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10 Years Later, No One's Laughing at Carneros

September 23, 1993|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

NAPA — When the idea of recognizing the Carneros region as an American Viticultural Appellation first surfaced, it didn't appear to have much going for it. There was but one winery and fewer than 1,000 acres of vines when the application was submitted in 1979. What's more, Carneros didn't follow any existing boundaries, embracing parts of the southern ends of both Napa and Sonoma counties--at the time painted as the Hatfields and McCoys of the wine world.

But this week, as it prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary as an officially recognized AVA, Carneros is widely regarded to be one of the program's real success stories.

Today, there are more than 6,500 acres of vineyard land, owned by the likes of the Robert Mondavi Winery and some of the world's top producers of sparkling wine. Moet's Domaine Chandon, in Yountville, has the bulk of its vineyard land, some 700 acres, in the Carneros. France's Taittinger and Spain's Codorniu and Freixenet are all located in the Carneros, having erected magnificent edifices to display their jewels. Freixenet's Gloria Ferrer and Codorniu Napa have made wines far better than anything yet produced in Spain. And the bubbly of Domaine Carneros, Taittinger's U.S. venture, has received wide acclaim.

Purists like Carneros because it verifies the French argument that soil and climate can merge to provide a hospitable environment for a limited number of grape varieties. Carneros, which could lay claim to being America's equivalent to Burgundy, has cast its lot with the same grapes as Burgundy--more than 85% of the vineyards are planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay--and the results have been excellent.

Carneros has certainly come a long way since the day in 1979 when Anthony Bell of Beaulieu Vineyard--which didn't even have a winery in the area--first submitted a 3 1/2-page request to the federal government to certify the carefully drawn area just north of San Pablo Bay.

"It was a time when everyone was worrying what the definition for 'Napa Valley' should be," says Bell, "and no one cared about Carneros."

But the Carneros had already won the minds and hearts of dozens of wine lovers and winery owners who saw this arid region as more than logical. The government received no opposition to Bell's petition and certified Carneros as an AVA in September, 1983.

Driving through Carneros, one is struck by the fact that so few wineries are visible. Fewer than 20 wineries exist here, including pioneer Carneros Creek, the only winery when the application was submitted. Most are located off side roads and are not visible from the Carneros Highway, which links southern Napa and Sonoma.

But just because few wineries are here doesn't mean the grapes aren't prized. Carneros is loved around the state by those who have seen the quality of the fruit. Many wineries own property here, far from their crushing facilities.

* Ferrari-Carano Winery in Healdsburg, in northern Sonoma County, now makes a Reserve Chardonnay that is 90% from its Carneros planting.

* Cuvaison Winery in Calistoga, 20 miles northeast, makes excellent Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from its 300-acre ranch on a hill adjacent to Domaine Carneros.

* Silverado Vineyards on the Silverado Trail north of Napa makes a Limited Reserve Chardonnay that is largely from its property in the Carneros.

* Wineries as distant as Clos Pegase (Calistoga), BV (Rutherford), Clos du Val (Napa) and Robert Sinskey (Napa) all own ranches here.

In addition, it's estimated that 60 wineries buy their fruit from independent growers here. The grapes from Angelo Sangiacomo's 900-acre ranch on the Sonoma side of the Carneros have been celebrated in wines made by Jed Steele, Joseph Phelps and dozens of others. ZD Winery has long used Carneros fruit for its award-winning Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. Even Duckhorn Vineyards now buys grapes here.

The history of the region dates to the days of Spanish rule, in the 1840s, when Carneros was home to four huge land grants and the rolling hills were filled with sheep ranches. ( Carneros , in fact, is Spanish for sheep.)

After the 1846 Bear Flag Revolt and subsequent annexation of California to the United States, the region's fertile land, moderate climate and proximity to San Pablo Bay made the area prime for cattle, hay, dairy products, fruit and grapes. Wharves sprang up on the Napa River and Sonoma Creek as shipping points.

BV and Louis M. Martini Winery planted vines here in the 1940s, the latter acquiring 200 acres of land in 1942. Soon it was found to be hospitable to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Cool nights during the harvest kept acid levels from dropping as they did in warmer climates. And grapes usually ripened slowly, gaining added flavor with more time on the vine.

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