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Napa’s Sleeper Varieties

Napa’s Sleeper Varieties

The Valley’s aromatic white wines have a long history and a potentially big future

Photo Credit: Wine.com

It’s true what they say about Napa: Cabernet is king. With 24,217 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon producing 72,423 tons of fruit worth $8,819 a ton, no other grape comes close to its primacy. That makes Napa a red grape region. The Valley grows a quarter as many white grapes as red, and they’re largely Chardonnay. Other white grapes—the fresh, fragrant ones we call “aromatic”—get only seven percent of the acreage. Such are Napa’s economics. With whites fetching a fraction of Cabernet’s prices, growers don’t have much room for them.

Yet, ask a Napa winemaker about aromatic white wines, and you’re bound to get a wistful story. “George Vare, who brought Ribolla Gialla to Napa from Friuli, was an old pal of my dad’s,” says Cassandra Grassi, second-generation owner at Grassi Wine Company. “He sold all the Ribolla Gialla he made to the French Laundry or handed out bottles to friends. George got ill and decided he couldn’t make wine anymore. That’s how we started making Ribolla. He asked if we would continue the tradition, and we couldn’t say no.”   

In part, this nostalgia and passion for aromatic white wines is because fruit that once was abundant is now rare. Until the mid-1960s, Napa grew primarily white wines; the Valley’s lore is tied up in old-timey grape names like French Colombard and Johannisberg Riesling. Though they have been eclipsed, “everyone knows that whites do well here,” says Matthiasson Wines’ Steve Matthiasson. And with generational shifts in consumers and winemakers, “it’s an exciting time for some of these lesser known varieties to be taken seriously and reintroduced to the wine-drinking public.” Indeed, producers like Matthiasson believe that aromatic white grapes hold not only potential, but serious importance for Napa’s future.

Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall 

Dan Petroski | Photo Credit: Massican Wines

A peachy, briny Tocai Friulano, Ribolla Gialla, and Chardonnay blend called Annia; a zesty Greco and Falanghina dubbed Gemina—At Massican Wines, Dan Petroski makes the type of white blends that were once common here. “When I was starting my career at Larkmead Vineyards, I counted their varieties back to the 1890s. They had 28 varieties planted on 100 acres for over 110-plus years,” he says. The Gold Rush had lured Europeans to Northern California. “Napa was full of Italians, French, Germans, Spaniards, and they brought grapes in their suitcases.” Aromatic whites were what they drank at lunch. “So I was able to find legacy varieties here.”

By the time Petroski started Massican in 2009, the search for those grapes was tough. “You can see it on our list,” says Vincent Morrow, MS, wine director at PRESS in St. Helena, where the 266-page tome is a primer on Napa history. “I look at a few events in the 1900s that bookend the popularity of aromatic whites.” First there was Prohibition. Riesling had been Napa’s most planted variety. When alcohol was outlawed in 1919, the trade shifted to Zinfandel, Petite Syrah, and other red grapes that could handle the cross-country transport and offer high juice yield for the East Coast’s sacramental and home winemakers. “The other piece is the Judgement of Paris.” The 1976 competition that saw Napa trouncing Bordeaux and Burgundy popularized Cabernet and Chardonnay, the winning varieties. When phylloxera hit in the 1980s, “we had this unique opportunity to replant,” and grapes like Riesling were pulled out. 

Then came wine critic Robert Parker and the 100-point Cabernets of the ripe 1997 vintage. “Successful men with midlife crises were coming to Napa to plant vineyards because everyone wants to chase the dream,” Petroski says. 

On the edges of that dream, a handful of producers were bucking the trend. “We were growing Chardonnay, but I got bored. It didn’t have the aromatics that excite me,” says Rob Sinskey of Robert Sinskey Vineyard. “And everyone wanted big, fat, flabby, milkshake-style Chardonnay. Those weren’t the wines I wanted to drink.” Instead, he bottled a varietal Pinot Blanc and made an aromatic blend called Abraxas from Pinot Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, and Pinot Grigio.

It wasn’t easy. In the early aughts when Matthiasson and his wife Jill started vinifying varieties like the Ribolla they got from George Vare’s Luna Vineyards, they were “farming nerds,” says Matthiasson. “So why wouldn’t we explore different grapes?” While farm-to-table restaurants embraced their food-friendly wines, “the first decade for us was a struggle. A sommelier said, ‘Why would I drink fake Europe when I can drink real Europe? You’re in Napa. Why don’t you make Napa wine?’” 

In 2013, when The San Francisco Chronicle’s then–wine editor Jon Bonné wrote his book The New California Wine, “he said there’s this whole other world of winemakers that are producing wine that is a legitimate expression of California. It just happens to be different from what’s commonly known. Once we had a lane to operate in, the wines could be taken seriously.”

