Coombsville, the Newest Napa AVA
Bill Cadman has raised a glass with some of the giants of Napa Valley like Joseph Heitz and Robert Mondavi, both of whom were his employers while he was establishing his own Tulocay Winery over 40 years ago. He could easily write a history of the Valley. And if he did, it would be as cogent as it would be hilarious. Very little escapes Bill Cadman’s attention, and nothing avoids his sardonic wit. Today he is a very happy winemaker. A month ago, the U.S Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) designated Coombsville, where Tulocay Winery is located, as the16th American Viticultural Area (AVA) in Napa County. What is an AVA anyway, and why should its existence delight Bill Cadman? If you call him for an appointment, you could ask him yourself the next time you happen to be in Napa. I was there last week, and what he told me I pass on to you, slightly edited for clarity and politeness.
The federal government defines an American Viticulture Area (AVA) as a winegrape growing region that is distinguishable by geographic features with defined boundaries. How does that help consumers determine quality?
When I got in the wine business, appellations or AVAs were simply counties, Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Fresno, Monterey whatever, because the federal government could easily assess what the county boundary was. And then someone noticed that in France, for example in Bordeaux, they have smaller appellations, not just Bordeaux. It’s Saint-Emilion, Margaux, Saint-Estephe, and so on. Then as now, we insist on kissing French ass. If the French did it, it must be the correct way because the French knew how to make great wine, and we didn’t. So then the appellation process began. But the federal government doesn’t really address quality issues. It doesn’t say that this wine from Coombsville tastes different from this wine in Stags Leap. That isn’t the issue whereas in France it is. The character of the wine is different in each appellation because of grape growing and wine making conditions and regulations. The French address those differences. In other words, the wine from Margaux tastes different than the wine in Saint-Estephe. All the federal government does here is show you a map, and you see the wineries on this map. That’s what they’re going to call the Coombsville AVA, but they don’t say you can plant only these grapes here. You can plant any grape you want. If the label says Coombsville, all you know is that 85 percent of the wine in the bottle was made from grapes grown in Coombsville. So what I’m saying is that it brings up the question, is the appellation really that indicative of what’s in the bottle? Can anyone sit down with wines from all 16 appellations in Napa and bet you a $100 that when the wines are lined up that they can identify what appellation the wines came from? I don’t know that anyone can do that.
So who benefits from an AVA designation?
I think that the main value of having an AVA is that it calls attention to the area and to the wineries in it and tends to generate enthusiasm among winemakers within the appellation. We are probably all much more enthusiastic about promoting Coombsville than we are Napa, because lord knows if we promoted Napa Valley as an appellation, that would include all those wealthy people in St. Helena, and they don’t need our help. They probably wouldn’t appreciate it anyway. I didn’t make millions in Silicon Valley and then start a winery. The comment that I’ve always liked was when the idea of appellations hit the wine business many years ago and the TTB said okay we are going to set it up so that you wine people can apply for an appellation of origin with us. Well, you can send us a petition and draw us a map if you want to apply for a smaller appellation than a county. As all the wineries were scrambling to get an appellation, I remember my old boss, Joe Heitz, saying, “These people are just f…… around.” His thought at the time was that Americans didn’t even know where Napa Valley was let alone Dry Creek or Russian River. Why were they wasting time, he was wondering. I think what we’re trying to promote here in Coombsville is an area that isn’t Highway 29. There are no traffic jams out here. Robert Mondavi and Beringer and Louis Martini are not in the Coombsville appellation, and we’re proud of it. We have about 25 wineries and almost all are small and require a prior appointment for wine tasting, not because we’re snobs but simply because we want to make sure that someone’s going to be available to pour a glass of wine for you. Coombsville is different from the rest of Napa. You call a Coombsville winery, and you might run into someone like, heaven forbid, Bill Cadman, who might sit with you for an hour or two and regale you with ribald stories of the wine business.
What grapes do best in the Coombsville area?
