A Gutsy Move in Napa Valley

Many years ago I fired off a letter the editor of the Wine Spectator. The letter was aimed at Spectator columnist Matt Kramer. It was a not so subtle attack on what I recall was his contention that one day, when California vintners got it right, only one or two varietals would be planted in the States’ appellations (Cab in Napa, Pinot and Chard in Russian River, Zin and Sauvignon Blanc in Dry Creek, etc.). I called Mr. Kramer a "Terroirista".

It struck me that what would essentially be a move toward the French AOC model of wine regions being devoted nearly entirely to one or two varietals was in fact anti-American. I was arguinig that the Zinfandel, planted next to Cabernet, planted next to Chardonnay, planted next to Pinot Noir was a reflection of America’s inbred inclination toward diversity and it would be a terrible thing to lose this in favor of a regional monoculture.

Since then I’ve become a bit more sophisticated in my thinking on terroir, in large part, ironically, due to reading Matt Kramer’s fantastic "Making Sense of" series of books as well as following his writing in the Wine Spectator.

But yesterday I was provoked by an email from Ballentine Vineyards into reconsidering the notion of multiculture viticultural. What brought me back was the idea of Napa Valley Chenin Blanc.

The question that I kept coming back to was, "Are we losing something very valuable as Napa Valley continues its march toward becoming a Cabernet-only appellation, as grapes such as Gamay, Petit Sirah, French Colombard and Chenen Blanc get replaced in Napa by Cabernet?

Consider the numbers.

(Statistics from the California Agriculture Statistics Service)

Between 1982 and 2003, the number of acres of Chenin Blanc in Napa Valley have dropped by 95%. It is on the verge of extinction in Napa Valley. During this same period the acres of Cabernet planted in Napa Valley has increased nearly 300%.

It needs to be pointed out that the fall in Chenin Blanc is not a result of the grape not making good wine. The grape delivers naturally high acidity and a set of delicate fruit flavors. Grown with care in Napa Valley it could, has, and does produced lovely wine.

Economics is the reason Chenin Blanc may become extinct in Napa Valley. Each year the North Coast Grapegrowers releases suggested pricing for different varietals grown in different areas of California.In 2003 it recommend a ton of Napa Valley Cabernet be priced at $3,900. It recommend a ton of Napa Valley Chenin Blanc be priced at $800. If you were a grower with 20 acres in Napa Valley what would you plant. Let me do the math for you. Assuming you produced 3 tons per acred of Cabernet on your 20 acres your gross would be $234,000. Three tons per acre of Chenin Blanc would result in $48,000.

Over at the Winespectator.com I found a total of 2 reviews of Napa Valley Chenin Blanc published from the 2000 vintage forward. And its not like the Spectator doesn’t like Napa Chenin. In fact, I’d bet they’d jump at the chance to review it. They just don’t have the chance to review it.

I was prompted to look into the status of Napa Valley Chenin Blanc upon learning via email that Ballentine Vineyards in Napa is now producing 1000 cases of the wine. How rare is this? There may be only 2 or 3 other wineries that now produce a Napa Valley Chenin: Chappellet, Casa Nuestra and Ballantine. (please, someone correct me if they know of others)

The Ballentine Vineyards 2004 Pocai Vineyard Estate Napa Valley Chenin Blanc is made from old vines on their estate which sits next to the famed "Three Palms Vinyard". The vines range in age from 60 to 30 years. The vineyard is roughly 8 acres and yields two tons per acre. The price is a mere $14 for this rare piece of Napa Valley history. For thirty years these grapes were sold to Beringer Vineyards. It shoudn’t be surprising that these vines are so old. Very little Chenin has been planted in Napa recently.

Ballentine describes their Chenin this way:

"Our Chenin Blanc has a golden hue and aromas of citrus blossoms, honeysuckle, green and red apple, grapefruit, and vanilla. This Chenin is crisp and clean with minor notes of vanilla, smoke and toast. The stucture of the palate is full and silky with a crisp finish. The wine has a citrus and zesty character on the palate with notes of melon, apple, and floral blossoms. There is a full nature in the mouthfeel with an extremely slight barrel toast on the finish."

You have to admire the Ballentines for taking up the production of Chenin rather than ripping out these vines and planting Cab. It’s gutsy. But then again this is a family that has been in Napa for over a century. They likely know what works. I think it takes this kind of perspective to go out on the limb they are with their Chenin.

And it’s good for Napa Valley too. While no one would question that Napa Valley’s present and future is built on Cabernet, this wine reminds us that Napa can do wonderful things with something other than Cab.

Posted In: Wine Business


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