­­Quality Over Quantity: The Napa Valley Diet

A Special Report on the September 29 Napa Valley VINTAGES Release

By Sara d’Amato, with notes from John Szabo, MS, David Lawrason, Michael Godel and Megha Jandhylaya

This feature was commissioned by Napa Valley Vintners.

Scarcity breeds desire, an adage that comes to fruition through the wines of Napa Valley. The perception of luxe, status and substance are not merely a result of clever rarity or veneration marketing in Napa Valley; the region’s small size, its natural gifts and agricultural protectionist enactments all play a role. Enactments like the Napa Ag Preserve established in 1968 ensuring that Napa would “not become another Silicon Valley” over-run by tech development.  

As altruistic as land preservation may seem, it is also an important economic investment for the region. In a recent conversation with Andy Beckstoffer, perhaps California’s most influential grape grower said of his own Napa sites: “These vineyards are the economic, long-term, highest and best use of the land” — which is rather unique to the Napa Valley, as commercial development is often the more lucrative use of land.


Today, Napa Valley has as its challenge to balance agro-tourism and agriculture. Mass tourism activities can be counterproductive to the preservation of land for agricultural use. This is, in part, the reason that Napa Valley wineries cannot house restaurants. Known as the Winery Definition Ordinance of 1990, wineries are prohibited from profiting from events that are not for the purpose of promoting wine sales. Walls have been erected to keep Napa Valley from becoming anything other than a high-quality wine producing region.

Given its prominence in the minds of consumers, it might surprise you to know that Napa Valley makes only four percent of California’s total wine production. Even within Napa, only nine percent of its 504,450 acres are suitable for winegrowing, with only three percent of that land befitting further plantings according to the Napa County Watershed Task Force.  When we speak of the gargantuan nature of Napa Valley, we are referring to its reputation and not its size, as Napa will always remain a small region of quality production.

Napa Valley Sign

Whether you are a fan, a collector, or a skeptic, I invite you to look at Napa wines through a new lens, one that sees the healthy attributes of premium wine. None of us who enjoy drinking wine want to hear about recent reports that we should drink a far bit less than we do, especially if you are a woman, but that is indeed the case. If we are drinking less, shouldn’t the quality of the wine matter more? Quality over quantity is effectively built into the DNA of Napa Valley wine. This is not a justification for the current price of Napa wines, but this perspective may have an effect your purchasing decisions. The same could be said for many wines from high-quality wine regions but our gaze is turned to Napa Valley over this latest special VINTAGES release available online as of September 29. So, let’s take a closer look at what makes Napa Valley wines worthy of your limited attention and dollars.

For a region only 48 kilometers long and 6 to 8 kilometers wide, Napa packs in a great deal of prestigious, diverse, and nested AVAs. Nested AVAs are otherwise known as sub-appellations with distinct features that set them apart from the more generic region. Napa Valley itself is an AVA designated in 1981, California’s first, and subsequently distinctive sub-regions of quality have emerged. These regions are not as much defined by their latitude as by their proximity to gaps in the bordering Mayacamas Mountains, their elevation and their soil types. From cool Los Carneros that benefits from the cool Pacific air of San Pablo Bay to warmer regions of Rutherford and to the elevated eastern hills of Oakville, distinct personalities in the wines emerge.

Napa Valley American Viticultural Area and Nested AVAs

Elevations are a result of the valley’s mountainous borders. To the west are the Mayacamas which are adorned with nested AVAs such as Diamond Mountain, Spring Mountain District and Mount Veeder. These regions look towards the Vaca Mountains, the eastern border of Napa Valley that protects the vineyards from the scorching heat of the interior. Many of the vineyards in AVAs such as Howell Mountain, and Atlas Peak, along with the lower perching, Stag’s Leap and Coombsville AVAs benefit from the afternoon sunshine afforded by the Vaca hillsides. You might leap to the conclusion that mountain vineyards are cooler than those vineyards along the valley floor but this not always the case. The valley’s morning fog coverage, thickest in south due to its proximity to the tidal estuary known as San Pablo Bay, helps to shield the vines from the morning sun and slows ripening. Napa Valley is thus a region of counterintuitive contrasts. Site specificity is of key importance amidst this patchwork of aspects, elevations, soil types and access to the influence of the Pacific.