We all know that grape varieties have to be planted in the right areas, but I’m a little skeptical about that one because I think quite often people don’t ask what’s the best grape to grow in a certain area. What they do is ask what’s the most expensive grape, and that’s the one they plant. For example, the Haines Vineyard down the road was planted in 1968, and they planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, probably because they were advised by the University of California, Davis and the Winkler Scale of Climate Summation Days. This is the cool end of Napa Valley. It is a Region 2 with Region 1 being the coolest and then Regions 3, 4, and 5 being warmer. When they saw that Coombsville was a Region 2, they planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay because those grapes thrive in cool areas. But the property across from my place was planted by Agustin Huneeus, who owns vineyards all over the world, and he planted Bordeaux varieties about ten years ago. The thing is that wineries will tell you that they planted a particular grape because they did climatological surveys and soil studies and then decided that the best grape to plant here is Cabernet Sauvignon. What they really mean is that they took a look at last year’s weighted prices, and my god, Cabernet was the most expensive grape. And then they decide that this is the perfect place to plant Cabernet Sauvignon. Think of all the people who planted Merlot. Why in hell did they plant it all over California? When Merlot grows in the right area, it’s an absolutely beautiful wine, but it grows well in so few places.
Do you taste much wine made outside of Napa?
Yeah, I do taste a lot. Sure. It’s one of the nice things about having a winery. Every bottle of wine that I buy, I buy it not because I want to drink it but just for purely intellectual reasons. I was tempted to start a factory that made canned string beans, and I said, “No, hold yourself back and go for the wine option.”
Have you ever tasted a Cabernet from elsewhere that you could have mistaken for one made in Napa?
Oh certainly. I’ve had quite a few Sonoma Cabernets that I thought could have been Napa Cabernets. When I got into the business, people used to say, “Look, there’s a difference between California wine and French wine, and you can taste it.” Yeah, red Bordeaux was different from Napa Cabernet because we had red Bordeaux and then Beaulieu Vineyard here in Napa, and those were different. And then it was the case when people used to say, “Napa County wines taste different than Sonoma County wines.” And you might have agreed. There was a time when Sonoma wines were Sebastiani style. Take Zin, put it in a redwood tank for five years, wait till it turns brown, and then call it a reserve wine. And that was the difference. But then Sonoma wines got better, and I think that due to the machinations of Bob Mondavi, California wines got better. So I think people quit saying they could tell Napa wines from Sonoma. I can tell California from Bordeaux. But the sharp edges got sort of blurred somewhere around the 1970s, and people quit talking like that. I’m not so sure you’d bet money on being able to tell the differences. I’ve often told people that if you’re walking down the sidewalk, you can always tell when people are from Napa Valley because, if you look at the back left shoulder of their jackets, it’s worn thin from constantly patting themselves on the back. It wears out their clothes, but they can’t see it.
California Wines of the Month
Tulocay Winery – 2009 Chardonnay Haynes Vineyard, Coombsville
Winemaker Bill Cadman’s Notes
Our 2009 Haynes Vineyard Chardonnay shows aromas of lemon pepper, waxy honeycomb, and pineapple custard with a round, silky dry yet fruity medium body, and a zesty, tart apple, spiced almond, and earth-accented finish. The wine is serene and balanced. The grapes for this 2009 Chardonnay were harvested from the Haynes Vineyard in the Coombsville AVA of Napa about two miles down from Tulocay Winery on Coombsville Road. This 40-acre vineyard was originally planted in 1968 by Irene Haynes, half to Pinot Noir and half to Chardonnay, later followed by Syrah. I have been buying grapes there since 1975 (alcohol 14.0%).
Anna Maria’s Notes
This is a nicely balanced Chardonnay without distortions, not too much fruitiness and not too much oakiness. Instead the wine has typical Chardonnay flavor, is classically balanced, and will complement an entire meal from appetizers to main courses of white meats and fish. Serve chilled.
Tulocay Winery – 2002 Merlot, Sierra Oaks Vineyard, El Dorado County
Winemaker Bill Cadman’s Notes
The Tulocay 2002 Merlot has a brilliant ruby red hue and aromas of tobacco, cherry, sage, and oak. Medium-full with very good concentration, this wine is an impressive, serious Merlot that has the structure to age for several years. The oak is nicely integrated, and the tannins firm. The fruit for the 2002 Merlot was harvested from the Sierra Oaks Vineyard in El Dorado County. Owner Jim Brown planted the vineyard 18 years ago after retiring from the telephone company as an engineer and planted Merlot on the advice of the county farm advisor who evaluated the land. The vineyard has been successfully producing extraordinary Merlot fruit since then (alcohol 14.4%).
