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Los Carneros

Carneros is the true gateway to the wine country, the first appellation visitors from the south enter. It is a homogenous region, defined by its climate and its physical barriers: a bay, a river, a creek, two mountain ranges. Sparkling wines from Carneros enjoy considerable praise, but in recent years, imaginations have turned towards still pinot noir, grown here with spectacular results.
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Los Carneros

by Michele Anna Jordan

     Each spring, Nan Campbell, executive director of the Carneros Quality Alliance, organizes what she calls a pink flamingo walk through the wetlands of southern Carneros to the edge of San Pablo Bay. There, tiny brine shrimp tint acres of salt marshes, returned to Napa County several years ago by Cargill Salt, a pale red, nearly the color of the pink flamingos that feed on them. This is no joke; the flamingos are among the dozens of species of waterfowl and shorebirds that spend at least part of the year nesting in the vast system of marshes, sloughs, and natural, restored, and manmade wetlands that form the northern rim of the bay.


     The walk is for members of the alliance only, but there is plenty for even the casual visitor to see in Carneros, the only AVA that defies geopolitical boundaries and in a grand gesture of geographic equality spans the southern borders of Sonoma and Napa counties. The viticultural area was made official on September 19, 1983, through efforts of vintners and growers from both counties.  Unlike larger appellations that vary widely in terrain and temperature, Carneros is homogenous, defined by a cool climate, minimal rainfall, infertile soils, and physical barriers:  a bay, a river, a creek, and two mountain ranges.  There are about 22 wineries within Carneros and dozens of vineyards.  Several wineries outside the AVA maintain vineyards here, buy Carneros grapes, and are members of the alliance.


     Today, grapes dominate in Carneros, but its agricultural history includes pears, apples, truck farms, and, of course, the sheep for which the region is named.  Of the 36,900 acres within Carneros, about 8000 are currently planted to grapes. Some sheep still graze here, but there are probably more goats.  Laurel Chenel tends her growing herd and makes her cheese at the old Stornetta Dairy in the heart of the region.


     Carneros is the truest gateway to the wine country, the first appellation visitors from the south enter, a diminutive flower of a region that opens towards Napa Valley to the northeast and Sonoma ValleyShow on map to the northwest.  Standing near a century-old bridge over Huichica Creek, you can see the two valleys as they unfold northward, the MayaShow on mapcamaShow on maps rising between them.  The view from this vantage point is singularly moving, and reveals the spectacular grandeur of this land in ways that motorists, zooming by not far from this isolated enclave, never even suspect. If ever there was an argument for getting off the beaten track, for turning onto that back road we pass daily, this is it.


     As you would expect given the cool climate and long growing season of Carneros, chardonnay and pinot noir are the star varietals.  But it is more than just the temperature that shapes the performance of these grapes.  Virtually everyone involved in grapegrowing and winemaking in Carneros talks about the distinctive qualities of these wines, claims that have been documented in a variety of independent tests and studies  (the results of which are available at the Napa and Sonoma wine libraries).  High acid levels, a component that enhances a wine’s ability to age, is a signature attribute, a unifying element in virtually all Carneros wines.  Chardonnays are often leaner than elsewhere, with elements of citrus and clove.  You’ll find flavors of clove in Carneros pinot noir, too, along with bright fruit flavors, most notably cherry, and an earthy but subtle complexity that makes some people think of mushroom, tobacco, and leather.


     I would choose Carneros [for growing grapes] over anywhere in the world,” Mike Crumly, vineyard manager at Gloria Ferrer, says.  A growing season that stretches from early March to mid-October--several weeks longer than in other regions--allows the grapes to mature slowly, developing complexity and depth.  Because of the minimal rainfall and limited ground water, flavors are concentrated rather than diluted.  Soils here are at best moderately fertile, and tend to reduce a vine’s vigor, which is to say the vine does not have an easy time producing abundant greenery; more of its energy goes into the fruit, a grapevine’s investment in its future.  Crumly sees his job as that of a shepherd, of making gentle alterations to a vine so that its seasonal rhythm can unfold naturally.  Some clones, for example, have a tendency to produce abundant leaves, so he plants them on the rocky hillsides, where the infertile soil challenges the grapevine.  Weaker clones are planted on the valley floor, where moderate fertility encourages  growth.  If he can grow a balanced vine, Crumly explains, the vine itself will do the rest.


     The famous winds of Carneros also have a tremendous influence on the character of its fruit.  With winds blowing daily, often fiercely, grapes develop thicker skins in an attempt to stave off evaporation; this in turn results in the spiciness of the fruit.


     Winemaking began in Carneros in the late eighteenth century, when the region also served as a shipping port. Winter Winery was built in 1870 by William Winter, an Indiana native who planted what was likely the second Carneros vineyard.  Jacob Leese planted the first in the 1830s.  Although James Simonton, who purchased Winter Winery in 1881, was successful with phylloxera-resistant rootstock, viticulture in Carneros did not survive the other trials of the early 20th century. The first post-Prohibition winery was established in 1935, but it was the vineyards of Carneros—established by such wine luminaries as Louis Martini and André Tchelistcheff—that would shape its success until the 1960s, when the current renaissance began.


     Today there are several celebrated sparkling wine estates here, including Domaine Carneros, Artesa (formerly Codorniu), and Gloria Ferrar Champagne Cellars.  Domaine Chandon has 700 acres of vineyards here (the winery is further north, in Napa Valley); the main Buena Vista Winery (the historic estate is in Sonoma ValleyShow on map) is near the southern edge of Carneros.  Viansa Winery and Marketplace, established by Sam and Vicki Sebastiani in 1988, includes a 90-acre wetlands preserve ringed with a system of trails, boardwalks, and photographic blinds; a staff naturalist leads early morning birdwatching tours in the spring, summer, and fall. Nearby, Cline CellarsShow on map defies current viticultural wisdom by focusing successfully on Rhone varietals such as rousanne, marsanne, syrah and viognier as their estate wines.  Roche, the first winery one encounters from the south, produces a delicate, almost ephemeral pinot noir.


     It is not possible to think of Carneros, especially its pinot noir, without acknowledging Saintsbury, founded in 1981 by David Graves and Richard Ward.  The wines are consistently excellent, and have done much to focus attention on Carneros.  But there are many outstanding producers here--Acacia, Etude, MacRostie, and Richardson come to mind immediately--and distinguished vineyards, Beckstoffer, DeSoto, Hudson, and Sangiacomo among them.


     The spirit of cooperation expressed in the very existence of a bi-county viticultural area reveals itself in many other ways, too. Farmers have been working together for decades to reverse the damage of wreckless farming in earlier decades. Creeks and waterways that have been clogged with silt and sludge are being restored; levies have been removed and hay fields have been allowed to return to marshland.  Today we hear a lot of talk about sustainable agriculture and are increasingly aware of the importance of being good caretakers of the land. In Carneros, where vineyards border the fragile wetlands  and the effects of poor decisions are apparent more quickly than in other areas, the grapegrowers, vintners, and farmers have understood this, and respected it, for a long time.

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Vineyards a Viansa

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Vineyards at Gloria Ferrer

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