The Carneros Secret: Napa's Next-Door Wine Region Has Pleasures All Its Own. (Travel)

By Phillips, Jeff | Sunset, September 2002 | Go to article overview

The Carneros Secret: Napa's Next-Door Wine Region Has Pleasures All Its Own. (Travel)


Phillips, Jeff, Sunset


From the slopes behind the winery that bears his name, Walter Schug has a knockout view of the country that winemakers call Los Carneros. To the north is the town of Sonoma; to the south, San Pablo Bay. To the east the Mayacamas Mountains tumble down to long hillsides and undulating flatlands patched with vineyards--which, this time of year, form a wild quilt of reds, yellows, oranges, and greens.

It's a glorious landscape, yet one that is overlooked by many of the visitors who traverse it. Every weekend, drivers crawl along State 12/121 right through Carneros on their way to the wineries of the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. What they don't realize as they're stuck in second gear is that they're traveling through one of the state's oldest wine regions--and one that is again being appreciated for its distinctive wines, especially the Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays.

Wines that rise "to 11"

Although vineyards were established in Los Carneros nearly 170 years ago, Schug was one of the first contemporary winemakers to use grapes from the region--in particular, Pinot Noir, a variety that had not yet gained wide acceptance in the United States. "A wine critic once wrote that those who bet on Carneros were betting on the wrong horse," Schug says, looking out over the long rows of carefully staked vines. "I wish I'd taken him up on that bet."

But it is true that the relatively cool and breezy Carneros is not the easiest region in which to grow grapes. Michael Terrien, winemaker at Acacia, notes that a lot of traditional viticulture just doesn't work here. "It's only been recently that we've all learned how to plant, prune, and irrigate to fit the region," he says.

"Temperature and soil are what set Carneros apart," says Bouchaine Vineyards winemaker David Stevens. 'We're very close to San Pablo Bay and have cooler weather than Sonoma and Napa, which gives our grapes a long season to develop." For Stevens, the distinctive flavors of Carneros, especially in the Pinot Noirs, are all fruit related: cherry and berry with hints of Satsuma plum and citrus. "The degree of fruit intensity is definitely higher in Carneros wines," he says. "We're kind of like that scene in the movie Spinal Tap--our amplifiers go to 11."

History on the vine

Carneros has a long history as a farm region--los carneros, originating with the early Spanish land grants here, means "the sheep." The first vineyards were planted in the late 1830s and the first winery was built here in the 1870s. But it's only been over the last decade that enough wineries have been built to make a visit worthwhile. This fall a dozen of them will offer public tastings on weekends.

Carneros is easily divided into three regions you can visit in chunks. The west side, along State 121 between State 37 and State 12, includes Schug and Gloria Ferrer, among others. (With Domaine Carneros, Gloria Ferrer is one of the region's more elegant wineries. Both were originally located here to make sparkling wine but in recent years have expanded into the production of still wines.)

The east side, off Old Sonoma Road between the Carneros Highway and the town of Napa, ranges up into the Mayacamas foothills to wineries like Artesa. And the heart of the Carneros, with the largest concentration of wineries, is the breezy, mostly treeless, gently rolling country south of the Cameras Highway. …

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