Napa Valley’s Mediterranean climate means that it is dry and sunshine rich. Common to almost all such climates are naturally low-yielding vines. Corporate ownership of this trove of concentrated fruit is on the rise with large players such as Constellation and Treasury in the mix. Yet, family-ownership is still held by 95% of wineries in Napa. Despite a warm climate characterization, Napa’s wealth of distinctive, individual vineyard sites means that there is potential for significant variation in styles and expression of widely planted grapes varieties such as cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay.

Photo provided by Napa Valley Vintners

Yet wine style is also affected by culture, or decisions made by people, as a response to changing market demands. Overall, we see that Napa wines are scaling back on oak use and looking for alternatives that are both less imposing and eco-friendly. Case in point, Napa Green Certified St. Supéry Estate Vineyards and Winery is using more concrete, as opposed to oak, especially in white wines as marked by the inaugural release of the 2019 Dollarhide Cold Concrete Fermented Sauvignon Blanc. Another winery featured in this release, Oakville’s Groth, is now using a mix of concrete egg, stainless-steel, neutral oak and acacia for its Napa Green Certified Estate White. A restrained use of wood paired with three subsequent vintages that saw cooler than average temperatures over the growing season has shaped many of the wines now on offer. The vintages of 2017, 2018 and 2019 afforded the grapes longer hang time, with greater acid retention, and a more moderate accumulation of alcohol. Conditions such as these tend to produce wines of greater accessibility in their youth and with more finesse, so long cellaring is not essential. These “golden years” were offset by the 2020 vintage that saw warmth and drought, lower yields and both the highly detrimental fires nearing the end of the growing season. This challenging vintage was followed by brighter days in 2021, from which you can expect a return to a classic Napa fullness bolstered by naturally reduced yields from low rainfall.

Napa Valley Spring Mountain Fog

Sustainability, Wildfires, and Innovative Practices

According to Cal Fire and U.S. Forest Service, as a well as a recent report by Jillian Dara on The Future of Napa Valley Wine, there is no question that wildfires are an increasing concern in Napa Valley. A reported 4.3 million acres of land burned in 2020, 2.5 million acres of land was decimated in 2021 and, in comparison, 1.6 million acres was the previous five-year average. The costly losses have motivated Napa wine producers and Napa County to fund infrared and optical early detection sensors as well as to examine vineyard design, irrigation practices and humidity sensors, drone monitoring and drought resistant grape varieties and rootstocks. Napa Valley growers seem to appreciate that there is not one solution to growing ecological issues and are not limited by appellation restrictions nor by resources to find innovative solutions.

Given Napa Valley’s challenges that include wildfires, drought, and erratic weather patterns due to climate warming, you might think that sustainable agriculture is more of a necessity than a choice, yet this is not entirely true. The region was the first in the U.S. to establish an Agriculture Preserve in the late 1960s, before the pressures of current climate crisis were widely understood. Ensuing from this enactment are some of the most rigorous land-use and environmental regulations of any winegrowing region. Following in that momentum is “Napa Green,” the region’s own sustainable certification program with a mandate of environmental stewardship that implements a plethora of practices to ensure energy efficiency, waste prevention and water efficiency. Specific to Napa Valley in times of climate warming, Napa Green focuses its attention on irrigation and water efficiency, tree and forest preservation, as well as low-smoke burning or burn alternatives for pulled vines and other non-treated wood waste. These measures are important in the fight against wildfires, environmental damage, and the resulting smoke taint in wines (or the gentler term “smoke affected wines”). Carbon farming and regenerative agriculture are also encouraged by Napa Green, two terms that might be unfamiliar to consumers. The former is a holistic farming approach intended to optimize carbon capture, increasing the efficiency of which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and accumulated in plants and organic matter. Regenerative agriculture has a similar goal to sequester CO2 and aims to minimize physical impact while giving back to the ecosystem. An advantage of most sustainable programs is that social equity practices are also required. Both “vineyard” and “winery” certifications exist to cater to both grower and merchant models. For Napa Green, justice and inclusive practices are a mandatory component. Practices such as incorporating direct input from farm workers and fostering employment through education are examples of social action encouraged by the Napa Green program. Small and prestigious as it may be, Napa Valley avoids stagnation with reactive experimentation and resolutions.

Napa Old Vines

Buyers’ Guide to Napa

The WineAlign team had a moment last week to taste many of the wines in this limited release Napa collection and we have put together a list of recommended finds. To note, given the significant cost of these wines, the value rating may be less than five stars, but the cost has no bearing on the point score. Go here to purchase wines in this limited LCBO release.

