Napa Valley’s Most Storied AVA:  Oakville AVA

Every year, the 70 esteemed member wineries of the Oakville Winegrowers Association contribute  small lots of their finest Cabernet Sauvignon for use  in a blended micro-production bottling titled simply ‘The Oakville Cuvee.’ The annual production of 50 double magnums and 100 magnums of this collectible wine   is a perfect and tangible illustration of the spirit and camaraderie of this small Napa Valley AVA and its vintners. Each Oakville Cuvee bottle is  etched  and  numbered,  and all sales proceeds benefit the association in its efforts to promote  and  protect this two-mile-wide swath of Cabernet-rich vineyards that extend east to west, from the Vaca Mountains to the Mayacamas Mountains.

Once a steam train stop in the late 1800s, Oakville – named for its dense groves of native oak that once blanketed  the area – is now synonymous with wine- making excellence. Some of Napa’s most acclaimed wineries and vintners make  their home in this  small  district,  one  of the first distinctive wine growing regions within the valley to be officially recognized as an AVA in 1993. The site is perhaps the highest concentration of Napa Valley’s preeminent Cabernet Sauvignon producers, the founders of which recognized the region’s enviable soils and climate and its propensity for growing grapes of distinction. The area’s first vines were planted in 1868 by H.W. Crabb, who called his vineyard To Kalon, Greek for ‘most beautiful.’ Today, To Kalon is considered Napa Valley’s most iconic vineyard.

“With a legacy that goes back 150 years, Oakville is Cabernet,” said Tor Kenward, proprietor of TOR Kenward Family Wines. “To connoisseurs all over the world, the two are synonymous. Climate, soils, and dedicated winegrowers and winemakers all come together here for greatness.”

Oakville is the epicenter for TOR’s Cabernet Sauvignon program from which Kenward sources from Beckstoffer To Kalon, Vine Hill Ranch, and Tierra Roja. Kenward is particularly proud of his recent 2017 Vine Hill Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon. “This is everyone’s Cabernet Sauvignon of the vintage, and a wine that may well go down in Napa Valley legend,” said Kenward. “Made from the gravelliest soils in that great vineyard, this is blackberry, boysenberry, and black cherry layered with dark chocolate, briar,  exotic  spices,   and   potpourri. It features the power and richness of the best Napa Cabernet with more of a classical First Growth structure. Our winemaker Jeff Ames considers this perhaps the most complex and complete Cabernet Sauvignon he has ever made.”

“Oakville is arguably the most storied, most consistent, most  quality-oriented, and most excellent of all the Napa AVAs,” said Daphne Araujo, who moved to the area from Calistoga in 2014 with her husband Bart after the sale of their iconic Eisele Vineyard. The two are now proprietors of Accendo Cellars. “When you look at the vineyards, the list is impressive: Martha’s Vineyard, Mondavi, To Kalon, Vine Hill Ranch, M-Bar  Ranch, Detert, Harlan, Dalla Valle, Screaming Eagle, etc. And the climate is gorgeous.”

Oakville’s mid-valley location features transitional and temperate Mediterranean conditions; cool morning fog from the San Pablo Bay gives way to warm afternoons and then cooler evenings, a cycle that preserves the color and acidity of wine grapes. Oakville’s premium soils are categorized into three types: residual, found in the hills and created from the breakdown of the various bedrock units, alluvial soils found along the margins of the valley just below the hills and composed of material washed down during torrential rain events, and fine-grained fluvial soils found along the axial part of the valley where the Napa River flows. Each soil type creates varying grape characteristics; a small sub-region called the Western Bench, for instance, is the home of some of Napa’s most distinguished producers who favor its gravelly and fast-draining soils that result in grapes with high flavor concentration.

Though Cab is king in Oakville,  there  are a few producers who hold dearly to their bit of white varietal history. “In 1980 when my family started farming our Crossroads Vineyard in Oakville, the appellation consisted mostly of white grape  varieties,” said Nat Komes, general manager of Flora Springs. “Now it’s all Cabernet Sauvignon; it just doesn’t make financial sense to grow anything else. But we still have a few blocks where we grow our proprietary Soliloquy clone of Sauvignon Blanc. As the sole owners of this clone, we’re committed to preserving this special piece of Napa Valley history in Oakville.”

“Since moving to Oakville, our eyes have been opened to the impressive history of Oakville grapes and wines and their contribution to the identity of Napa Valley as a whole,” said Araujo. “Oakville vintners know they live in God’s Country, and all work hard and are proud of what they produce. But there is no arrogance here, just confidence. Oakville people are happy people!”




Article By: Fran Miller // Photos By: Bob McClenahan