By Allen Balik
Earlier this month I attended two events at the CIA at Copia showcasing the Coombsville American Viticultural Area, located in the Napa Valley’s southeastern hills just east of downtown Napa. Both events were organized by the Coombsville Vintners and Growers under the oversight of their visionary president and grower (Immaculate Vineyard) Jim Urda.
For years Coombsville was a growers' paradise, supplying Upvalley wineries with grapes of stellar character, lending a backbone of power and elegance to their wines. However, since the AVA was commissioned in 2011, there has been an accelerated growth of small family-owned wineries. The area’s diverse portfolio is gaining worldwide recognition of its wines displaying finely tuned structure, balance and finesse with an underlying sense of minerality unique to the area.
The first event was held on May 4, celebrating the unveiling of Antonio Galloni's newest Napa Valley map featuring the Coombsville AVA, and was followed by an in-depth panel discussion on the history, personality and future of Coombsville. The second event on May 6 was a “Welcome to Coombsville” tasting featuring a broad vinous sampling by 25 winery members of the CVG.
Nathan Coombs came to Napa Valley in 1845 and purchased a part of Rancho Tulucay on the east side of the Napa River that later became known as Coombsville in his honor. In 1847 Coombs purchased Rancho Entre Napa on the west side of the river and then founded the town of Napa. He was largely responsible for laying out the city’s original site, where much of Coombs’ earliest plan and street layout remains today.
Early in the 2000s the vintners and growers of the area decided to submit their application for AVA status to the government offices. Years of disagreement ensued regarding the chosen name. Eventually, Tulocay was agreed upon and submitted, but ultimately rejected as it did not meet the AVA stipulation of regionality. In 2008, Tom Farella of Farella Vineyard (also a pioneering Coombsville winemaker, grower and vintner) undertook rewriting and submitting the petition as Coombsville. It was approved in December 2011.
The Coombsville AVA is Napa Valley’s 16th, newest and perhaps most unique. The entire area is a volcanic caldera formed by a massive eruption that later also resulted in the collapse of the crater’s western wall. The resulting crescent-shaped caldera created a complex mix of exposures, altitudes and grades.
Soil types are somewhat consistent throughout the AVA, with volcanic rock atop volcanic ash and pockets of clay and freshwater diatomaceous earth that differs from the saltwater diatomaceous earth found elsewhere in the valley. Next to Carneros, Coombsville is the coolest Napa Valley AVA, with the morning fog and cooling afternoon breezes from San Pablo Bay moderating temperatures throughout the growing season, leading to longer hang times, even ripening patterns, and enhanced flavor and aromatic development.
Galloni is best known as a world-renowned wine critic for his own “Vinous” online wine publication, which he bills as “the intersection between media and technology.” Galloni is also a wine educator, researcher and now a respected map producer focusing on historic grape-growing areas. In 2011, while critiquing European wines for Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, he was also assigned to cover the California scene.
On his early visits to Napa Valley, Galloni observed significant differences from more familiar European appellations. With this observation in mind and to better understand Napa Valley’s complex topography and geography, he became convinced that mapping would lend a more focused view of the existing complex tapestry of terroir. He then elicited the support and expertise of cartographer Alessandro Masnaghetti and launched Vinous Maps.
Galloni’s first “Vinous” Napa Valley map appeared in 2016. Since then, his maps have included Oakville, Pritchard Hill, Stags Leap District, Howell Mountain, Yountville, Rutherford and St. Helena/Conn Valley, with Coombsville being the eighth and latest addition to the series.
Galloni’s maps are “the result of walking the vineyards and conducting countless firsthand interviews with owners, vineyard managers, winemakers, historians, geologists, soil scientists and other experts in their respective fields.” The maps also echo Galloni’s goal of “gaining a deeper understanding of how the essence of the site is ultimately reflected in the glass.”
Following Galloni’s presentation of the Coombsville map and his enlightening views on the area and its wines, we adjourned (with printed maps in hand) to the Ecolab Theater for an informative panel discussion by several Coombsville luminaries who represented its past, present and future. The program was introduced by CVG president Urda and conducted by host Lauren Ackerman of Ackerman Family Vineyards.
