If you owned a winery in a region recently granted status as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) by the generous folks at the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), how would you go about capturing the hearts and minds of wine consumers? Would you start by establishing a solid reputation as a producer of reliable wines, wines that even punch above their weight, in the range of, say, $18 to $30? Or would you attempt to capture the elite spender’s attention by releasing the Mercedes and Porsche models of your line, the wines that cost $50 to $175? My recommendation would be to take the first route to consumers’ approval and their wallets, but a group of wineries in the Coombsville AVA chose the second alternative, sending out the top dogs for review. Coombsville was granted AVA status in December 2011.
All producers and winemakers want their wines to be unique, and one way they see to achieving that special status is an emphasis on a specific place. That drive is the primary motivation, in this country, for petitioning the TTB to grant official status as an American Viticultural Area to increasingly smaller regions within larger AVAs. The thinking goes that if, for instance, Napa Valley, however illustrious its history may be, seems a bit broad and uninteresting as a designation, how much better to mention on a label that one’s wine derives from Oakville District or Howell Mountain, important splinters within the Napa Valley AVA. Vineyard owners, winery owners and winemakers hire consultants, geologists and climatologists to determine the individual qualities and values of a proposed AVA, often working for years to secure approval. In 2014, for example, the Paso Robles AVA, itself a delineated region within the larger San Luis Obispo AVA, was divided into 11 sub-AVAs all at once, on the assumption that consumers will harken to the call of Paso Robles Willow Creek AVA or Santa Margarita Ranch AVA on wine labels.
Coombsville is the most recent (and the 16th) sub-AVA granted in Napa Valley. It lies east of the burgeoning city of Napa, bordered on the west by the Napa River, on the east by the Vaca Range, on the north my Mount George and runs south to Imola Avenue. This newish AVA encompasses 11,075 acres, of which something like 1,400 acres are planted to vines. Located in the southern Napa Valley, Coombsville comes under the influence of San Pablo Bay and its cooling maritime nature, being, actually, the coolest AVA in Napa Valley except for Carneros. The unique feature of the Coombsville AVA — named for Natham Coombs, who founded the town of Napa in 1848 — is a vast caldera, an ancient horseshoe-shaped ridge that is the result of a collapsed volcano. The volcanic ash and debris left from this geologic event created a soil suited for the nurture of grapevines and the necessary stressing of their roots. In addition, alluvial flows from Mount George contributed to the rocky-volcanic quality of the soil.
I received six samples for review from wineries in the Coombsville AVA, and while several struck me as classic Napa Valley, compounded of distinct mineral-black fruit-sleek tannin elements, others felt too emphatic, over-determined and unbalanced. I also thought that some of these prices smacked of delusions of grandeur. Lemme see what you can do at $25, please, before you send me the bottle that carries a $175 tariff. I omit, unfortunately, a great deal of technical information I would typically include in these reviews because the websites of most of these wineries seem not just reticent but downright secretive. Come on, people, the point of a website is to deliver information.
Map from winemag.com.
Cairdean Acquaintance Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Coombsville, Napa Valley. The color shades from dark ruby at the center to medium ruby at the rim; it’s a highly structured wine now, with a bouquet characterized by elements of toast, dust and graphite, charcoal, cedar and tobacco, rosemary, lavender and licorice and a core of iodine and iron. The segue onto the palate produces similar results, with the glimmering addition of intense and concentrated blue and black fruit — blueberries and blue plums, black currents and cherries — drenched in granitic tannins. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 224 cases. Try from 2018-’20 through 2028-’32. Very Good+ for now. About $84.
Covert Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Coombsville, Napa Valley. Signaling a wine of deep extraction, the color here is opaque ruby shading to glowing purple-magenta at the rim; the bouquet delivers powerful snootfuls of iodine and graphite, with notes of charcoal, cedar and lavender, black currants and baked plums touched with mint, mocha and fruitcake in an array of structural and esthetic effects. Not surprisingly, the wine is quite dry, characterized by a vibrant arrow of graphite minerality and resonant, lip-smacking acidity that serve to animate black and blue fruit flavors encased in depth-charge tannins, both dusty and succulent. A lingering finish pulls in elements of smoke, tobacco, cigarette paper and iron. 14.9 percent alcohol. 356 cases produced. Drink from 2018 or 2020 through 2030 or ’32. Excellent. About $175.
Maroon Vineyard Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Coombsville, Napa Valley. This wine spent 30 months in French oak, though we are not informed of the percentage of new barrels. It is, in any case, a strapping example of dynamic structure, cloaking its modicum of rich, jammy black and red fruit scents and flavors, all spiced, macerated and roasted, with blueberry undertones, in a panoply of large-framed, dusty and gritty tannins that seethe with charcoal, cold ashes and foresty funk. 14.4 percent alcohol. Nowhere near drinkable now, try from 2019 or ’20 through 2030 to ’34. Production was 1,340 cases. Very Good+, for now. About $80.
Scalon Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Coombsville, Napa Valley. The color of this 100 percent cabernet wine is very dark ruby-purple; it aged 20 months in all new French oak barrels. Penetrating aromas of ripe blackberries and and black currants carry hints of blueberry jam, graphite and lavender, rosemary and cedar, black olives and braised fennel; a few minutes in the glass unleash elements of iodine and iron. On the palate, this cabernet sauvignon is lively and vibrant, lent dynamism by vivid acidity and a keen mineral edge that bolsters a dense, dusty, chewy texture and velvety but rigorous tannins. 13.8 percent alcohol. 235 cases produced. Drink now through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $85.
Scalon Cellars Priority Red Wine 2012, Napa Valley. This very limited edition wine is a blend of 51 percent cabernet sauvignon, 40 percent cabernet franc and nine percent merlot; it aged 20 months in French oak barrels. It starts with a dark ruby-purple hue and opens with aromas of ripe and slightly roasted black cherries and plums infused with cassis and cloves; the wine is quite woodsy and foresty, with undertones of briers and brambles, graphite and lavender. It’s very dry, even a bit austere, yet imbued with jammy and spicy black fruit flavors, leaning altogether, with its shaggy tannins, toward a rustic presentation. The least coherent of this group, the wine needs more balance and integration. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 50 cases. To give it chance to cohere, try from 2018 or ’19 through 2030 to ’32. Very Good+. About $50.
Silver Stag Parsley Family Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. The color is dark ruby with a magenta rim; the chief feature of the bouquet is ripe black currant and black raspberry scents permeated by notes of cedar and tobacco, iodine, iron and loam; it’s a lively and energetic cabernet but dense with a towering structure of austere oak and dusty tannins, still, somehow, managing to be rich and jammy on the palate. A few minutes in the glass bring in hints of lavender, bitter chocolate and graphite. 14.4 percent alcohol. Give this a few years to find better balance. Very Good+. About $90.