With the coming of age of a new generation of winemakers working in cheaper, chillier regions than Napa, aromatic white wines are again a California staple. Gallo, one of the world’s biggest producers, just bought Petroski’s Massican, an indicator of the market power of his style of wines. Yet, in Napa, Petroski rattles off a litany of losses: “My original Pinot Grigio, planted in 1980 in eastern Napa, was replaced by Cabernet. My Pinot Bianco replacement from Sinskey was sold to Schramsberg and is scheduled to be replanted. I replaced that with Pinot Bianco from Carneros owned by Clos du Val. That was sold to Far Niente, and they kicked me out. The 1993 Sauvignon Blanc vines in Pope Valley, now that they are 30 years old, are being replanted to Cabernet after next year.” No wonder Petroski has declassified his wines. Two-thirds of his grapes nowadays come from Lodi, Mendocino, and Sonoma. 

The share of his grapes that come from Napa? That’s a unicorn hunt. The old vine Chenin Blanc that Zeitgeist Cellars sources from St. Helena; the head-trained, dry-farmed Sémillon from Yount Mill Vineyard in the center of Yountville that Matthiasson vinifies; the Scheurebe that Joseph Phelps used for its ice wine, Delice, that Scott and Jenny Scholtz of Jolie-Laide rescued, splitting it with Matthiasson before it was pulled out. “There are still finds in Napa,” says Matthiasson. “You just take advantage of them whenever they show up.”

Napa’s White Wine Terroir

Steve Matthiasson | Photo Credit: Matthiasson Wines

Though exorbitant land costs and stronger wages for workers contending with Napa’s high cost of living, “pretty much ensure our diversity will be minimal going forward,” as Morrow puts it, the aromatic whites that producers do make from Napa grapes benefit from the Valley’s unique terroir. 

“Napa is Mediterranean in climate, but we don’t often drink like we live in the Mediterranean,” notes Petroski. “I spent a year in Sicily, so I felt nostalgic for salty, citrus, floral whites that would go with the climate in Napa Valley.”

The grapes for those wines grow particularly well in the Valley’s cooler areas. At Napa’s southern end, alongside San Pablo Bay, sits Carneros. “There’s morning fog, afternoon sun, and then breezes cool everything down again,” says Matthiasson. His Vermentino grows on shale so close to San Francisco, you can see the Salesforce Tower from the vinerows. “There’s wind off the bay every day, and the wine is salty and textured with interesting aromatics like coriander seed.”

Chris Kajani makes textural, energetic whites—Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Gewürztraminer—at Carneros’ Bouchaine Vineyards. “My husband worked up in St. Helena,” she told me. “I called him in August and he was like, ‘I’m melting. It’s 112.’ I said, ‘Really? It’s 85 here.’ He just hung up on me. We are so affected by fog and maritime influence, it will be 20 degrees hotter as you go up Valley. That’s why there’s very little Cab in Carneros.”

The Spanish company Raventós Codorníu started planting Albariño at Artesa Estate in Carneros in 1990 because the cooling mornings and nights “really remind us of Spain,” says PR manager Marta Echavarri. The resulting wine is full of notes of peach and white flowers.

Despite the marine influence, the sub-AVA still gets that Napa sunshine, says Sinskey, who recently sold his winery in the Stag’s Leap District to move his production to Carneros, where he has long farmed white grapes. “Being closer to the Bay, you maintain acidity, but we rarely have problems ripening. We get brightness and full flavor development at lower brix.” In addition to Pinot Blanc and Abraxas, he vinifies Pinot Gris, including in a skin-contact ramato style, and a Muscat that he ferments “bone dry for good minerality to play off the very floral aromatics.”

Higher altitude areas in Napa also enjoy a cooler climate. Surrounded by forest at 800 feet up on the northeastern side of the Mayacamas Mountains, Stony Hill Vineyard is the site of the nation’s oldest extant Riesling vines. Says winemaker Reid Griggs, “Spring Mountain is a cooler AVA, and orientation of our site means that it gets bathed in morning light and is protected from the hot afternoon sun in the summer. The microclimate and meager topsoils derived from ancient seafloor create an environment that’s suited to growing aromatic white wine grapes.” 

Expressing Napa’s Diversity

Kristy Melton | Photo Credit: Freemark Abbey

With 2,708 acres of it planted—just under half as much as Chardonnay—Sauvignon Blanc, Napa’s most popular aromatic white, shows the range of the Valley’s climate and soils like no other grape. “It’s a chameleon,” says Matthiasson. Toward the northern parts of Napa, it expresses more tropical flavors, while in Oak Knoll, it gives “these beautiful, fresh pineapple and citrus characters.” 