John Caldwell, aka The Smuggler (for his illustrious story of how he “imported” prized French budwood), first planted his estate vineyard in 1974. He now nurtures his 128-acre estate with 23 individual clone-specific grape varieties and presents an iconic face of Coombsville.
Tom Farella graduated from UC Davis in 1983 and joined his father Frank Farella as winemaker for his Farella-Park Estate, taking over operations and production in 1991. Frank was among the first to plant Cabernet Sauvignon in Coombsville when the conventional wisdom dictated that it was too cool for the variety.
Paul Hobbs of Paul Hobbs Winery (and seven other wine estates across the globe) was referred to by Forbes in 2013 as “the Steve Jobs of wine” and twice by Robert Parker as Wine Personality of the Year. Hobbs, now owner of Nathan Coombs Vineyard, recognized the superiority of Coombsville fruit in 1991 when he debuted an historic Merlot from the Michael Black Vineyard.
Alison Rodriguez is a relatively new entry on the Coombsville scene, as she has recently been appointed by Foley Family Wines to head the winemaking for its Silverado Vineyards, which owns and operates a 170-acre estate (125 planted) atop Mount George.
Harvest Duhig of Duhig Wine calls herself an “old Coombsville soul with a new-school view.” Since childhood, her appreciation of nature was influenced by her grandmother’s commitment to gardening. She worked her first harvest in 1997 and later graduated from UC Davis with a dual degree in viticulture and enology. As she said, “With the name Harvest, I knew winemaking was my calling.”
Galloni participated on the panel, adding personal views on Coombsville. He also referenced his recognition regarding the consumer’s changing preference from bold, rich and opulent wines to those expressing a more savory nature with elegance and finesse that better fit the Coombsville profile. He also offered a cautionary note: “Don’t be complacent; this is not a moment of arrival, it is a moment of beginning.”
The panel expressed unanimity in their recognition of the Coombsville growers and vintners’ accomplishments and commitment to quality and diversity for the future of their wines from this unique terroir. Farella expressed his love of the vibrancy of Coombsville wines with their focus on acidity and age-worthy balance. Caldwell commented on how the area offers growers and winemakers the opportunity to “make the wines you like from one of the world’s most unique growing areas.”
Duhig pointed to the area’s diverse topography and multiple vineyard personalities as promoting diversity beyond what one would expect from the area she knew so well from her childhood. Rodriguez has worked extensively with mountain vineyards and sees them as a three-dimensional puzzle. This topographical character of Coombsville, coupled with its cooler climate, produces wines of “verve and vivaciousness” with an accent on fine aromatic and textural components.
Hobbs expressed the future of Coombsville wines on the international stage, announcing his Nathan Coombs Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon will be available this year alongside many of the world’s greatest wines through the venerable Place de Bordeaux. This is the historic network of merchants and collectors centered in France that has been in operation for more than 800 years.
The May 6 “Welcome to Coombsville” tasting offered additional insights into the wines of Coombsville and their winemakers, following in-depth discussions by Galloni and the panel. I was most impressed by the stylistic consistency of the wines speaking to their “sense of place” across the breath of varietal and blended offerings.
I’ve enjoyed many opportunities to sample a broad range of wines from Coombsville even before the AVA certification in 2011 and have always admired the precision and purity exhibited across the varietal spectrum. I was very impressed to find the tasting presented a broad yet deep expansion on these expressions of Coombsville wines that have continued to develop over the last couple of decades.
“World-class” is an often overused descriptor when discussing wines from various growing areas, varieties and producers. However, in tasting the wines from all participants, I must say the term fits comfortably with my experience at the tasting. Of course, Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots, Malbecs and Cabernet Francs are expected to do well in Coombsville based on their history of greatness. But I was also pleasantly surprised by the signature expression of Pinot Noir, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, along with some eye-openers with Grenache and Albariño.
My immersion into Coombsville – its history, people and wines – this month was rewarding and further cemented my overwhelmingly positive memories and impressions of the area. For more information on the panel discussion, a video replay is available on the CVG website at coombsvillenapa.org along with an abundance of information on the AVA.
Cover photography by Suzanne Becker Bronk