stagecoach Vineyard high-up on rocky Atlas Peak on the east side of the valley, from which no fewer than 90 wineries have purchased grapes in the past (the vineyard was sold to Gallo in 2017). Perhaps most famously is the collection of heritage vineyards farmed by star grower Andy Beckstoffer. His historic vineyards such as To Kalon (Oakville AVA), Dr. Crane (St. Helena AVA, east side), Las Piedras (St. Helena AVA, west side) or George the III (Rutherford AVA), to name but a few, are among the most sought after in the County. But in order to gain the privilege of buying grapes from one of Beckstoffer’s vineyards, wineries must undergo an interview process, which includes of course a sampling of the winemaker’s portfolio. They must agree to put the Beckstoffer name and the name of the vineyard on the label, to ensure the continued fame of his properties. And the price paid for grapes is tied to the retail price of the wine, with minimums, though all are comfortably in three digits.

Hobbs, who makes cabernet from several of Beckstoffer’s top vineyards, describes a few flavour profiles: To Kalon is about the tannin structure. It’s a layered kind of experience, like hitting a strike in bowling. It’s like voom, it fills the whole palate. And then there’s another shock wave that follows after that, that may catch you by surprise if you’re not paying attention. Few vineyards can do that. That’s what gives it its unique personality.”

“Dr. Crane”, he continues, “leans more to red fruit, very elegant. Very stylish, it’s a warmer site, very gravelly soils. And Las Piedras on the west side in the Mayacamas, is an intermediate site in terms of heat, neither hot nor cold, also a very rocky site. It reads more like a mountain vineyard than a valley floor vineyard, so, very black fruit-driven.”

Coombsville Caldera, South Side
Coombsville Caldera, South Side

Monopole Grand Crus

Most, however, are the sole property of a single winery, monopoles, to use the French term. In no pMost, however, are the sole property of a single winery, monopoles, to use the French term. In no particular order and non-exhaustive, I’d include the following on my list of crus: Cliff Lede’s Poetry, Quintessa, Colgin’s IX Estate and Cariad, Dalla Valle Estate, Ovid Estate, Continuum Estate, Shafer’s Hillside, Stag’s Leap SLV, Eisele Vineyard, Hundred Acre Kayli Morgan Vineyard, Promontory Estate, Screaming Eagle Estate, Harlan Estate, Diamond Creek’s Red Rock Terrace and Volcanic Hill, Dominus, Joseph Phelp’s Insignia, Spring Mountain Vineyard, Abreu Madrona Ranch, Chateau Montelena Estate, Dunn Vineyards Howell Mountain Estate, and Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard, among many others.

What all of these vineyards have in common is that they are in climatic sweet spots, off the valley floor, on the benchlands or uplifted rocky areas where slices of the Vaca and Mayacamas Mountains have sloughed off down to the valley floor, or up on the mountains themselves. Many of Napa’s vineyards meet these criteria.

Sunset, Ovid Vineyards
Sunset, Ovid Vineyards

Preserved For the Future

Happily, preserving Napa’s vineyards is a focus of the industry. More than 65% of Napa County vineyard land is enrolled in, or certified by a sustainability initiative called the Napa Green Land Program, one of only four sustainable winegrowing programs nationwide in the U.S. focusing on soil-to-bottle certification. “Napa Green provides a pathway for growers to improve soil health, become carbon neutral to negative within six to nine years, and increase the resilience of vineyards, businesses, and the Napa Valley community”, according to napagreen.org.

And beyond current sustainability goals, it’s also likely that most of these vineyards will remain in the hands of future generations of grapegrowers, despite pressure for other types of land development. The Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve was established in 1968 for just this purpose. The first of its kind in the United States, land under the preserve is set aside exclusively for agriculture in perpetuity. Many vineyards, including most of Beckstoffer’s prime historic properties, are protected under the preserve, ensuring that these famous names will remain on bottles for many vintages to come.

John Szabo’s October Buyer’s Guide to Napa Valley Cabernet

Wines are now available at select LCBO stores.

Spring Mountain Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2016

Spring Mountain Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, Napa Valley, California
($130.00, Lexcellent Wines)
John Szabo – Spring Mountain’s 2016 Cabernet leads off with a spectacular set of aromatics, complete and appealing, featuring a lovely mix of fresh and evolving dark fruit, but also plenty of evergreen freshness and resinous-herbal notes fully in the varietal idiom alongside an amalgam of integrated, wood-derived spice. The palate is awash in flavour, genuinely dense and concentrated, but also well-proportioned and balanced on a large-scale frame. Length is excellent. This is a Napa Cabernet that stands above many in a similar price category, delivering on the promise of premium quality, ageworthy wine. Really engaging and succulent, driving desire for another sip. Drink or hold into the early thirties – this has the stuffing to go far.