Winemakers have been crafting a layered approach to the grape. At Rutherford’s Quintessa Winery, Illumination, the partner white wine to the eponymous Cabernet, refreshingly, isn’t Chardonnay. “It’s not a coincidence that it’s Sauvignon Blanc,” says winemaker Rebekah Wineburg. “We believe it has the ability to express where it’s from.” Hers is fresh and drinkable when young but with a complex ageability from five different types of fermenters: concrete to bring out minerality and stainless steel to maintain it; new French oak for creaminess, neutral oak for openness, and Acacia wood to boost florality. “You can capture the California sunshine to reach beyond grapefruit to these peach flavors but maintain mouthwatering acidity at same time,” she says. “Napa is carving out that character. It’s not New Zealand, the Loire, or Bordeaux, but something else.” 

Still, Wineburg was “heartbroken” recently when a considerable amount of Sauvignon Blanc was being pulled out. She might be heartened by what winemaker Kristy Melton is up to at Freemark Abbey. Made mostly from estate fruit, Melton’s Sauvignon Blanc gets its sophistication from grapes grown on three different soil types, picked at three different times, and fermented at three different temperatures: 52 degrees Fahrenheit for a lemongrass-tinged linearity, 55 degrees for tropical flavors, and a warmer 63-degree ferment for stone fruit notes and rich mouthfeel. 

The wine, Melton says, “has been very successful”—so much so that this past year, she pulled out 12 acres of Cabernet in Calistoga to replant with Sauvignon Blanc. “The soil was too heavy for Cabernet, and it’s too warm for Chardonnay. It is a much better spot for an aromatic white.” She can prune the vines with a bigger canopy, protecting them from heat and drought while using less water. She can pick them earlier to avoid later heat waves. And, though Calistoga is prone to fires, Sauvignon Blanc does not have the problem with smoke taint that Cabernet does because the wine is not vinified on its skins. “With the lower cost of production and the higher yield per acre, it penciled out for us.” 

How Aromatic Whites Benefit Napa Producers

Adam Casto | Photo Credit: Alexander Rubin

Melton took a similar approach with a block of vineyard in Oakville that sits next to the Napa River. “We have some soil that’s heavier, so we grow Sémillon and Viognier there.” At 300 to 500 cases, her Viognier production is tiny, but the wine is both elegant and quaffable—a win from a less-than-perfect piece of land.

Kajani has a similar story. “When we were replanting in 2017, we noticed the drainage was not as nice in one area. Pinot Noir hates wet feet. Chardonnay would be mediocre there,” she says. “We talked to friends working with Rob Sinskey, and everyone suggested aromatic whites.” That’s also how Kajani ended up with estate Riesling. “The challenge for all varieties is where you plant them. People pulled out varieties and planted Cabernet because that’s their most expensive bottling. But you turn your vineyard into a monoculture.” 

And monocultures are bad for both climate and financial resiliency, particularly when they take more labor, are lower yielding, and tie up cash flow aging in the barrel like Cabernet does. “So it’s not an open-and-shut case that reds are better economically,” notes Matthiasson. 

Plus, with the changing tastes of consumers, the potential for aromatic whites now is huge, says Adam Casto, winemaker at Ehlers Estate, where he produces a mineral, textured Sauvignon Blanc. “As new consumers come into the market, they are often first interested in whites for their easy appeal. So, too, are mature consumers who have been around the ‘big red’ block and find themselves drawn back to fresher styles. For so long aromatic whites have been the domain of either generic mass-market or esoteric wine geeks, but this growing consumer interest is allowing more of us to explore with confidence our abilities to expand our horizons further.”

And that exploration is crucial to the region’s future, says Melton. “It’s important for people to see Napa as not just Cabernet and Chardonnay,” she argues. “We have to stay nimble during climate change and embrace changing styles. Some of these wines, you couldn’t give them away 20 years ago. Now everyone’s clamoring for them.”

That doesn’t mean that Napa is digging up its lucrative Cabernet any time soon. But at Carneros’ Hudson Ranch, prominent grower Lee Hudson has been tending experimental plantings of diverse aromatic whites. At Spottswoode, winemaker and vineyard manager Aron Weinkauf is testing out a dozen grapes, including Falanghina, an ancient Italian variety with an orange-blossom aroma. Other winemakers have been taking wood from him and are planting the grape, as well. “A lot of aromatic whites tend to be thicker skinned and have higher polyphenolic levels, and you could see them playing a role for climate adaptability. When we talk about resilience, we cannot look solely at one varietal. We must be more multifaceted in our approach,” he says. 

To Petroski, the future in Napa looks like “one hundred grapes, not a particular grape. It could be anything. I think everyone’s throwing paint on the wall to see what sticks these days.” Winemakers like him “have an audience for alternative varieties. It’s been a fun exploration to go after something new, fresh, different.”

In the meantime, Grassi will continue to make her peppery, ageable Ribolla Gialla because “I like to make things difficult for myself,” she jokes. “People who come to Napa are like, ‘What are you doing?’ But we get to turn people onto different things. What’s cool is people are always surprised by it. Ninety-five percent of the people that contact us have done so initially to buy our Cabernet. And then they get to try something different.”