Where the Vines Grow
Explore some of Wine Country’s undiscovered appellations.
by Suzanne Becker Bronk
Location, location, location—it’s true about real estate, and it’s also true about wine. Different soils and climates can dramatically influence a wine’s character, as well as an entire regional style. That leads to the creation of an appellation—also called an American Viticultural Area, or AVA—a designation that recognizes and codifies a wine region’s unique profile. (Think the Champagne province in France or our very own Napa Valley.)
Napa and Sonoma Counties have their own rich collections of appellations. Since 1981, when Napa Valley became the first West Coast appellation, more than 30 AVAs have been added to Wine Country. While many of these AVAs—including regions like Los Carneros, Oakville, Howell Mountain, and the Russian River Valley—have earned a well-deserved popular following, there are plenty of others waiting to be discovered.
Made an official appellation in 2011, this AVA’s history of wine growing dates back to the 1880s, when Napa Valley pioneer Henry Hagen developed Cedar Knoll Vineyard and Winery, which later became Palmaz Vineyards. It wasn’t until the ’90s, however, that a new wave of hip winemakers and investors began replacing the area’s horse pastures with vineyards.
Located on the gently sloping hillsides east of downtown Napa, Coombsville is the newest Napa Valley subappellation. Rising from the valley floor to 1,900 feet on the Vaca Mountain range, this bowl-shaped region shelters a myriad of family-owned vineyards that produce red and white wines with magnificent flavors, depth, and complexity.
The primary grapes grown in the area are cabernet sauvignon and bordelais varieties, which benefit from cooler days and maritime breezes that blow in from the nearby San Pablo Bay in the late afternoon.
Another major feature is the rocky volcanic soils and gravelly loams. Grapes grown in the lower elevation’s light-colored tufa soils—comprised of volcanic ash, lava, and gravel—often have spicy dark fruit flavors, while grapes grown in the red-colored stony volcanic soils at the higher elevations tend to be more aromatic, with intense flavors and bolder tannins.
Iconic winemaker John Caldwell was one of the first to make his mark on the region; he began planting a special selection of grape clones and rootstock he smuggled back from Canada in 1984. The fruit from those vines has become the core of the 22 distinct wines produced at Caldwell Vineyard.
Today, there are more than 50 members of the Coombsville AVA Association of Vintners and Growers showcasing the best qualities of the region. Another local favorite is Silver Stag Winery. Launched in 2001, the winery produces an elegant estate Cabernet Sauvignon with rich, deep, and complex flavors, and a more powerful reserve-style wine with layers of dark fruits, raspberry jam, olive, vanilla, and tobacco.
“Balance and harmony with the tannins is a little bit more of a challenge, particularly when you are working with grapes from the rockier soils,” says owner and winemaker Harry Parsley. “However, the conditions in Coombsville make it easy to obtain concentrated flavors.”
A half-mile south of the Parsley property is Tournesol, a boutique brand started by Bob and Anne Arns in 1999. In addition to making an impressive string of limited-release bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon, rosé, and a red proprietary blend, the winery also makes a Sauvignon Blanc–Semillon, featuring a lively profile of ripe peach, citrus, and sandalwood. A small portion of Semillon and a hint of oak added to the blend create an elegant texture.
Veteran winemaker Ken Bernards, who crafts the wines for Tournesol (which means “sunflower” in French), also makes flavorful offerings of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for his Ancien label, using fruit from the 50-year-old vines at the Haynes Vineyard as well as younger plantings from his own Mink Vineyard.
“In being such a small appellation, it’s amazing the diversity of grape varieties you can grow within a few mile radius,” says Bernards. coombsvillenapa.org.
Beyond the vines: To enjoy the natural beauty of Coombsville, check out hiking trails at Mt. George Waterfall and the Foote Botanical Preserve at Mt. George. Besides hiking and biking trails, Skyline Wilderness Park offers archery and disc golf.
You’ll find excellent dining just 10 minutes away in downtown Napa. For fine cuisine, the standards include La Toque Restaurant, Angele, Cole’s Chop House, Torc, and Basalt. If you are craving super fresh sushi, try Morimoto Napa, Eiko’s Sushi, or the hot, new Kenzo. For lunch, stop by Oxbow Public Market for Latin-style cuisine at C Casa, juicy burgers at Gott’s Roadside, or comfort food at the Kitchen Door.
Although St. Helena is famous for its mixture of historic wineries, boutique shops, and world-class restaurants, many of the guests visiting the quaint town don’t realize that the vineyards stretching from Zinfandel Lane to the south and Bale Lane to the north are part of the St. Helena AVA granted in 1995.
For this reason, most people driving on Highway 29 go past the turn to Dowdell Lane on the southern edge of St. Helena. Those curious enough to venture down this small road discover a hundred acres of hidden vines, as well as the stoic stone building that once housed the Dowdell and Sons Winery in the 1870s.
Charlie Crocker, who purchased the property in 1971, remembers the first time he saw this special pocket of farmland. “To me, it was a flashback to the rustic and peaceful times in St. Helena. I’ve always had the feeling that the spirits of the previous owners are alive and well,” he says.
Over the next decade, Crocker replanted the vineyard with the cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc vines that now make up the backbone of Crocker and Starr Wines, which he started with gifted winemaker Pam Starr. Guests can now enjoy their Cabernet Sauvignon’s brilliant blend of red and blue fruits, cardamom, sandalwood, and tobacco at the winery’s stylish tasting room.
“I’ve always believed that the legacy of the flavor is directly linked to where the grapes are grown,” says Starr. “That’s especially true in St. Helena, a region that has so much history and personality that really comes through in the finished wines.”
The AVA stretches from the Mayacamas Mountains to the west and the Vaca Range to the east. Its gravelly, loamy soils and exposure to sunny days and cool nights make it an ideal place to grow rich cabernet sauvignon grapes to turn into opulent wines with layers of dark fruits, floral aromas, and firm tannins. The Merlots are also admirable, with lively notes of ripe plum, cherry, red currants, vanilla, and plenty of structure. Another special varietal, Cabernet Franc, is bottled by itself, but its grapes are also blended to provide deep, spicy notes of blueberry, cassis, ground pepper, and wild herbs for a complex Bordeaux-style wine. For white wines, a fine Sauvignon Blanc from St. Helena is typically loaded with ripe fruit flavors of melon, peach, grapefruit, and pear; lively acidity; and natural minerality.
The St. Helena region strives to preserve the gnarly old vines planted by the previous generations. At Chase Cellars, visitors can sample spicy Zinfandel and Petite Sirah gems from the legendary Hayne Vineyard, where some of the original blocks planted in the 1890s still thrive.
“In my opinion, these vines are sacred,” says winemaker Russell Bevan, who crafts the Chase and Bourn labels for Hayne Vineyard. “So my job is to help the clusters speak for themselves.”
Another spot to see stately vines is Varozza Vineyards, a fifth-generation, family-owned winery where nearly half of the 38 acres of vineyards are more than 50 years old. appellationsthelena.com.
Beyond the vines: Check out the wide range of clothing boutiques, art studios, and wine shops on Main Street, or spend a relaxing evening watching a movie at the lovely Cameo Cinema. For outdoor activities, enjoy the trails at Bale Grist Mill and Bothe-Napa Valley State Park off Highway 29 north of town.
St. Helena is also a paradise for foodies. Try out chef Charlie Palmer’s new restaurant, Harvest Table, or stop by Two Birds/One Stone, the recently opened yakitori restaurant inside Freemark Abbey Winery. For casual dining, savor some slices at Pizzeria Tra Vigne, or enjoy small bites and classy cocktails in the basement bar and comfortable patio at the local favorite, Goose and Gander.
In 1875, the first vineyards in this mountainous AVA were planted by Thomas Lake Harris, a charismatic religious leader who established a utopian colony in the foothills north of Santa Rosa. When the vines began producing, the winemaking was handed over to Kanaye Nagasawa, who earned a reputation as one of the finest California winemakers before Prohibition. The signature wine, Fountaingrove, was named after Harris’ original colony.
While the colony is gone, winemaking remains. Working with pure mountain fruit is a labor of love—just ask winemaker Sally Johnson-Blum of Pride Mountain Vineyards, who supervises 85 acres of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petite verdot, syrah, viognier, and chardonnay vines along the ridgeline of the Mayacamas Mountains.
Although this majestic site crosses into the Napa Valley AVA, two-thirds of its vineyards are inside Sonoma County’s Fountaingrove District, which became an appellation in 2015.
Johnson-Blum’s goal at harvest is to showcase the strengths of each vineyard lot she works with to create world-class wines that are expressive when young and worthy of cellaring for 10 to 15 years.
“To me, building the character of the full-bodied red wine starts by capturing the deep fruit flavors, elegant texture, balanced tannins, and the special characteristics of the rocky, volcanic soils that set this site apart,” says Johnson-Blum.
A couple of miles away, the 55-acre Hidden Ridge Vineyard is divided into 21 terraced blocks that feature sandy loam soils and a small amount of clay.
“It’s very difficult to make mass-produced wines from a mountain vineyard,” says Casidy Ward, who sold the vineyard in December. Her annual release of Cabernet Sauvignon consistently featured deep flavors of wild berries, licorice, mineral, and spice.
