Inspired by one of VinePair’s most popular site sections, the Wine 101 Podcast takes an educational, easy-to-digest look into the world of wine. This episode of Wine 101 is sponsored by Louis M. Martini Winery. For more than 85 years Louis M. Martini Winery has crafted world-class Cabernet Sauvignon from exceptional vineyards of Napa and Sonoma Counties. Our founder believed in a simple, honest premise: The best grapes make the best wine. This guy was one of the OGs, guys. Today, the legacy of ingenuity, endurance, and passion continue at the historic winery in Napa Valley, with an acclaimed collection of unforgettable Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Louis M. Martini. Craft your legacy.
Welcome back to Wine 101. In this week’s episode, VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers takes listeners all across the Napa Valley and the 16 additional American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) that are responsible for some of the United States’s finest wines.
The area first gained international fame in the 1976 Judgement of Paris, when an American wine won big in a blind tasting. Since then, Napa Valley’s wines have grown to even greater heights and secured a place for decades in the White House. Beavers takes listeners back to the beginning and traces the links between California missions and the first vineyards. This history is loaded with a surprising amount of fur trapping and mountain men, and somehow gave way to the creation of the Valencia orange.
While many producers had to concede to the frustrations of Prohibition, a few of the Napa vintners who survived continue to grow today. By breaking down each region into its most famous producers, and the ties between different climates and grapes, this episode truly celebrates Napa Valley and all it has to offer.
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My name is Keith Beavers, and do we all like soup? I mean, it feels like there’s a real rift between people who do and don’t like soup.
What’s going on wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 24 of VinePair’s Wine 101 podcast. My name is Keith Beavers. I’m the tastings director of VinePair. Howdy.
Napa Valley, I mean, we all know “we know” Napa Valley, right? But there’s so much going on in that valley that we may not know about. It can be a little confusing, so let’s just break the Napa Valley down so we completely understand it.
When we talk about American wine, I mean Napa Valley is the first that comes to mind, right? It’s our big deal. It’s the wine region that put us on the map as a wine-producing country. In 1976, the Judgment of Paris, which I’ve talked about in previous episodes. There is so much to talk about with the Napa Valley, like how it began, how it got to where it is today. It’s a fascinating story.
So I’m going to riff a little bit on history, but I really want to give you a sense of the geography and what the Napa Valley is, so that when you’re in a wine shop, you look at a shelf and you’re like, “Okay, I understand all this Napa Valley right here. I got all this.”
Wine in California really started down in San Diego, which is kind of crazy with the Franciscan monks that were building missions all the way up through California. And they had this grape they used, there’s actually a native Spanish grape, but we ended up calling it the Mission grape, because it was planted at the missions. And this grape was planted in every mission the monks built from San Diego all the way north to Sonoma, which is the last mission built by them. And we’re going to get to Sonoma in another episode, which is actually a neighboring region of Napa, but this was the grape everybody used. Actually, in the early to mid-19th century, there were vineyards in Los Angeles. There was a Frenchman whose name, this is amazing, his name was Jean-Louis Vignes, which means John Lewis Vines. I call him Johnny Vines. He had a winery and vineyards in downtown Los Angeles. He planted the Mission grape, but he also brought in varieties from Bordeaux. And his story is really cool. I wish I could tell the whole thing, but he built a French community in downtown Los Angeles.
It was really thriving for a long time, and really awesome. And actually, if you’ve ever driven down Vine Street In Los Angeles, that is named after him. It’s so cool. This was also the era of “The Mountain Man.” There’s all these dudes just running around the hills of California, trapping animals, selling them, selling their furs, and their skins, and making tons of money doing it. Two prominent names, and they were actually friends, were William Wolfskill. I know, you can’t make that stuff up. It’s such a cool name. And a dude named George C. Yount. They were trappers and mountain men, and they had had some fun over on the coast. They were over there like trapping sea otters for a while.
And after they made a bunch of money, they came back into Los Angeles and the two of them parted ways. William Wolfskill wanted to stay in Los Angeles. He saw the wine thing happening. So he ended up starting his own wine company in Los Angeles, downtown Los Angeles, very close to Johnny Vines, actually, which is really wild.
And actually William Wolfskill also got into the citrus business and he was the one who developed the Valencia orange, The Valencia orange, how Los Angeles is that? It’s pretty crazy. George C. Yount ended up going with this really famous mountain man trailblazer dude, named Jedediah Smith. And he ended up north of San Francisco Bay in a place called the Napa Valley. Now George C. Yount wasn’t really a wine guy, per se. He was more about money and when the Gold Rush hit, he was living up here in Napa Valley. He was supplying supplies to the people during the Gold Rush. At some point, he acquires a large swath of land by a native of this area who was a vine grower.
And at some point, George plants vines on his property, but he didn’t really manage it. He actually hired a kid named Charles Krug to do that stuff. And Charles Krug eventually becomes the guy who really helps out a lot of people in this area to get the wine thing started. I’m really generalizing here, because there’s a lot of details, and I wish I could go into all of it, but I can’t.
But what this did was this began the first generation of winemakers in the Napa Valley. And from the late 1800s to 1919, this area — and Sonoma — was seen as a premier wine region. And there were people outside of the United States that had their eye on this area. And in 1919, when the Volstead Act was ratified, man, that messed everything up.
There was a hope in the beginning that wine and beer would be saved from this act, but it didn’t. The amount of alcohol was low enough that wine, beer, and spirits were all illegal. And that decade was a tough decade. A lot of vineyards closed in California and Napa and Sonoma, but through legal loopholes, some winemakers survived this crazy time.
And in 1933, when the Volstead Act was basically repealed, there were some winemakers left that really wanted to get this thing going again. They were ready. And by 1940, there are six winemakers: Beaulieu Vineyards, Beringer, the Christian Brothers, Inglenook Vineyards, Charles Krug, and Louis M. Martini, that formed what was called the Napa Valley Vintners, or Napa Valley Vintners Association.
And this is really cool. Their goal was, well, during Prohibition, bulk wine was sort of the thing that was part of the loopholes and everything. Their goal was to bring fine wine back to this area. And it began to work. And by the late 1960s, mid-to-late 1960s, America was getting really, the drinking culture was getting back into dry red wine because during Prohibition, it was all sweet red wine. That sweet tooth never really went away. But winemakers like Robert Mondavi, wineries like Trefethen, Freemark Abbey, Chateau Montelena, Sterling Vineyard, Stag’s Leap Cellars, Mayacamas, Stony Hill were showing that this area could make fine wine again. Actually, Robert Mondavi was the first, he was the guy that started doing the tasting rooms. The tasting rooms basically began with him.
And all this led up to 1976 with the Judgment of Paris, when American wine in a blind tasting won out over French wine. And these wines came from the Napa Valley. That kind of excitement led the United States to start creating and forming our own appellation system called the American Viticultural Areas. This is in 1978, and in 1980, the first AVA was awarded — not to Napa Valley, but to a wine region in Missouri called Augusta. So the Augusta AVA is awarded in 1980. Then eight months later in 1981, Napa Valley is the first AVA to be awarded to California. And this is where things go crazy. From the late ’70s until the 1980s, the wineries went from around 20 to about 200 or more.
And every year, a new AVA was being awarded in the Napa Valley. So Napa was the larger AVA, but all these smaller AVAs in the Napa Valley were also being awarded, to the point that in 1990, there was a petition to create a Bordeaux commune-style segmentation of Napa Valley. This never really came to total fruition, but it’s basically like that because the rules state that no matter what AVA you have in Napa Valley, you need to say “Napa Valley” and then the AVA that you’re in. So it’s almost like a village or something like that. So what does Napa Valley look like today? And how can we understand it?
Since 1981, it’s been awarded 16 more AVAs. So it’s really 17. You have the Napa Valley and you have 16 smaller AVAs within the valley and the surrounding mountains, which we’ll get into in a second. And it’s not the largest AVA out there. I mean, it is only about almost 40 miles north to south. And between the two mountain ranges, the valley itself, the widest it gets is about five miles, and the narrowest it gets is about one mile. So it’s not huge. It’s about one-eighth the size of Bordeaux. Speaking of Bordeaux, to understand Napa, really, because of me talking about the 1940s and the Napa Valley Vintners Association, this is a fine wine region.
I mean, there is affordable wine being made in Napa. Absolutely. But it is focused on refinement. There was a reason why they’re trying to make it into communes at one point. To give you a sense of this, Napa Valley only produces 4 percent of California’s annual wine production. So that’s pretty small. Eighty percent of the wineries make less than 10,000 cases a year. So it makes sense. Right?
And the magic of this place is you have these two mountain ranges on each side that were part of the formation of the San Andreas Fault. So, what we have here is we have San Francisco to the south. Then we have San Francisco Bay, north of San Francisco Bay is called San Pablo Bay. Just north of San Pablo Bay we go into a valley that is bordered on the east and the west by two mountain ranges. East side of the valley you have the Vaca mountain range, and that protects the valley from the heat of the Central Valley on the other side. On the west side of the Valley, you have the Mayacamas mountain range, which protects the valley from the coastal influence coming from the ocean.
So what you have here is you have a valley with a bunch of different kinds of soil compositions because of that San Andreas Fault craziness that helped develop these mountain ranges. And it’s protected from heat on one side and cool on the other side. So what you have is the breeze that comes from the San Francisco and San Pablo Bay rushes up through the valley all the way to the northern part of the valley.
And this is not a hard-and-fast rule because there’s a lot of factors involved, but generally, if you want to look at it this way, the AVAs in the southern part of the Napa Valley tend to be cooler, because they have more of an influence from the San Francisco and San Pablo Bay. As we get to the northern part of Napa Valley, that area has less of an influence from the bay, and it’s warmer in that area. But there’s a lot of factors involved, and at night it can get cool in all different parts, whether it’s north or south. So with all this elevation from the mountain ranges and with all of the different soils and with the breeze coming in and the cool nights and the warm days, it’s a perfect place to grow vines. And of course we know Napa Valley because of Cabernet Sauvignon, and we know Cabernet Sauvignon because of Napa Valley … and Chardonnay. But also Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah, Malbec, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot are all grown here as well.
And they’re mostly, a lot of those reds are made for blending with Cabernet Sauvignon, but you can do basically whatever you want in Napa Valley, but certain AVAs are just better for certain vines than other AVAs. To help wrap your mind around all this, you can think about it like this: The valley floor between the two mountain ranges going south to north, there are nine individual AVAs. On the bordering mountain ranges, there are six AVAs. And then there’s one AVA all the way out to the west. It’s almost partially in Napa, which we’ll get to last. And when it comes to the valley floor, we can actually group some AVAs into the heavy influence of San Pablo Bay.
So in the very Southern part of the Napa Valley, we have an AVA called Carneros. It’s the one of the coolest regions in Napa Valley. And it’s known for Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, but it’s also known for really good Pinot Noir because of that coolness. Just north of that, northwest is Coombsville. Coombsville is another one of those cooler regions. They make amazing Merlot, as far as I’m concerned. North of Carneros and northeast of Coombsville, on the northern border of the City of Napa, is Oak Knoll District, also known as a cool region. This is a great area for Zinfandel and Merlot. North of Oak Knoll is Yountville. And this AVA is, well, they make all kinds of wine there, but they’re really also known for their sparkling wine. And then east of that is the famous Stag’s Leap district. It’s famous because this is where Stag’s Leap Cellars is. This is the winery that won in the Judgment of Paris in 1976. It butts right up against the Vaca Mountain Range, and it has just an amazing climate for Cab and Merlot. It’s basically all they do. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and they make beautiful blends there. North of Yountville and Stag’s leap is Oakville. This is a pretty well-known area. This AVA, Oakville, is where a lot of the very well-known wineries are that we see on shelves. Screaming Eagle is from here, Harlan is from here, Far Niente, Opus One is from here. It’s kind of like in between. It’s right where the warmth and the cool kind of come together.
North of Oakville is Rutherford. This AVA is known for amazing Cabernet Sauvignon. This is actually the home of two pretty historic wineries: Inglenook and Beaulieu they’re part of that old-school, old-timer time before, you know, everything got better after Prohibition. And there are some pretty amazing patches of vineyards in here that make great and expensive Cabernet Sauvignon.
North of Rutherford, the mountain ranges kind of come close together. This is where the valley gets a little bit narrow. We get into the St. Helena AVA, and this is well known because this is where the famous Charles Krug, he was one of the most well-known wine consultants and winemakers in Napa Valley This is where he opened his winery in 1861.
North of St. Helena, now we’re up here, we’re away from the influence of San Pablo Bay. And this is where the Calistoga AVA is. And it’s one of the oldest areas in Napa for winemaking, but also, the AVA was only created in 2009, but here is the home of Chateau Montelena.
This is the winery that made the white wine that won the Judgment of Paris in 1976. It was a Chardonnay. So you have a Cabernet Sauvignon being made in the cooler region that won. And then you have a Chardonnay made in a warmer region that won. But the thing about Calistoga is it can be 95 degrees during the day, but at night because of a nearby valley, you can get down to 50 degrees. So it’s a perfect place for Chardonnay, and man, it’s a beautiful Chardonnay. And those are the nine AVAs that live on the valley floor. Now up in the mountains in the two ranges bordering the valley, there are six AVAs over on the eastern range, the Vaca Mountain Range, just east of that Stags Leap district up in the mountains is an AVA called Atlas Peak. It’s known for pretty amazing Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. You’re up there. It’s got a good elevation, got great acidity and these wines are beautiful, elegant, structured wines. At one time, an Italian winemaker tried to grow Sangiovese here and it didn’t really work, but they realized Chardonnay and Cab did, so of course, this is Napa, they work. They’re beautiful. Just northeast of that in this mountain range is the Chiles Valley, it’s a small AVA. It’s about 1,200 feet above sea level. And this is again mountains. Great Zinfandel comes from here, great Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc.
Just north of that is Howell Mountain. This is a really well-known AVA and it is about 1,400 feet above sea level. And it is very celebrated for their Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s very rugged. It’s a great place for Cabernet Sauvignon, with the sun and the elevation. It was actually once known more for Zinfandel, but because of the popularity of Cabernet Sauvignon, it just kind of overtook the Zinfandel. I haven’t had Zinfandel from Howell Mountain. I’m hoping somebody does make it, because I mean, it looks like it’d be an amazing place for that. Great. And on the western border of the valley, you have the Mayacamas Mountains and down in the southern part where Los Carneros is, so just north of Los Carneros and west of the Oak Knoll District, up in the mountains is the AVA called Mount Veeder. Just like Howell mountain, this place is really, really well known for its Cabernet Sauvignon. And of course, Chardonnay, and they’re playing with Malbec. North of that is the Spring Mountain District AVA. And of course they do Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, but again. it’s mountain fruit. So it’s this beautiful, structured, good acidity. And the thing about this is, on the other side of the Mayacamas Mountains is Sonoma. And that has the influence of the ocean. The Mayacamas Mountains actually are a source of cool air for the northern AVAs in the valley that don’t get the influence of the San Pablo Bay.
Then North of that, all the way up just south of the Calistoga AVA, up in the Mayacamas Mountains is the Diamond Mountain District. It’s known for extremely grippy, tannic Cabernet Sauvignon. But also this is the home of Schramsberg, which is one of Napa Valley’s premier sparkling wines. It’s a sparkling wine that was in the White House for a very long time.
If you have anybody coming from overseas to visit the White House, this is the sparkling wine that they offer. It’s almost like this is our Champagne, but it’s not Champagne.
Oh, and that is Napa Valley. So you have 16 AVAs, you have nine on the valley floor, you have six up in the mountains, and you had the larger area around it just called the Napa Valley AVA. And when you look at a label, you’ll see a winemaker’s name, you’ll see Napa Valley, and then you’ll see the AVA. Where the wine came from. If the wine just says Napa Valley, it can come from anywhere in the Napa Valley. That was a straight-up crash course, but I hope it gives you a little bit of a perspective on one of our most famous wine regions in the United States. So next time you’re at a wine shop and you see the Napa Valley section or the Napa section or the California section, you know what you’re looking at.
If you’re digging what I’m doing, picking up what I’m putting down, go ahead and give me a rating on iTunes or tell your friends to subscribe. You can subscribe. If you like to type, go ahead and send a review or something like that, but let’s get this wine podcast out so that everybody can learn about wine.
Check me out on Instagram. It’s @vinepairkeith. I do all my stuff in stories. And also, you got to follow VinePair on Instagram, which is @vinepair. And don’t forget to listen to the VinePair Podcast, which is hosted by Erica, Adam, and Zach. It’s a great deep dive into drinks culture every week.
Now, for some credits. How about that? Wine 101 is recorded and produced by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin. I also want to thank Danielle Grinberg for making the most legit Wine 101 logo.
And I got to thank Darby Cicci for making this amazing song: Listen to this epic stuff. And finally, I want to thank the VinePair staff for helping me learn more every day. Thanks for listening. I’ll see you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.