I have long had a fascination for wines from California and as Napa Valley is the most famous wine region in California I was honoured to be invited to attend the Master Napa Valley Course 2009.
This was an intensive course spread over three days visiting wineries and vineyards as well as hearing from wine makers and leading wine industry figures. It was especially interesting as only the week before I had attended something similar in Burgundy and was thus able to compare many aspects of these two seemingly different wine regions.
Napa Valley wines generally have a mixed reputation this side of the Atlantic as they tend to be expensive and often give the impression of being the hobby of some rich businessman rather than a true agricultural product. This often doesn’t suit the British psyche as we would generally rather take a shot at someone than laud them, while the Americans tend to honour success.
What I experienced therefore, thrilled and surprised me in equal measure.
Firstly you cannot underestimate just what a beautiful place it is, admittedly most wine regions are very attractive, but I had just been to Burgundy and some of the famous vineyards of the Côte de Nuits are disappointingly drab to look at. So Napa is a very uplifting place to be – even in severe rains its beauty shines through, and boy did it rain on the day I arrived!
It is a beautiful place and it is also astonishingly rural, the Napa is farming country even though the only crop is now wine grapes.
I was astonished to find a real community of interdependent friendly farmers who believe in helping each other and the community of which they form part. Some of these farmers might have become rich from their wine, some may have been rich beforehand and some remain as they always were, but they are still farmers and that is a reassuring thing to find in a wine region.
In truth I had expected these to be winemaker wines with all the attention put on what happens in the winery. Not a bit of it, the care and attention lavished on the vineyards is wonderful, as with the Burgundians there seems to be a real understanding of their terroir and a passion for their land. I heard time and time again about the geology and the rock formations of the Napa that created their soils – in typically efficient American style they had boiled it all down to a pithy bumper sticker slogan: ‘hilltop soils on the valley floor’ as a consequence of landslides.
The interest in and understanding of viticulture was fascinating too, I have never had things so clearly explained. I often get the feeling in Europe that things are done in a certain way because they have always been done that way, whereas here there was real understanding of what they were trying to achieve in the vineyard.
In winemaking terms the variation is incredible and no generalisations are possible. I saw tiny hands on wineries, like Robert Biale, producing small quantities of stunningly delicious wine and I saw vast winery palaces making enormous quantities of wine of very high quality – Domaine Carneros for instance. Of course I saw everything in between as well and everyone I saw impressed me with their commitment to quality.
Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean that I personally liked every wine – I didn’t in Burgundy either, but in Napa I appreciated that everything I tasted was of high quality and made with passion – and that is questioned by some consumers this side of the Atlantic.
I had found Burgundy frustrating as it seemed to me that they simply believed their wines to be the best in the world, to be worth every penny and that everyone wanted them – or ought to want them.
I had believed this to be a French oddity. Well, it seems to me that many Napa Valley producers have a similar mindset. Thinking about it though I came to understand this was not so much about arrogance as a real belief in their terroir and their wines – they think Napa and drink Napa. Of course it must help that the wines rack up Parker points and sell out year after year.
However I also tasted some wines from very famous producers who talked about terroir and what the fruit was like from their vineyards and then completely masked fruit and terroir with too much extraction and far, far, far too much new oak (for my taste). Several times my gums actually hurt from the high levels of new oak, which I thought was a real shame because there was beautifully ripe and concentrated fruit under there somewhere.
As a Brit I am fortunate in being able to let my wine experiences roam the globe as as a consequence no one style dominates my thinking or drinking – I can pick and choose. Therefore the very lean and ungenerous French style can irritate me, but it is their style and they like it. The same can surely be said of the overly generous, high extraction and lots of new oak Napa style. They like it, it suits them and it sells – it also goes very well with ‘fine dining’ as it dominates all the mixed flavours of the food.
I have been lucky, I have now tried a wide range of Napa Valley wines and can see them for what they are. The focus appears to be Cabernet Sauvignon, but they make so much more. The Napa Valley makes quality wines from one of the great wine regions of the world, in an array of styles from many different grape varieties.
There is something for everyone in the Napa Valley and I shall mention some of the wonderful wines I tried over the next few days – so keep coming back.
More information is available from the lovely people at the Napa Valley Vintners Association