Inglenook Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, Napa Valley, California
($99.00 Noble Estates Wines & Spirits Inc.)
John Szabo – The 2017 Inglenook is a really lovely, polished elegant wine with seamless texture and beautiful balance. I love the finesse of the tannin structure, the freshness of acids, and the overall complexity and depth on offer – it’s a really pretty and well-composed vintage. Fruit is plush and dark, accented by integrated wood-derived spice, with long creamy finish. Classy and composed, elegant and inviting. As this is tasted from 375ml bottle, it’s likely showing more forward than the same from 750ml, so I’d suggest cellar another 2-4 years, or hold without issue into the mid-thirties. There’s little to tell between this and Inglenooks flagship Rubicon bottling from the same vintage, making this an easy smart buy in the portfolio.

Sinegal Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Sinegal Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, Napa Valley, California
($139.00, Noble Estates Wines & Spirits Inc.)
Deep, inky-black colour, with super-ripe, intense dark fruit profile to match, there’s a vague impression of sweetness on the thick, mouth-coating palate. It’s hard to argue with the sheer concentration and density on offer, yet the ensemble also remains poised and balanced, absent the excessive alcohol, oak influence, and oxidation of many in the genre. It gains with air and time in the glass, evolving into a more complex expression, boding well for future evolution in bottle as well. Length and depth are exceptional. A satisfying mouthful to be sure, best 2024-2035 or so. 

Clos Du Val Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Hirondelle Vineyard Stags Leap District 2016

Clos Du Val Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Hirondelle Vineyard Stags Leap District 2016, Napa Valley, California
($195.00, The Vine Agency)
John Szabo – Clos du Val’s 2016 single vineyard Stags Leap Cabernet is a generous and plush, intensely concentrated and ultimately impressive wine, featuring a wash of ultra-ripe, sleek black fruit, integrated wood spice and impeccable balance overall. The palate is velvety and full, with fine-grained, powdery tannins and balanced-creamy acids, leading to a long, flavourful finish. I’d suggest cellaring another 2-4 years for more developed complexity, or cellar into the mid-thirties without concern.

Michael Mondavi Family Estate M By Michael Mondavi 2016

Michael Mondavi Family Estate M By Michael Mondavi 2016, Napa Valley, California
($304.00, Mark Anthony Group)
John Szabo – 17 barrels of Michael Mondavi’s flagship “M” wine were produced from a blend of 58% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Cabernet Franc, 5% each of Merlot and Petit Verdot, and 2% Malbec, sourced mainly from the estate Animo vineyard on the rocky, volcanic soils of Atlas Peak. The 2016 is showing beautifully now, with seamless integration on the palate, and smooth, supple and elegant texture, perfectly ripe at 14.9% alcohol declared. Length is likewise exceptional. Certainly a very fine bottle of wine, drinking well now, but also capable of another 15+ years in a good cellar.

Silverado Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon 2017

Silverado Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, Napa Valley, California
($160.00, Kylix Wines)
John Szabo – A blend of fruit from Silverado’s southern Napa Valley estate vineyards, this is balanced, fresh, lively Cabernet, indeed remarkably lively and energetic relative to many examples from the valley, relying as much on acids as on tannins for structure. I love the fragrant aromatics on offer, the more red fruited and herbal-inflected side of Cabernet, a rarity. The palate is still full-bodied at 14.4% alcohol declared, but there’s uncommon freshness and elegance, as well as terrific length. A classy wine, still not yet at prime; try after 2024, or hold into the mid-’30s. A balanced and complex, elegant Napa Cabernet.

Volker Eisele Family Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2015

Volker Eisele Family Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, Napa Valley, California
($104.95, The Vine Agency)
John Szabo – Mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with a splash of Merlot, all from the Chiles Valley above and east of the Napa Valley proper, this estate vineyard has been farmed by Volker Eisele family since 1974. The slightly cooler climate and high diurnal temperature shift of this AVA results in wines with good definition, here evolving at this stage beyond mere dark fruit into more savoury spice and earth, dried fruit, and leather, while the palate still retains a dusty-grippy texture, not astringent, but gritty nonetheless. For drinking over the short-mid term.

John Szabo, MS

This feature was commissioned by Napa Valley Vintners. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery, agent or region. Our writers independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted on WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the article. Wineries, wine agents, or regions pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign.