Sooner or later, most wine lovers learn about Napa Valley’s “origin story.” Like a fairy tale, it relates how the then-emerging wine region achieved instant worldwide recognition at the 1976 Judgment of Paris blind tasting in which a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay bested the top red and white wines of France — with French experts doing the judging.
It’s an amazing true story — up to a point. Like most legends, some of the details are not quite right. True, the winning 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay was made in a Napa Valley winery by legendary Napa Valley winemaker Mike Grgich. But Grgich sourced those Chardonnay grapes from four vineyards, with 39 percent of the fruit coming from Alexander Valley and 35 percent from Russian River Valley — both Sonoma County appellations. Only 26 percent of the blend actually came from Napa Valley vineyards.
But the story illustrates a valuable point: The six counties that make up the sprawling, official North Coast wine region — Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake, Solano, and Marin counties that encompass about 60 smaller subregions — is a paradise for winemakers who love to produce both varietal and generic blends from various sources.
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For example, Joseph Carr’s popular “Josh Cellars” brand produces a Cabernet Sauvignon varietal blend with grapes from several vineyards. “For our North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon, we source mainly from Sonoma and Mendocino counties,” says Josh winemaker Wayne Donaldson. “The wine is 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and reflects the elegant yet concentrated characteristics of the North Coast appellation of California.”
Gallo winemaker Chris Munsell is equally enamored of the region as a source for blends. “On the North Coast, there are a lot of things in your winemaking toolbox as far as geography is concerned,” he says, noting the many different varieties planted there, its coastal and inland vineyards, foggy and non-foggy regions, cool weather and blazing heat, and variety of elevations and soil types. “As a result, it’s not uncommon for winemakers to dabble in a lot of regions or counties.”
Although “North Coast” was used on wine labels during the 1970s, it was not until 1983 that it was officially recognized as an American Viticultural Area (AVA). And in spite of its many famous wineries, North Coast is the smallest of California’s four major wine regions in terms of grapes harvested, producing 424,648 tons crushed in 2021 — only about 12 percent of the state’s 3.5 million tons crushed that vintage. In the years immediately following its AVA recognition, the North Coast was frequently listed on wine labels as the appellation of record, but as Napa Valley and Sonoma County grew in reputation, more wineries sought to gain popularity by being associated with those prestige appellations.
Many wines made today could be labeled “North Coast,” but not all are. When Tom Gamble launched Gamble Family Vineyards’ new “Mill Keeper” line of affordable wines last year, he told me, “I could have used the North Coast AVA on labels, because that’s where I got most of the grapes. But studies show that ‘California’ is [the] most-valued appellation by consumers after Napa and Sonoma, so that’s what’s on my label.”
The recognized high quality of grapes grown in the North Coast isn’t the only reason they are popular with blenders. Grapes grown outside of Napa and Sonoma are generally less expensive — important when sourcing for value offerings like Josh Cellars or some of Gallo’s brands.
“Typically, the order of priority is if winemakers can’t source affordable grapes in Napa Valley, they go to Sonoma next, then they progress to other North Coast locations,” says Christian Klier, North Coast broker for the large Turrentine Brokerage. Munsell agrees that there is a pecking order of prices charged for grapes. “Grapes from Napa and Sonoma have more history and have achieved more cachet,” he says.
A third reason for blenders to vary their North Coast grape sources is the fluctuating availability of fruit. Over the past three years, for example, California grape growers have had only average to below average harvests in terms of quantity, though, fortunately, not quality. Napa and Sonoma Sauvignon Blanc grapes have been particularly scarce, and, Klier says, “Several wineries such as Duckhorn, Kendall Jackson, and others had to source the North Coast for grapes, although they might not have put ‘North Coast’ on the label.”
Klier also notes there is a greater selection of grape varieties grown in counties such as Lake, Mendocino, and Solano than in Sonoma and in Napa Valley. This isn’t necessarily because these less popular varieties grow better in these counties; land is so expensive in Napa Valley that producers there mostly grow grapes that can yield the highest prices, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay.
“With whites, there is a lot of blending within varietals, such as blended Chardonnay or blended Sauvignon Blanc,” Munsell says. “But you have fewer white generic blends with different grape varieties. Red blends, on the other hand, often use several different varieties that come from these counties. Zinfandel and Syrah, especially, are unsung heroes for red blends, as they provide great bases for red blends and awesome backbones.”
Perhaps no one group of winemakers are bigger cheerleaders for North Coast blends than the region’s several sparkling wine producers, who often mimic France’s Champagne region in buying their grapes from dozens of different microclimates. For example, in a recent vintage, Napa Valley-based Schramsberg Vineyards sourced grapes from 134 different blocks in 75 different vineyard sites scattered across four North Coast counties.
“We started [in the 1960s] in the north part of Napa Valley, but eventually found brighter fruit character and higher natural acidity in grapes grown closer to the bay or the ocean,” says Schramsberg co-owner and president Hugh Davies. “Today, we find great merit in the grapes that we harvest in the Anderson Valley [Mendocino County] to the north, where we principally focus on Pinot Noir. We find crisp orange citrus elements in that region’s Pinot Noir that helps give backbone in our Blanc de Noirs.” Davies compares these regions with Champagne’s Vallée de la Marne.
Davies also sources Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast region. “There is tremendous diversity to this much-larger area,” he says. “There are pockets along the ridgelines above the coast that are low-yielding and deliver Pinot with delicious heft.” He compares these sources as being similar to Champagne’s Montagne de Reims. From Marin County, he says, he gets grapes with richness and density and strong red berry notes.
“In the Carneros,” Davies concludes, “the only region of Napa that we currently grow sparkling fruit in, we find something akin to the Côte des Blancs. Chardonnay tends to give us our best results here in these dark loamy soils approaching the San Pablo Bay. Acidity can be really pronounced.”
But the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay blend from North Coast grapes remains the most famous California wine along with the other winner at the Judgment of Paris — the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, which actually was made entirely from Napa Valley grapes. The Chardonnay inspired both a book and a popular movie that traced its triumph, and a bottle of it is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Its label reads “Napa & Alexander Valleys,” as the North Coast was still 10 years away from being recognized as its own appellation.
At release, the wine’s price was $6.50 a bottle or about $45 adjusted for inflation. In 2016, a bottle sold at a charity auction for $24,000 — further proof of what a good North Coast blend is capable of achieving.