Anna Maria’s Notes
The 2002 Tulocay Merlot is a serious wine steeped in the flavor of the grape and balanced with fine tannins and acid. If your Valentine’s Day celebration includes braised or roasted meats, this is your wine to warm the occasion. Serve at cool room temperature.
Tulocay Winery – 2007 Syrah, Haynes Vineyard, Coombsville
Winemaker Bill Cadman’s Notes
Inky amethyst in color, the 2007 Syrah has rich aromas of chocolate covered espresso bean, orange marmalade, berry pie, and bacon bits, which follow through on a satiny entry to a fruity yet dry medium-full body with layers of dried berries, citrus, and nuts. The wine finishes with a spicy, mocha, roasted nut, and grenadine fade. The grapes for this rich and appetizing wine were harvested from the Haynes Vineyard in the Coombsville AVA of Napa about two miles down from Tulocay Winery on Coombsville Road. This 40-acre vineyard was originally planted in 1968 by Irene Haynes, half to Pinot Noir and half to Chardonnay, later followed by Syrah (alcohol 15.0%).
Anna Maria’s Notes
The best Syrah has a spicy character that you will recognize in this Tulocay wine, made from grapes that were grown in nearby Haynes Vineyard, where Bill Cadman has been buying grapes for decades. At 15% alcohol, it’s a big wine, but at the same time it’s nicely balanced with fruit flavor, soft tannins, and acid. Serve with winter stews, lentils with fresh sausage, and cannellini beans with oregano and garlic.
Tulocay Winery – 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, Rancho Sarco, Coombsville
Winemaker Bill Cadman’s Notes
With deep garnet and violet color, this 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon shows bright aromas of toffee, coffee, blackberry pie crust, and peppery spice, followed on a supple entry to a dryish medium-to-full body with roasted tomato, cranberry, and slate notes. After six years of aging, the wine finishes in a mossy stone and black pepper accented fade and firm powdery tannins. The Rancho Sarco Vineyard is located on the south side of Monticello Road which forms the northern boundary of our new Coombsville AVA. Well known in the Valley, Will Nord, one of the owners at Rancho Sarco, operates a vineyard management company and farms about 700 acres in Napa County. I’ve been buying fruit from this vineyard since 2002 (alcohol 15.1%).
Anna Maria’s Notes
Winter is Cabernet season, and the 2006 Tulocay promises to warm you to the core. After six years in bottle, the wine is seamlessly integrated with ripe Napa fruit, soft tannins, and a hint of oak. Serve with lamb chops braised with garlic and rosemary, chateaubriand with mushrooms, or Florentine beef stew.
Menu of the Month
Savoy cabbage soup
Pork loin, roasted with quartered Granny Smith apples
Baby arugula with pears, dressed with olive oil and seasoned rice vinegar
Recipe of the Month
Savoy Cabbage Soup
Just as salad is the mainstay of summer meals, soup furnishes the winter table with its most comforting dish. Even more so than salads, the range of soups is vast, limited only by the cook’s imagination. Savoy cabbage soup is a favorite of mine, because it is delicious but also because its ingredients are winter staples always stored in the refrigerator during cold months. Without advance planning, it can become either the meal or part of the meal. I serve this soup with a dollop of yogurt and a sprinkle of freshly ground pepper, which melts into the soup and adds a pleasant creamy tang.
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
2 potatoes, cubed
4 cups Savoy cabbage, cut into strips
Handful coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
4 tablespoons olive oil
8 tablespoons yogurt
Freshly ground black pepper
Salt to taste
Add oil to the pot together with onion, carrot, and celery, cooking over low heat until the vegetables soften. Add potatoes and cabbage, about 6 cups of water, and salt to taste. Simmer for about 30 minutes until vegetables are soft. Add parsley and bring soup back to a simmer, cooking for several minutes until parsley is softened but still vibrantly green. This is a dense soup, so add more water if you prefer more broth. To serve, ladle into four soup bowls; add two tablespoons of yogurt at center of each bowl; and grind pepper over the yogurt.