The Coombsville AVA became official on December 14, 2011 but the region was always an integral part of high quality Napa Valley wines since the 1870’s and, more recently, has been high on the radar of insiders. Considering its long history, volcanic effluvial soils and ideal climate, the granting of the formal AVA is a mere formality.
Coombsville’s low profile may have been a result of its location – about 1,360 farmed acres just east of the large city of Napa, obscured by a hill of residential homes which gives way to larger tracts of ranches on the Avenues. But if you drive down Coombsville Road beyond the Avenues, the vista opens up and all of a sudden, you’re stunned to find yourself in a beautiful ampitheatre of mostly west-facing mountains and rolling hills of vineyards.
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Coombsville is defined by this bowl created by an ancient mega-slide of earth, exposing steep ridges of volcanic rock similar to the palisades of Stags Leap District to the north. The displacement of earth also created terraces and knolls of well-draining stony, gravelly and loamy soils ideal for Bordeaux varieties. Coombsville in fact is one of the few areas in the eastern foothills of the Vaca range to have alluvials fans that characterize the best vineyards at the base of the Mayacamas, the other eastern fans including Simmons Canyon in Calistoga (Eisle Vineyard and Kelly Fleming) and certain parts of Stags Leap District such as Fay and SLV Vineyards.
Some of the most distinctive alluvial soils are located at Meteor Vineyard, owned by AOL founder Barry Schuler. Here, the soils are filled with light-colored cobblestones the size of one’s fist, helping to warm the microclimate at 500 feet as well as provide the drainage necessary to produce concentrated grapes. It also contributes to a minerality in the 2008 Meteor Vineyard “Perseid” Cabernet Sauvignon ($125) that literally leaps from the glass.
In addition to distinct soils, Coombsville vineyards from the ridges to the knolls have many aspects and elevations leading to unique expressions of the wines. For example, Palmaz Vineyards in the northern end of the ampitheatre has several aspects at elevations ranging from 400 feet up to 1,400 feet while Caldwell Vineyards to the south rises to 500 feet with a northwest aspect.
But one thing that does tie the AVA together is the climate. It’s relatively cool here, moderated from extremes by its proximity to San Pablo Bay about 10 miles away. As a result, the growing season is about four weeks longer than up-valley, allowing grapes like cabernet sauvignon to ripen slowly while preserving acidity, creating beautifully balanced wines.
Coombsville gained notariety in the 1980’s when John Caldwell’s French clones found their way into premier Napa Valley bottlings of Dunn Vineyards and Joseph Phelps Insignia cabernet sauvignon wines. Last year, the buzz surrounding Coombsville wines caused an unexpected crowd around the appellation’s table at Napa Valley’s largest trade event, Premier Napa Valley, according to Jason Alexander, GM of Meteor Vineyard. Alexander, former Wine Director at Michelin-starred restaurants Gary Danko and Cyrus, has been trumpeting the virtues of Coombsville on the road for several months now and is eager to put the AVA name on the label of their signature Perseid wines.
Personally, I was enraptured last year by the expression of the 2007 Derenoncourt California Coombsville Cabernet Franc captured brilliantly by Stephane Derenoncourt’s deft hand, and mesmerized by the finesse of the 2006 Palmaz Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon ($120). But “don’t call them cool climate cabs” says Florencia Palmaz, because to her, the term suggests a leafy, unripe character.
In my opinion, Coombsville cabs express the best of cool climate cabs in their clarity of fruit and freshness, but with enough ripeness for varietals to stand on their own.
Visiting Coombsville Wineries
Napa Valley’s newest appellation is also the most convenient cabernet sauvignon region to visit from the city. After having lunch in Downtown Napa, drive due east on 3rd Street (veering onto Coombsville Road) for a couple of miles and you’re there.
For maps and a list of Coombsville wineries with links to their websites, visit the Coombsville Vintners & Growers website.