“Delicate and delicious!” declares the haughty French hostess of a BYOB tasting party for wine professionals in NYC, sipping a wine from Bordeaux. “Especially when you contrast it to the California wine,” she snips, rudely pointing at the award winning Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, standing forlorn on the table in front of me.
As a native Californian, such was my crude awakening to the pervasive prejudice against California wines on the East Coast. Many upscale wine stores in the East carry very few California wines, and of those that do, you’d rarely see Napa Valley wines advertised in email newsletters or recommended by the staff.
Why this predilection for French wine? One lingering reason may be that it’s hard to beat a millennium of savvy marketing, a branding campaign so strong and global even the famous 1976 blind tasting event between California and French wines in Paris (in which noted experts chose a Napa Cabernet as the winner) failed to generate the expected reversal of thinking.
Yet true oenophiles (or anyone who appreciates a flavorful, richly nuanced glass of wine) understand and appreciate the value of wines from California’s Napa valley over wines from France. This value is born out of Napa’s unique terrior.
Great wine depends on great grapes, which require suitable soils, climate, and weather conducive to producing a ripe, disease-resistant crop with rich, concentrated flavors. Napa Valley’s glorious mountains protect vineyards from wind, and its warm, rain-free summers allow the grapes to continue to ripen on the vine until harvest, without fear of a rainstorm trashing them to the ground. Yet to me, it’s Napa’s unique soils that help produce opulent, complex wines with exciting nuances of texture and flavor.
Consider, for example, the diverse soils and award winning wines of Diamond Creek Vineyards. Al Brounstein, its late founder, started in 1977 with a 70-acre parcel of land on Diamond Mountain and smuggled vine cuttings from two premier cru properties in Bordeaux. Long before the concept of “micro-climate” and artisanal wines were popular, he identified three unique vineyard blocks by the differences in soil structure (gravel/sand, volcanic ash, moist red/brown color) and climate (ranging from sunny and warm to cold and shady). After experimenting with winemaker Jerry Luper, they soon discovered which soils and microclimate produced the best varietals.
Because of its volcanic activity and changes in sea level over the past few million years, Napa Valley soil is inherently rich, but sometimes drainage can be a barrier for producing the best wines possible. At a recent lecture in Manhattan, James Kennedy, one of the world’s premier tannin chemists, spoke about a case study in Napa in which he helped a vineyard produce a more balanced (and award winning wine) simply by working within the vineyard to improve irrigation techniques. With such attention, Napa’s natural advantages are sure to become even greater.
While many top Napa wines are now selling at spectacular prices, the terroir is such that even modestly priced wines offer the consumer a tremendous value in quality and taste. While studying for my Wine and Spirits Educational Trust (WSET) exam, I forced myself to order many French varietals from restaurant wine lists in anticipation of familiarizing myself with them for the requisite blind tasting portion of the exam.
Constrained to the $60 - $70 dollar range, the French wines at that level were either watery, hot, unbalanced, or had other faults one can only surmise was a result of the weather conditions of that unfortunate vintage year. Suffering through each unpleasant sip, I fantasized about the succulent Napa varietals reflecting the reliable sunshine and mineral rich terroir beckoning at me from the wine list for the same, or much less, cost.
Poetically speaking, one might say that terroir encompasses more than just the climate, soil, and topography of an area – that it reflects the zeitgeist of a place as well. So when I sip a wine from the Napa Valley, I’m also tasting the bold pioneering spirit of the place and sensing the vision experienced by Robert Mondavi and others who recognized the potential for Napa to become the premiere wine producing area of the world.
And in that sip, I also taste the sunshine, soil, and lush earth’s bounty that inspired chefs such as Thomas Keller, sustainable farmers, and artisanal purveyors of cheese, honey, and bread whose exuberant passion and limitless creativity put Napa on the map. Not just as a superior wine making region, but a place where individuals, the climate, and the land truly become one.
Fine Wine Writer and International Wine Judge Marisa D’Vari publishes the exciting online wine magazine AWineStory.com and writes for prestigious publications such as London’s Financial Times, Robb Report, and more. Visit http://www.awinestory.com and sign up for her complimentary monthly newsletter, where you'll learn "insider secrets" of getting the best wine for the least cost.