Groth Hillview Vineyard Chardonnay 2020

Groth Hillview Vineyard Chardonnay 2020, Napa Valley
$71.00, The Vine Agency (LCBO, #225672)
Michael Godel – A single vineyard chardonnay as rich and fruit fortified as any that have come before. Just tastes like sun drenched fruit keeping it bright, stylish and upright. And being in the right place.
Sara d’Amato – A sophisticated Napa find featuring rich mineral character, graphite and chalk contributing freshness and intrigue. Firm, grippy tannins add further texture to this cooler vintage expression.
Megha Jandhyala – This single-vineyard chardonnay from the Groth family’s Hillview Estate shows impressive concentration, complexity, and balance. There is a sense of freshness and vibrance to it that seems to lift and support the decadent flavours, while the well-integrated oak flavours underscore abundant, succulent fruit.
John Szabo – Made from the 26-acre Hillview Vineyard in the Oak Knoll District purchased by Dennis and Judy Groth in 1982, this is appealingly fresh and balanced, yet also sumptuous and satisfying chardonnay,a contemporary classic. And, like most wine from Groth, it’s exceptional value in the context. Drink or hold late into the decade.
David Lawrason – This is true to its traditional Napa origins. The winery has been around a long time, making classic, ripe and rich chardonnays with peach, honey and buttery and fudgy aromas, and full, plush texture. This vintage seems particularly well balanced however with a certain poise and delicacy uncommon in wines of this size. The underlying acidity is very good and the 14.8% alcohol does a very slow burn. Focus and length are excellent.

Hall Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Hall Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, Napa Valley
$107.00, Noble Estates Wines & Spirits Inc. (LCBO, #273391)
Michael Godel – From St. Helena and a really fine year for growing cabernet sauvignon, slow to start and then fluid, consistent and long after that. Really helped to develop the variety’s true Napa Valley identity, class and structure. Can see this aging gracefully over a 10-15 year period.

Groth Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Groth Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, Oakville, Napa Valley
$132.00, The Vine Agency (LCBO, #273391)
Megha Jandhyala – Flavours of dark fruit in a state of consummate ripeness are intertwined with notes of earl grey tea, dried herbs, oak spice, and tilled earth in this skillfully made cabernet sauvignon. Complex and well-integrated, with excellent length, this is a wine that captures and holds one’s attention.
Sara d’Amato – A sophisticated Napa find featuring rich mineral character, graphite and chalk contributing freshness and intrigue. Firm, grippy tannins add further texture to this cooler vintage expression.
Michael Godel – A single vineyard chardonnay as rich and fruit fortified as any that have come before. Just tastes like sun drenched fruit keeping it bright, stylish and upright. And being in the right place.
John Szabo – Groth’s 2018 cabernet is a flat-out gorgeous wine. I love the seamless texture, the perfectly ripe fruit, the beautifully integrated oak and the excellent length and complexity. And, while far from an inexpensive wine, it punches well-above its weight in the relative Napa Valley context, equaling, and surpassing, many far pricier, speculative bottlings. The maturity of the estate, established in 1981, is on full display; no need for flash or bling here, just an excellent, meticulously-farmed site and classic winemaking. Best now-2038 or so – this has the stuffing to go the distance.

Trefethen Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Trefethen Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley
$73.00, Vinexx (LCBO, #95752)
Sara d’Amato – Sourced from the cooler Oak Knoll district of Napa Valley known for its fresher style of cabernet along with pinot noir and chardonnay. Fleshy with textured, moderately grippy tannins with some lightly smoky appeal that add intrigue to the velvety wealth of black and red fruit. quite youthful exhibiting only graceful maturation. Nicely poised despite the concentration on the palate. Good value.
Michael Godel – A slight cool in the air of Oak Knoll District creates the distinct conifer verdancy in reds like this cabernet sauvignon from Trefethen. Chalky tannins express the potential and with three years there should be some fun secondary moments ahead.
Megha Jandhyala – From the relatively cool sub-appellation of the Oak Knoll district, this balanced and firmly structured cabernet sauvignon-based blend is imbued with notes of perfectly ripe black fruit, oak spice, and herbs. A few years in the cellar will help the oak flavours integrate further, while the tannins mellow.

