Napa’s New Neighborhood
Coombsville becomes the new place to taste.
All photos courtesy of Joe Budd
Think you know Napa? Think again. There’s another pocket of Wine Country that you probably haven’t heard of, and it’s perfect for an easy getaway from the East Bay. Napa’s Coombsville wine region is barely on the radar, yet its excellent Bordeaux-style wines, laid-back tasting experience, and rolling-hills beauty are less than 10 minutes from downtown Napa—so close, you can quickly run into town for a bite in between tasting room visits.
A Rich History
The area has been known as Coombsville since 1876, with grape vines planted there possibly before 1870. Almost since then, the momentum has been building, and according to owner-winemaker Ken Bernards of Ancien, “It’s been an insider’s industry secret since the 1980s,” with many prestigious wineries up valley and elsewhere using grapes grown in Coombsville. So it follows that Coombsville would finally become Napa’s 16th American Viticultural Area. And now, wine drinkers can discover what winemakers have known for decades.
Just make a quick turn off the Silverado Trail onto Coombsville Road, where it looks much less like the typical Highway 29 scene and far more like farm country. As Rebecca Griffin from Porter Family Vineyards sagely puts it, it’s like a “step back in time for Napa.” Bound by the Napa River to the west and Mount George (a dormant volcano) to the north, with lots of tempering influence from San Pablo Bay, it’s a grape-growing area that’s optimally suited for slow-ripening Bordeaux varieties like cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, and merlot. And there’s also a smattering of cabernet franc, syrah, and pinot noir.
Mom-and-Pop Wine-Tasting Shops
There are about 25 family-run wineries—which conduct tours and tastings by appointment only. As Griffin says, “No one is sitting in a tasting room waiting for people to stop by.” According to Bernards, up to now, recommendations happened through word of mouth (though Ancien’s wines have been in the lineup of state dinners at the White House 15 times). As Tim and Debbie Darrin from Daviana, who sell their cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc grapes to Duckhorn, and Andy Erickson (consulting winemaker for Ovid and formerly Screaming Eagle), humbly claim, “We’re all part-timers.”
Because of its scale, Coombsville offers intimate experiences with the winemakers and winegrowers. The range of tasting options runs the gamut, reflecting the personality of the owners. Some wineries, like Meteor, offer a more traditional tasting experience at a table in a designated room, and Palmaz and Ancien conduct theirs in caves—though it’s all still personalized, usually with a family member and/or winemaker. On the other end of the spectrum, tastings have occurred at dining room tables, on bocce courts, and even poolside, as a chicken is roasted for dinner or a pizza bakes in the wood-burning oven.
Tracey Reichow, winemaker and proprietor of Black Cat Vineyard, calls Coombsville a “truly unique grape-growing area,” noting that the growing season is as much as a month longer than elsewhere. “It’s not really cooler here. It’s less hot,” she says, meaning it’s more temperate and doesn’t have the heat spikes they have up valley. Jason Alexander, Meteor’s general manager, adds that the area is the first to experience bud break and last to complete harvest, which results in a “vibrant, natural acidity and a more elegant expression of the grape.” Tournesol owner Bob Arns aptly comments, “We can have a longer hang time to develop those flavors, without baking the character out of the wine.”
Coombsville is only 40 miles from Walnut Creek, and since the wineries are conveniently situated close together, there’s less travel time in between tastings, making it a perfect spot for a day trip. Driving around the area’s charmingly rustic residential area feels less like an official Wine Country outing and more like a search for the perfect neighborhood yard sale—one that specializes in outstanding wines.
Keep in mind, Coombsville’s intimate visiting experiences tend to last longer than the more touristy tasting rooms. The best approach is to schedule no more than four wineries per day (projecting a comfortable hour and a half visit for each).
With a blossoming downtown Napa a stone’s throw away and these elegant under-the-radar wines on the verge of discovery, a visit to Coombsville offers the opportunity to experience the promise that earlier generations enjoyed in what are now more established regions.
These Coombsville area wineries are well worth a visit. Just remember to call in advance to schedule a tasting time.
Tasting happens in caves or under an oaktree. 4047 E. Third Ave., (707) 255-3908, ancienwines.com.
Black Cat Vineyard
Maker of Syrah and Bordeaux varietals. 1352 Fourth Ave., (707) 321-0866, blackcatvineyard.com.
Caldwell Vineyard and winery
One of the pioneers in this region, John Caldwell introduced authentic Bordeaux rootstock and grape clones to California. 270 Kreuzer Lane, 707-255-1294, caldwellvineyard.com.
A self-contained paradise with garden boxes, specializing in Cabernet and Cabernache. 2456 N. Third Ave., (707) 251-0173, davianawinery.com.
Produces wine and grapes for notable cult wineries up valley. 2222 N. Third Ave., (707) 254-9489, farella.com.
A long driveway leads to 32 acres and a vast view perfect for stargazing. 2181 N. Third Ave., (707) 258-2900, meteorvineyard.com.
Winemaking occurs inside an 18-story wine cave. 4029 Hagen Rd., (707) 226-5587, palmazvineyards.com.
Porter Family Vineyards
This winery is both laid-back and high-tech. 1189 Green Valley Rd., (707) 927-0765, porterfamilyvineyards.com.
Sodaro estate Winery
Its family roots trace to Sicily, where grandfather Giuseppe was a barrel cooper. But fast-forward to today’s new tasting room and its elegant reds. 24 Blue Oak Lane, (707) 251-8216, sodarowines.com.
Bordered by Lake Louise and Murphy Creek, this property offers places to stay on the estate. 4297 E. Third Ave., (707) 224-3960, tournesolwine.com.
For a more comprehensive list of Coombsville’s wineries and offerings, go to coombsvillenapa.org.