Somm things I think about: Napa Valley AVA's


Most people have heard of Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley. They are synonymous. It’s the 2nd most visited place in California behind Disneyland. Most of us know a few Napa Valley wines too. But when presented with a wine list or a wall of wines at a retail store, how do you know which Napa Cabernet would fit your tastes best? Most of us will go with what we already know and if we don’t recognize the labels we get anxious and try to find something familiar and hope for the best. I wrote this guide to help you when you are faced with that anxious moment!

Here is a rough guide to the Napa Valley wine areas called AVAs. I hope that this simplified guide to the regions will help you choose a wine with confidence that you are happy with. Some of you may notice that not all of the AVAs are here. They were omitted because they do not have a long enough history to make generalizations about the wines, like Coombsville, or they are not growing Cabernet, like Carneros.

Napa Valley terroir can be boiled down to a few easy points.  It’s hotter in the north and east, cooler in the south and west. The temperature drops as elevation increases. The mountains have thinner, poorer soils. The benches and flatlands have richer deeper more fertile soils.

Valley Floor

Oak Knoll

Overall: Dark and deep wines with higher acid and tannins (more Bordeaux like) they need time in the bottle. Stubborn when opened early but with decanting: Black fruits, blackberries, & cassis, violets, dark chocolate, and mineral.

Our favorite example is  Trefethen Cabernet 2012


Overall: Medium ruby wines that are floral and structured, age-worthy wines with red and black fruits like cassis, blackberry & raspberry. Additionally, they have coffee, herbs, cocoa, licorice, graphite and herbal notes. Note: hard to ripen cab here, they can be green (bell pepper) with higher acid.

Our favorite example is Priest Ranch Cabernet

Stags Leap

Overall: Fruity, structured tannins, Silky texture, powerful, fresh, and elegant dark chocolate, black, red and blue fruits, herbs, tobacco, anise and earthy minerality.

Our favorite example is Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon


Overall: dark Tannic wines that are fragrant, fleshy, big and chewy, they exhibit intense dark red and black fruits like currants, plums, cherries, and blackberries, Additionally dried herbs, spices, cocoa, cedar, tobacco, and leather grace the finer versions.

Our favorite example is Ghost Block Oakville Estate Cabernet Sauvignon


Overall: Cocoa Powder covered sour/ripe cherries, spices, flowers and exhibits a dusty tannic quality that yields a soft earthy quality otherwise known as the “Rutherford dust”.

Our favorite example is Round Pond Estate Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon

St. Helena

Overall: two styles persist; one is lush and decadent, the latter tannic and age-worthy. In common with both styles: Cocoa or chocolate covered cherries, fresh and dried herbs, licorice, plums, berries, cherries, spices like clove and pepper or cinnamon and fresh sage.

Our favorite example is Hall Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

Mayacamas Mountains

The western Mountain range that shields the valley from the cooler ocean breezes from Sonoma. However, temperatures become cooler the higher you go (it can be 10˚F warmer on the valley floor on a summer day), and due to significant winter rain, runoff water produces nutrient-poor soils. The resulting wines are more tannic, but often are more concentrated and age-worthy.

Mt. Veeder

Overall: Highly tannic, deeply colored, full-bodied minerally driven wines with pencil lead, slate, black & blue fruit; like currant, blackberry, and plum. Additionally floral, licorice, tar, tobacco, cedar, smoke, herbs, espresso, chocolate, menthol characteristics can be found in the better examples.

Our favorite example is Robert Craig Cellars Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon

Spring Mountain

Overall: Dense, dark and deeply colored wines, very full-bodied, tannic and higher acidity, yet velvety, with ripe and/or jammy black fruits, baking spices, pepper, mocha, and minerals. Additionally, floral, perfumey, herbal, citrus peel, and creamy characteristics can be found in the better examples.

Our Favorite example is Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon Estate

Diamond Mountain District

Overall: Big bold wines, north and above the fog line, it’s volcanic soils and elevation help with considerable diurnal swings that contribute to acid retention, power, and phenolic ripeness. they are considered the most tannic of all the mountain producing regions, but modern winemaking has made them supple and long lasting. black and other dark fruits, dark chocolate, herbal, and mineral-driven wines that have a significant jammy characteristic in the finer examples to counter the tannins.

Our favorite example is Character Diamond Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon

Vaca Mountain Range

The eastern edge of the Napa Valley, and blocks the high heat of the central valley. The wines are typically tannic and long living due to the warmer and more arid climate

Howell Mountain

Very arid and hottest region of the mountains, the Cabernet is tannic and intensely concentrated, with lots of structure, practically guaranteeing ageability. Tar, mountain flowers, lavender, blue/purplish & black fruits as well as chocolate, cedar, and graphite in the finer examples

Our favorite example is La Jota Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon

Pritchard Hill

Not an AVA but I think it is different enough from Oakville to gain its own place here. These wines are spectacular. They are Cabs of great richness, depth, and length. They also are tannic, but after an hour or so in a decanter, most are really enjoyable. The Sophistication of  Oakville with the intensity of a hillside. Sitting above the fog line, they can be high in alcohol. Blackberry, currant (in different forms), mineral, herbal, oak influence changes with producer, but always present, and earthy. Meaty, smoky and cedar notes are common as well, all are high quality and not really one better than the other. some of the higher alcohol wines will have trouble aging.

Our favorite example is Chappellet Signature Cabernet Sauvignon

Atlas Peak

Cooler and higher than most other AVAs, the wines historically were green and exhibited other underripe flavors. The best Atlas Peak Cabernets and Bordeaux blends are dry, taut, complex and elegant, showing a tight structure that is age-worthy. The wines are bright yet concentrated fruit, firm minerality that comes from the volcanic soil. They often have the peppery aroma characteristic of cool climate reds. Once known as poor quality and often not even the label, today it is at the heart of some of the best cult wines and winemakers like Michael Mondavi and Heidi Barrett. “To me, you get a real mountain-style wine, with intensity, ripeness, and concentration,” says Patrick Krutz, of Krutz Family Cellars.

Our favorite example is Antica Cabernet Sauvignon