Inglenook Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Inglenook Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, Napa Valley
$105.00, Noble Estates Wines & Spirits Inc. (LCBO #29553)
Michael Godel – A multi site, all estate Rutherford blend, primarily cabernet sauvignon, with bits of cabernet franc, merlot and petit verdot. The acids in this vintage are truly special, so different to 2017, at the forefront now and working to usher this fruit set towards tomorrow. Inglenook’s is terrifically savoury, saline, naturally sweet and umami filled cabernet.
John Szabo – Inglenook’s 2018 cabernet is a lovely wine, fullish, succulent, ripe but fresh, ageing nicely at this stage but still with plenty of road head. I like the firm, dusty tannins and balanced acids, the genuine depth and sapidity on the palate, and finesse and balance on offer. Polished, elegant, beautifully-crafted wine, best 2024-2032.

Waypoint Lowrey Vineyard Basalt Ledge Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Waypoint Lowrey Vineyard Basalt Ledge Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, Napa Valley
$183.00, Profile Wine Group (VinVino) (LCBO #27240 )
Megha Jandyala – This is a dense and potent cabernet sauvignon, a wine to cellar and save for a special occasion in a couple of years or more. Layered with concentrated notes of cassis, black cherry jam, spice, and liquorice, it has remarkable depth, intensity, and length.
John Szabo – The first single site bottling of the Lowrey vineyard by the New Frontier wine co., planted high above the Napa Valley floor between Rutherford and Pritchard Hill, the Basalt Ledge vineyard sits on a rocky volcanic outcropping opposite Pritchard Hill. It’s a big, dense, highly extracted, firm and astringent cabernet sauvignon with palpable tension and stress in the vines, an essence of struggle, a distillation of stone. It will need another half dozen years to come around, though there’s plenty of fruit lying in wait. Terrific length and depth. Best 2026-2040.

Signorello Padrone Proprietary Red 2018

Signorello Padrone Proprietary Red 2018, Napa Valley
$257.00, Profile Wine Group (VinVino) (LCBO, #271304)
Sara d’Amato – An archetypal Napa Valley cabernet emanating from 1990 plantings on the estate’s hillside vineyard. Fleshy, tender fruit are beginning to show on the palate along with flavours of dark plum, blackberry compote and soy sauce. Aging slowly and gracefully with notable integration of oak spice.
Megha Jandhyala The 2018 Padrone was sourced from the best blocks of Signorello’s rocky hillside vineyard. It is generous and concentrated, with outstanding length. Still youthful and somewhat gawky, it will really shine in a few years, displaying lush dark fruit flavours complemented by notes of liquorice, cloves, and vanilla.
John Szabo – Signorello’s top bottling, dedicated to Ray Signorello, senior, the “Godfather”, this 2018 is a deep, saturated red-purple colour, highly extracted, still notably youthful and undeveloped, with strong, high quality wood influence. It’s a long way from prime drinking, at least 3-5 years I’d say, and should age well into the ’30s without concern, as a recently tasted 2004 comfortably confirms.
David Lawrason – When money is no object!  Padrone is the top cuvee from Signorello, a 90% cabernet sauvignon from estate fruit in the Stags Leap subregion of Napa. It has a very lifted, fragrant nose of shrubbery, rosemary, blackcurrant, baking spice and a sense of hot stone minerality. That same sense of energy and intensity translates onto the palate. It is full bodied, dense, intense, juicy yet staunch. Tannins are very firm and drying, but there is so much else going on they just a part of the mix. Outstanding length.

St. Supéry Dollarhide Cabernet Sauvignon 2017

St. Supéry Dollarhide Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, Napa Valley
$173.00, Vonterra (LCBO #327213)
Sara d’Amato – Produced from some of the oldest vines on the estate, St. Supery’s Dollarhide Ranch is notably dark and dense with impressive length. A product of a growing season that began with a drought-breaking start and finished with a later than norm harvest resulting in an appealing degree of freshness to balance out the inky concentration of fruit on the palate.

Foley Johnson Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2019

Foley Johnston Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2019, Rutherford, Napa Valley
$70.00, Authentic Wine & Spirits Merchants (LCBO #27252)
David Lawrason – Foley Johnson was opened in the heart of the Rutherford subregion in 2012 by Bill Foley and his wife Carol Johnson Foley. This is a nicely fragrant, generous cabernet that comes across as just a bit lighter and leaner than some, with more savoury and cedary character – all of which I like – and can be characteristic of Rutherford. The fruit is ripe currant/cherry with well honed wood spice. It is medium full bodied, firm and fairly tannic, with moderate alcohol heat despite a reading of 15.4%.

For more information on the Napa Valley visit the Napa Valley Vintners website and for all reviews click here.

Cin, Cin, Sara

This feature was commissioned by Napa Valley Vintners. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery, agent or region. Our writers independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted on WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the article. Wineries, wine agents, or regions pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign.