In between Napa and Sonoma lies a quirky little stretch of beautiful land called Carneros. To most people, it’s “that area I drive through when traveling from Napa to Sonoma on Highway 121.” Cars zip through on their way to their next tasting session, notice the rolling hills and the vines, and wonder “Ooh, what’s that Chateau over there?,” but moments later they are turning onto Highway 29 and headed north into Napa, and Carneros is quickly forgotten.
Back in 1983, the Carneros Region was officially made an AVA (American Viticultural Area, meaning it can be listed as a wine-growing region on labels) and many people thought the area would take off. Instead many established Napa and Sonoma-based wineries contracted for the fruit that was grown on the region’s vines, and those wines were still labeled as being from the Napa or Sonoma AVAs. A couple of big wineries sprung up in Carneros, like Gloria-Ferrer and Domaine Carneros, but both have European owners and are better-known for their heritage than their AVA. The result is that the region is not well-recognized or appreciated. However, if you want to treat yourself to some interesting wineries and wines, you should give Carneros a try.
The Carneros region sits at the southern end of Napa Valley, and is quite close to the north end of the bay. Because of this geography, the terroir (earth, air, temperature, etc) is cooler and damper than you find farther up the valley. The fog rolls in here first, and rolls out last. With a micro-climate like this, you won’t find a lot of Cabernet grapes. But chardonnay, pinot noir and other grapes grow wonderfully in this cooler climate, so it’s a great region to produce chardonnay, sparkling wine, pinot noir and some other great varietals.
A great article on the history of the region was written in the Chronicle awhile back, and you can find it here. (Linking is so much better than plagiarizing!)
Recently we spent a couple hours in Carneros, since it is only ten minutes from the house. (I cannot tell you how sweet it is to say “Honey, we have a free hour, let’s go taste wine at that place we drove by last week.”) We first went to Artesa winery, which is off-the-beaten path on Dealy Lane/Henry Road back in the hills of Carneros north of Highway 121. Artesa features some stunning architecture, as the Spanish designers built much of the main building into the highest hill on the property. There is some amazing art to see, the grounds are very nice, the views are amazing (you can even see downtown San Francisco on a clear day) and it is a fun place for a visit. The wines are good (I did not think they were great, but I did flip for the Orange Muscat, which I bought several bottles of) and their prices are reasonable. They have a number of tasting areas inside, offer a lot of different tasting and food pairing options, and the gift shop is nice, if you are into that kind of thing.
The chateau I referred to earlier is better known as Domaine Carneros, which is owned by the famous Taittinger family of sparkling wine fame. (Across the pond they can call it Champagne, but here we must call it sparkling wine.) You can’t miss the gorgeous French Chateau perched above Highway 12/121. Although it gets crowded, they have a great outdoor patio with tables and chairs and a great tasting menu, where you can sample the wines by the glass, by the bottle, or in flights. Some great cheese pairings are available to complement the wines, and the views from above are amazing. We think it’s a great place to spend the late afternoon before adjourning to a great dinner somewhere in Napa (like, my own backyard.) We enjoyed the sparkling wines so much, and the hospitality of our server Jean-Claude (a wonderful and vivacious Swiss man who makes everyone feel special and welcome), that we joined the wine club. The club membership means we get four shipments a year, as well as a reserved seating area on the patio, free tastings, and access to some of their special events. It’s definitely a place worth checking out on one of your next trips to the region.
There are a number of other great wineries in the Carneros area, although not a lot of places to eat. But with Napa and Sonoma each only a few (5-10) miles away, you aren’t far from good grub. I highly encourage you to visit this under-appreciated area when you get a chance.