Alongside these two wineries, there are 600 acres of vineyards with elevations ranging from 200 to 2,000 feet spread across rugged hillsides.
In general, flavor profiles of the Bordeaux varieties grown on the mountain are rich and full-bodied, with notes of dark cherry, juicy blackberry, plum, cassis, wild herbs, and spice. While cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, and chardonnay are the main varieties grown in the Fountaingrove District, a handful of vineyards specialize in Rhône varieties and zinfandel.
One such site is Kick Ranch, a farmstead brought back to life by Dick Keenan and Kathy McNamara as a sloping vineyard. The 42-acre vineyard features blocks of viognier, syrah, petite sirah, grenache, and cinsault that are sold to high-profile producers, including Paul Hobbs, Kale, Flanagan, and B Cellars.
“Our mission is to let the winemakers tell their own stories with the high-quality grapes from our estate,” says Keenan. fountaingroveava.com.
Beyond the vines: Hit the scenic hiking trails in Nagasawa Community Park, or bring your clubs to play a round at the Fountaingrove Golf and Athletic Club.
For gourmet bites, stop by Nectar Restaurant and Lounge at the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country for fresh cuisine and fantastic views of Santa Rosa. Or if you are in the mood for tapas, check out Willi’s Wine Bar on Old Redwood Highway.
Known for its lovely rolling hills, vineyards, pastures, and dairies, as well as its status as “The World’s Egg Basket,” the Petaluma Gap is poised to be the next great wine region of Sonoma County.
While currently part of the Sonoma Coast AVA, Petaluma Gap hopes to be recognized as an AVA soon—and for good reason. With a mixture of clay, sandy loam, and alluvial soils and warm daytime temperatures, the region is defined by the strong breezes and dense fog that blow in from the ocean. In fact, vintners who work with fruit from the region use the motto “from wind to wine.”
This natural balance of sun and wind allows the grapes to ripen slowly, with more concentration of flavor and more natural acidity. This results in finished wines that are fresh and elegant, and not afraid to be a little wild. The Chardonnays are vivid and complex, with tangy notes of apple, pear, peach, and citrus. The Pinot Noirs are energetic, rich, and refined, dazzling with flavors of ripe berries, dark cherry, plum, pomegranate, and layers of spice. The same is true for the Syrahs, which often feature fragrant aromas, elegant notes of blue fruits and licorice, and a lush texture.
The area’s rich history dates back to the 1830s, when General Vallejo planted the first vines near the historic Petaluma Adobe. But the region didn’t really take off until the early 1990s, when a group of winemakers began planting vineyards on the gentle hillsides surrounding Petaluma. One of the trailblazers of this development was Arturo Keller, whose family ranch on Lakeville Highway is now home to 42 acres of vineyards and the Keller Estate Winery.
Ana Keller, Arturo’s daughter and former president of the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance, remembers those early years fondly. “When we planted the vineyard in 1989, it was around the time the Sonoma Coast became an AVA,” she says. “People told us to just plant chardonnay because pinot noir is too difficult to grow out here. [They] didn’t have a lot of expectations for grape growing in this region, so we were certainly taking a chance.”
As the Kellers discovered, patience is a virtue. With a mixture of different varieties of chardonnay, pinot gris, pinot noir, and syrah, coupled with tight spacing of the vines and inventive row orientations, the vineyard blocks have flourished. “This year will be our 17th vintage of making wines, so I feel like we are mature teenagers now,” says Keller.
Over the last decade, the wine scene at Petaluma Gap has exploded, culminating in 2011, when Kosta Browne’s Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast—made with fruit from the region—was named Wine of the Year by Wine Spectator. And with news of an AVA designation coming any day, the area is fast becoming Wine Country’s region to watch. petalumagap.com.
Beyond the vines: For fresh air, explore the wetlands around the Petaluma River at Shollenberger Park or Steamer Landing Park; take a walking tour to see Victorian homes downtown; or see sweeping views of the natural landscape from the hillside trails at Helen Putnam or Tolay Lake Regional Parks.
The historic downtown area features a multitude of cool clothing shops, antiques stores, cafés, underground bars and beer pubs, and live bands at the Mystic Theatre.
Order a dozen oysters at The Shuckery, the fabulous new restaurant opened by The Oyster Girls inside the recently restored Hotel Petaluma; try Peruvian-style dishes made with local ingredients at Quinua; or enjoy the nightly specials of fresh fish, pork, free-range chicken, grilled meats, and organic veggies at Central Market. If you need bites earlier in the day, try the Mexican-style dishes at Mi Pueblo El Centro or El Roy’s Mexican Grill, or stop by Wishbone, which offers brunch all week.