Napa’s Vanishing Varietals

It isn’t difficult to imagine that a visitor to a Napa Valley tasting room in the late 1970s would see a much different world than exists today.

There would no traffic jams along Highway 29, and no crowds queuing up waiting for winery doors to open.  Walk inside, and the winemaker or a member of the family would call out a friendly hello from behind a simple bar, and the sales room would have none of the Disneyland decor of today and probably no mass-produced winery memorabilia.  Most likely, there would not even be a tasting fee, or, if there were one, it would be waived by any purchase.

Most amazingly, the visitor would be able to taste perhaps a dozen different varietal wines, certainly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, but perhaps also Petite Sirah, Napa Gamay, White or Gray Riesling, one of the Muscats, Chenin Blanc and possibly Gewürztraminer.

What started this reverie of time-warped thinking was my attending the 50th Anniversary celebration at the Robert Mondavi Winery earlier year when we guests were treated to a special cuvée of a Napa Gamay Rosé created for the event. Margrit Mondavi, who died a few months later, was full of pep that evening and practically cried out in delight when sommelier and MW Mark De Vere introduced the wine as the evening got underway.

“I’m so happy to see it again,” Mrs. Mondavi exclaimed. “I’m probably the only one here who remembers this wine, but it was one of our most-beloved wines at the time.  It sold for $1.29 a bottle in the tasting room.”

Wine lovers who do actually remember Napa Valley of the 1970’s know that it was in a time of transition. Until then, Napa was a very diverse agricultural valley, even though it was already clear that its future was in wine. However, it was still struggling to determine what its brand identity would be.  Events such as the Judgment of Paris, the growth of wine ratings and wine publications, the validation of Napa terroir via investments from famous Bordeaux and Champagne wineries and the rise of winemaking celebrities such as Mondavi quickly crystallized the situation: Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay would to be the king and queen both for quality and price. Zinfandel would be the wine geeks’ “indigenous” varietal (even though it wasn’t one) and white Zinfandel would be the mother’s milk for those new to drinking wine.  Every other varietal would have to fight for share of mind, shelf space and room in the vineyard, generally as a portion of the 25 percent not listed on a varietal label.

In the decades since, with the market success of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, it only made economic sense, perhaps even artistic sense, to plant those two wherever possible, with a second tier of Merlot and Zin up valley and Pinot Noir down valley, some Sauvignon Blanc for the ABC folks and some Zin for the “America’s wine” partisans. The second coming of phylloxera, which devastated vineyards in Napa in the early ‘90s, gave an opportunity and incentive to replant varieties that made the most money and rip out the not-as-popular varieties.

Statistics from the Napa County Agricultural Commissioner’s annual crop report bear out this analysis: In 1970, there were 778 acres of Napa gamay. Today, there are 21 acres, and these are now more correctly categorized as “Gamay/Valdiguié.”  In 1970, there were 1,380 acres of petite sirah (828 today), 743 acres of riesling (65 today), 103 acres of muscat (113 today in a comeback for all things Moscato) and 191 acres of gewürztraminer (which today falls somewhere within the 64 acres of “other whites.”). My own sentimental favorite, chenin blanc, had 752 acres planted in 1970. Today, it has shrunk to 18. By contrast, cabernet was at 2,493 acres in 1970, about 27 per cent of total reds planted in the valley at the time.  Today, it is at more than 21,000 acres, or 60 percent of total reds being grown.

In the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with some of the winery owners and winemakers who still produce these disappearing heritage varietals. Not surprisingly, most are Napa pioneers. Also not surprising, most are keeping the old varieties for sentimental reasons.

Stony Hill, the next-to-oldest family winery in Napa Valley, still produces excellent Riesling and Gewurztraminer.  The McCrea family, which made its first vintage in 1952, was one of the first to come up with a customer mailing list as a sales tool, and current winery president, Sarah McCrea, says both wines are still popular with winery club members.

Stony Hill Winery
Stony Hill Winery

Winemaker Mike Chelini, a fixture at Stony Hill for more than 40 years, says the White Riesling “used to be bone dry, but it took too long to develop in the bottle.”  Yet it is hardly sweet today – less than one percent residual sugar on average. Some of that Riesling comes from original vines – still meticulously maintained – planted in 1948, and some of the Gewurztraminer plantings date back to 1958. There were once even a few Napa varietals made from Semillon. Stony Hill began making a sweet passito style Semillon in 1972 – and never stopped.

One of the two brightest beacons of Napa Valley Chenin Blanc production is another family-owned pioneer whose other wines often appear on fine restaurants’ lists – Chappellet.  Current winery head Cyril Chappellet laughs that they might not be in the Chenin Blanc business today except that his mother, Molly, who co-founded the winery with her late husband, Donn Chappellet, forbids him to tear out the vines and plant something else. The wine also has a devoted following among club members.  There are three acres of Chenin Blanc left on their hillside vineyards next to the winery, and the wine is made by fermenting two-thirds in stainless steel and one-third in used barrels with no malolactic fermentation.

Chappellet winemaker Phillip Corallo Titus
Chappellet winemaker Phillip Corallo Titus

The other primary producer of Chenin Blanc is Casa Nuestra, one of the valley’s first organic wineries, which has 3.8 acres and which buys additional grapes from lesser known Ballentine Vineyards – which quickly sells out of its own Chenin production.  The Casa Nuestra vines are another throwback in that they are not grown on wires or trellises but are head-trained and shaggy looking.  Current winemaker Darren Chertkoff says he likes for his whites to be age-worthy and pulls out a dry Chenin Blanc made in 1989 – almost 30 years ago.  It is delicious, with still-vibrant fruit, a touch of creaminess and a savory, minerally, metallic finish.

Casa Nuestra also produces an estate off-dry Riesling, unusual because its St. Helena vineyards are in the hotter head of the valley and are on the valley floor – not textbook terroir for growing the cool-weather grape.  “But the property sits in a little bowl,” Cherkoff says, “which makes it a little cooler.” More suited to the climate is Casa Nuestra’s Petite Sirah.

Casa Nuestra winemaker Darren Chertkoff
Casa Nuestra winemaker Darren Chertkoff

Of course, Carl Doumani was the unofficial king of Petite Sirah production in Napa, first at Stags’ Leap Winery and later at Quixote. Both properties still make a Petite Sirah wine, as do a few other iconoclasts, notably Frank Family, whose winemaker, Todd Graff, is known for his ability to craft a very wide variety of high-quality wines.

At the end of the harvest day, however, it doesn’t make sense for most commercial grape growers to produce these and other heritage varietals because they can make more money by using their very expensive vineyard land to grow what is in most demand.  Most major estate wineries feel similarly, preferring instead to produce multiple tiers of Chard and Cab.  Thus, the task of preserving these few acres of heritage vines seems to lie in the hands of smaller family producers who have a sentimental, personal attachment to out-of-favor varietals, to those wineries who see these varietals as an extra reward for wine club members and to the contrarians, of which Napa has a few, who will grow whatever they damn well want.

And perhaps as well to a few dreamers, who sometimes see things more clearly than do the cool-eyed grower-accountants. “I hope we’re moving toward diversity in the valley,” Chertkoff says wistfully.  We’ll just have to check out the updated county crop reports, say, 10 years down the road.