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Heed the roads less taken

Away from the crowds, but still within Napa Valley's appellation, you can see winemaking's past -- and future.

June 11, 2003|Rod Smith | Special to The Times

To see the old-time Napa Valley, the way it was before the traffic and the bus-crammed parking lots and the crowded souvenir shops disguised as tasting rooms, get out of the valley proper and go east. Take one of those little roads-less-traveled that climb into the hills east of the Silverado Trail.

The Napa Valley American Viticultural Area is a constellation of several wine-producing areas and includes several valleys and the highlands that define them. The outlying valleys -- Pope Valley, Chiles Valley, Conn Valley, Wooden Valley and American Canyon -- have been contributing grapes to Napa Valley wines for more than a hundred years but haven't fallen to the tourist hordes.

These outlying districts have more vineyards than wineries and almost no tasting rooms (try calling ahead to request a visit). Yet their grapes have helped make the Napa Valley America's greatest wine region and their natural beauty rivals that of the valley itself, without the commercial overlay.

Pope Valley is a scenic half-hour drive east of St. Helena via Deer Park/Howell Mountain Road, past the town of Angwin. It has a colorful history of frontier living and quicksilver mining, and is higher in elevation than the Napa Valley and considerably warmer during the growing season. The summer landscape seems arid at first glance, but the scenery is striking: vineyards draped over tawny slopes like green quilts, majestic valley oaks studding hills crowned with scrub forest, and here and there a stand of gnarled cypress that thrives on the valley's serpentine-laced soil.

St. Supery has become the most prominent Pope Valley grower in recent years (the winery is in central Napa Valley), with more than 600 acres planted mostly to Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. According to winemaker Michael Beaulac, by 2005 virtually all the St. Supery wines will come from its Pope Valley plantings.

Reach rugged, dramatic Chiles Valley by taking Highway 128 east past Lake Hennessey to the Chiles Pope Valley Road. A century ago it was an important grain and mining district, known as the main source of magnesite on the Pacific Coast. The Nichelini Winery, founded in 1896, did a brisk business supplying wine to the magnesite miners -- one of the earliest examples of successful niche marketing of wine. Nichelini's dramatic hillside winery has a tasting room with a wonderful old-timey ambience.

Green & Red Winery has been producing bold, tannic, yet luscious Chiles Valley Zinfandels for nearly three decades from several vineyards carved into steep slopes. The winery's name refers to the area's geology: the greenish serpentine with veins of red volcanic soil makes for a propitious mix that naturally limits vine vigor, leading to the concentration of flavor that makes the wines so appealing. Founder Jay Hemingway was one of the earliest vintners to recognize the emerging talent of now-superstar winemaking consultant Heidi Peterson Barrett. The combination of unique terroir and Barrett's influence has given Green & Red a place in the class of consistently outstanding Napa Valley AVA wineries.

Take Howell Mountain Road east from St. Helena to Conn Valley Road and you'll be in Conn Valley, a region central to Napa's hydrology as is dramatically demonstrated during the winter rains, when a plume of water spouting over Conn Dam douses the Silverado Trail like a loose fire hose. The area has been known to the valley's large producers as a source of bold, blend-enhancing red wines since the 1870s.

Moderate climes

The Buehler Estate is an outstanding Conn Valley producer. An old stone winery on the property dates from 1893. But John Buehler makes his Cabernets and Zinfandels -- as rugged and charming as the landscape -- in a modern facility overlooking Lake Hennessey. The altitude 400 to 700 feet above Napa Valley and the lake has tempering effects on the climate. "On the hottest day of the year, we're typically much cooler than St. Helena," says John Buehler. "Conversely, on the coldest day of the year we're a lot warmer." The long, even ripening period brings out a full spectrum of fruit flavors framed by supple tannins in Buehler's wines.

East of Napa off Trancas Street (Highway 121) is Wooden Valley, a kind of miniature Napa Valley with bucolic ranchland and surrounded by craggy escarpments. Wooden Valley is a longtime source of big, intense blending components for the Napa Valley reds of such producers as Caymus, Mondavi, and Pahlmeyer. Its only winery is Altamura, and Frank Altamura's vibrant, powerful wines argue convincingly for Wooden Valley's viticultural character as well as its historical ties to Napa Valley.

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