Fermentation dome at Palmaz Vineyards

Rare Earth

HILuxury’s exclusive series on the Napa Valley region starts with Coombsville, an area unique because of its volcanic origins.

For those of us who have grown up in Hawai’i, all things volcanic are commonplace. our islands are the tips of ancient volcanoes. We see lava stone walls built in our neighborhoods. Lava rocks are used in the traditional underground cooking of food-or the imu. Our proximity to one of the most active volcanoes in the world also gives us a general knowledge of volcanology. I know my own adventures into Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park and seeing the active lava flows from the ground and air have put me right on top of the creation of new land on Earth. From Hawai’i to Napa Valley, we share a common story if we care to delve deeper into the story beneath the soil.

Napa Valley is America’s greatest wine producing region in terms of reputation and significance in the worldwide wine industry. Within Napa Valley there are 16 AVA’s or American Viticultural Areas: subregions defined by their differences in geology, geography and topography. Coombsville is the 16th official AVA, as well as the youngest having received official recognition in December 2011.

What makes this region so special and apart from all other AVA’s is its volcanic origins. Millions of years ago, Mount George (elevation: 1,877 feet) was an active volcano, spreading volcanic ash over the Coombsville region.

The whole of the AVA is almost in the shape of a caldera-with the Vaca Mountain Range shading the region from the west, and the Mount George Range in the east. So the soils here are extremely well drained. One would think the volcanic soils are very fertile, but because of its ancient origin, as well as high proportion of ash in the soil, it is actually the opposite. But this is not a monolithic soil; there is also evidence of large landslide activity from the western Napa Mountain Range adding to the region’s soil diversity. The elevation and exposure diversity provided by the Vaca Mountain Range is also a key to this region’s potential. Its proximity to San Pablo Bay is also important. San Pablo Bay has a moderating influence on Coombsville producing morning fog, cool afternoon breezes and a general tempering effect against Napa Valley summer heat. Coombsville’s growers enjoy one of the valley’s longest growing seasons; long and slow ripening with harvest often extending into late fall. This is a very special combination.

My top producers in Coombsville must include Meteor Vineyard. They are located high on a rocky outcropping in the middle of the Coombsville plateau. The elevation here is at about 500 feet and has the perfect exposure to soak up morning sun. When I first saw pictures of the soils and rocks in this vineyard, I immediately thought they were taken from a heiau in Hawai’i. Their volcanic origins were evident. Mixed with cobblestones, this winery and vineyard are quite unique. The wines, made by Dawnine Dyer, are stunning; they are some of the most hedonistic Cabernets in all of Napa Valley. Their 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon is more than impressive with gobs of perfectly ripe black fruit, unctuous ripeness and full-bodied with a finish that feels like it penetrates your brain. This is also a truly age-able wine that does not lack any grace. Their Family Reserve is made in even more minute quantities, but is something that requires time even when it is released. You would do well to be able to stash anything you could get from Meteor Vineyard.

Palmaz Vineyards is a study in the melding of art and technology. Their website tour of the winery is impressive unto itself, but seeing it in person is indescribable. The winery is built into Mount George itself. It is designed for perfect gravity flow, equivalent to 18 stories in the mountain! But the true gift is the vineyard-55 acres of vineyards grow more than 14 unique terroirs at three elevations (400, 1200 and 1400 feet above sea level)-all on the volcanic and stony colluvial deposits. With such a palate from which to form their Cabernet Sauvignon, it is no wonder that the result is a complex beauty. The 2009 Estate Cabernet rocks (pun intended). Mostly black and some blue fruit abound along with a hot rock and spice note that I seem to find in Coombsville Cabernets. It is rich in tannin, and I would recommend decanting before serving or keeping in your cellar for five to seven years.

Farella Vineyard is perhaps the least renowned of my top producers. This hillside vineyard includes 26 acres of vines originally planted in 1979 (one of the earliest in the area). The soil at the top is a stony loam, which dovetails into volcanic ash, and a gravelly loam at the base of the vineyard. There are also 30 acres of untouched oak woodland on the property that partially surrounds the winery. But the reason why most wine drinkers have never heard of this vineyard is because they produce a miniscule 1,200 cases divided between Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc. The majority of the grapes are sold to other wineries such as Far Niente, Honig, Keenan, Lail, Pahlmeyer and Realm. Their 2010 Farella Vineyard Cabernet is plump like a water balloon ready to explode. This one gushes with plenty of red and black fruit. It is voluptuous and velvety with note of mocha/cocoa on the finish.

My best experiences with wines form Coombsville are definitely Cabernet-based. Can you blame me when other producers that also include fruit from Coombsville in their wines are names such as Silver Oak, Faust and Etude? I think Syrah from this region can also be very special, but this is Napa Valley after all. That means it is Cabernet country. I only wish we could grow Cabernet just as well on the slopes of our hills… maybe in a few million years.

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