Earth Moves

Last spring, Nomacorc asked me to produce an article on winemaking trends in Napa Valley. The story angle made sense, because Napa has always been about trends: the flying French winemaker promising big scores and big bucks, the latest genetic material from Davis, the hottest technology in gravity flow or grape sorting, sexy packaging, deeper caves, tighter plantings, bigger wines.

I recorded hours of interviews, then sat down to sort it all out. What did it truly mean to be on-trend in Napa? What mattered most? What does it all mean for the wine?

“In order to be successful in the wine world, you have to be either new or classic,” proclaimed one branding expert at a recent industry forum. After the bottom fell out of the U.S. economy, the “bigger is better” aesthetic was no longer en vogue. And so maybe Napa wasn’t, either.

Then, a week before my deadline, a 6.1 magnitude earthquake shook my home, and the homes and wineries and vineyards all over Napa. The temblor rocked the Valley just as the 2014 harvest was getting underway. Unlike in Burgundy, where rarely a growing season progresses without some kind of climate-induced catastrophe, there’s never been doubt that every year, sunny Napa Valley will ripen grapes. Vintage 2014 was shaping up to be the third in a series of smooth vintages.

But the morning after the earthquake I saw photos of friends’ wine shops and cellars covered in broken glass, oak barrels tumbling everywhere, and prized juice fresh from the crushers filling the sewer. Mother Earth had stepped in and reminded us who’s really in charge.

After first grappling with our panic via post-quake Facebook updates (I’m okay—are you okay?), a question surfaced, and that question was this: Is Napa Valley still relevant? Does anyone care?

The wine world answered. And the answer was a resounding Yes.

Drink it Up
The quake did more than shake a lot of expensive bottles of wine from cellar walls. It brought the world’s attention to Napa Valley. Right after the earthquake, you couldn’t spend five minutes on social media without bumping into the hashtag #drinknapa.

Napa Valley out of vogue? Obviously not. Some of the trendiest wine bars, restaurants, and retail stores in cities around the world jumped to promote their Napa wines. Outside one wine shop in Williamsburg, New York, classics like Corison and Forman were scratched in various shades of sidewalk chalk next to relative newcomers Dirty and Rowdy and Massican.

If there’s one thing these diverse winemakers have in common, it’s a strong commitment to specific vineyards, and to caring for those vineyards in a way that will keep them productive for years to come. Is Napa Valley new or classic? The exciting thing, the thing that keeps the region on every wine buyer’s radar, is that it somehow manages to be both.

A Sense of Place
Great wine is made in the vineyard. Yawn. Every winemaker says it, but what does it really mean? Simply this:

Making great wine is actually not about making wine, it’s about growing good grapes. And growing good grapes means understanding the land, the soil, the climate.NapaTrends_InteriorPhoto

I think Napa Valley needs to stop worrying about being trendy and simply start listening to the land. The model for Napa Valley’s future is not Bordeaux, where the Château and the winemaker and the blend are the stars. After all, Napa Valley has only one-third the vineyard acreage of Bordeaux.

The model, instead, is Burgundy, where tiny plots of land are studied down to their microbes in order to be better understood. That’s why quality-minded producers like Crocker & Starr, Honig, and Markham are narrowing their focus and making more vineyard-designate wines, wines whose bottles proudly bear the name of the specific place in which those precious grapes were grown.

Winemaking as Land Stewardship
Making a commitment to place means caring for that place. That’s why some of the most meaningful recent technological advances are about sustainability: reusing water, capturing the energy of the sun, finding natural ways to control pests. These three winegrowers are making a commitment to this approach.

“Many of the changes I’ve seen in viticultural practices are based on the challenges that all growers have been facing,” says Brett Adams, the assistant winemaker for Honig. “Water management has become a more pressing issue, and the manner in which water is being utilized in the vineyard has changed—and will continue to change—toward vineyards that can be dry-farmed.” Since 2006, Honig has also been able to capture enough solar energy to run the entire winery, including its cooling and bottling ops.

Crocker & Starr in St. Helena was founded with the goal of revitalizing a single vineyard that had been farmed continuously since the 1870s. Winemaker Pam Starr now manages her precious plot of Bordeaux varieties organically. She also uses as little water as possible—old vines need less than young vines. To control pests and promote biodiversity, Starr plants wildflowers and clover to attract honeybees and buffer the vineyard from pests. It’s her goal to become completely self-sufficient.

Markham Vineyards in Calistoga has been working over the past few years to become Napa Green Certified, just one of the many initiatives by the Napa Valley Vintners and Napa Valley Grapegrowers to encourage sound farming practices and reduce energy and water use, waste, and pollution. Cover crops, targeted irrigation, and revetments to prevent soil erosion are among the tactics this family-owned winery uses to minimize impacts on the land.

Sustainability might start with the land, but it includes all aspects of winemaking, bottling, and distribution. Winemakers are also considering alternative packaging, including kegs, cartons, different types of corks. They’re thinking about the wildlife and migratory patterns. They’re concerned about the spawning rituals of salmon. They’re concerned about the lives of their labor force and how to make those lives better.

Aftermath
Is it trendy to be sustainable? Sure, but that’s not what drives these thoughtful winemakers toward such solutions. Caring for the land and making it sustainable for centuries isn’t cutting edge, but it’s what today’s winemakers really care about, and caring will never go out of style.

As we scrambled to clean up the aftermath of the quake, small aftershocks continued to rock us in our sleep as a reminder: the land matters. What truly inspires these winemakers isn’t what is above the ground—the barrels, the tanks, the presses, the laboratories. It’s what’s underneath it all that matters: The earth, the soil, the millions of years of geological activity that makes Napa Valley such a special place—a truly special place to grow grapes and to make wine.

[Photo Credits: Markham Vineyards]

About the Author

Courtney Humiston is a professional writer who moved from New York City to Napa Valley in 2010 to nurture a burgeoning passion for wine. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone and a Certified Sommelier, she has spent time in vineyards and wineries and cellars around the world. She contributes regularly for Decanter.com and her work has appeared in The World of Fine Wine, The San Francisco Chronicle, Grape Collective and La Cucina Italiana among others.

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