Spanning just 30 miles (48km), Napa Valley is concise in its geography and global messaging: opulent Cabernet Sauvignon made from vines that grow among out-of-this-world views. The wines and travel experience both come at an expense humbly described as ‘treat yourself’.
It’s a bucket list destination for many wine lovers. Visitors bask in the California sun while swirling the day away at world-renowned winery after world-renowned winery. (Pro tip: three tastings in a day is realistic. Regret will ensue if you attempt more).
Though small in area, the valley is diverse in its offerings, introducing 16 sub-appellations since 1983. Each AVA has unique characteristics that influence the style and flavor of its wines. For example, the Diamond Mountain District is known for producing bold, tannic Cabernet Sauvignon wines. In contrast, the Los Carneros region has a cool climate with magnificent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines.
Each of the Napa Valley AVAs is important, allowing winemakers to differentiate their wines based on the specific terroir in which the grapes grow. This helps consumers to identify and appreciate the unique characteristics of each wine. It also helps to maintain the region’s reputation for producing high-quality, distinctive wines.
The strict regulations surrounding AVA designations also ensure that the wines meet specific standards of quality and authenticity.
Napa Valley AVAs
From north to south, here’s a look at the characteristics of all 16 Napa Valley AVAs, including two that overlap into Sonoma and Solano Counties.
The Calistoga AVA sits in Napa’s northeast corner and is perhaps most famous for being home to wineries such as Chateau Montelena, which won top Chardonnay (1973 vintage) in the historic Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976. It was Montelena winemaker Bo Barret who took the lead in petitioning for the area to have separate AVA status in 2003, taking several years to receive final approval in 2009.
Elevations here are among some of the lowest in the valley, ranging from 300 to 1200 feet (92 to 370 m). The area spans approximately 7 square miles (18 km2) of predominantly volcanic soils with mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Syrah, and Petit Sirah plantings.
Howell Mountain AVA
Howell Mountain was Napa Valley’s first sub-appellation, receiving its official designation in 1983. In stark contrast to neighboring Calistoga AVA, Howell Mountain has some of the highest elevations of the entire valley, reaching up to 2,600 feet (792 m) on the valley’s eastern side. Vineyards sit above the fog line at this height, experiencing slightly warmer nighttime temperatures and cooler mid-day temperatures than the valley floor.
Chiles Valley AVA
Spanning 6,000 acres, the Chiles Valley AVA is home to about 1,000 acres worth of vines, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Zinfandel. Some white plantings include Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
It sits within the Vaca Mountains, on the northeast side of the Napa Valley, and has the closest proximity of all Napa Valley AVAs to the county’s largest lake, Lake Barryessa.
The petition to make Chiles Valley AVA official came from Volker Eisele, owner of the Volker Eisele Vineyard and Winery. Eisele was one of the first vineyards in Napa Valley to go fully organic, beginning in 1974.
Diamond Mountain District AVA
With Calistoga to its north and Spring Mountain District to its south, much of Diamond Mountain — including its peak — is actually within the borders of Sonoma County. However, its prestigious winegrowing reputation is more often associated with the Napa side, giving the basis for naming the appellation Diamond Mountain District instead of just Diamond Mountain.
Diamond Mountain District soil is volcanic, similar to its AVA neighbours. However, it includes small reflective bits of volcanic glass, inspiring the name. The soil is also very porous, allowing it to cool quickly at night.
The area’s winegrowing history is attributed to Jacob Schram, the first to purchase a parcel of land in 1862 and then plant vines in 1868. By 1892, his holdings included underground cellars for aging and storing wine. Today, the property is known as Schramsberg Vineyards and produces world-renowned traditional method sparkling wine.
Spring Mountain District AVA
The Spring Mountain District AVA climate is cooler and wetter than most others in Napa Valley. It’s only 30 miles (48km) east of the Pacific Ocean and 25 miles (40km) north of San Pablo Bay, sitting on the eastern slopes of the Mayacamas Range (600 to 2600 feet or 183 to 792 m), overlooking St. Helena.
Spring Mountain’s ragged terrain means that the vineyards are small, spread out and surrounded by forest. Combined with the appellation’s elevation, Spring Mountain Cabernets tend to be quite tannic, lending to elegant ageworthy expressions.
Early winemaking pioneers include the Beringer Brothers in the 1880s. A combination of historic names, including the first documented grape grower in the region, Charles Lemme, and Tiburcio Parrot, who established Miravalle vineyard, comprise the storied past of Spring Mountain Vineyards and is a showcase in the upcoming film, Ghosts of Spring Mountain.
St. Helena AVA
The St. Helena appellation sits in the flat section of the valley’s northern end, nestled between the Vaca and Mayacamas Mountains. With low elevations, none exceeding 475 feet (145 m), it receives consistently warm temperatures that reflect off the hillsides.
St. Helena AVA comprises over 400 vineyards planted with over 6,800 acres of grapevines. It’s considered the birthplace of Napa Valley’s commercial success, where winemaking pioneer, Charles Krug, founded his winery in 1861. Today, it’s the oldest wine estate in all of Napa.
Other prominent appellation members include Corison Winery, Hall Wines, and Spottswood.
In the center of Napa Valley is the Rutherford AVA, spanning 6,650 acres and home to only a couple dozen wineries. However, it’s where some of the most historic, world-renowned producers, including Inglenook, Beaulieu, and Frog’s Leap, call home.
Rutherford produces some of Napa’s richest and most opulent Cabernet wines. The area’s distinct gravel and sandy soils impart round, soft, dust-like tannins, which have become a signature characteristic known as “Rutherford Dust.”
Spanning a two-mile width in central Napa Valley, the Oakville AVA is home to more than 70 growers and wineries. Elevations reach 1,000 feet up the base of the Vaca Mountains to the east and 500 feet up the Mayacamas Mountains to the west.
Temperatures are consistently warm but receive cooling influences from the Bay’s early morning fog and breezes, which helps keeps acidity levels high. Hillsides on the west side of the AVA are sheltered from the afternoon sun, while vineyards on the east side bask in a lengthier amount of daytime sunlight.
About 60 producers and growers make up the Oakville Winegrowers membership. Prominent pioneers include Robert Mondavi and Joseph Heitz, while powerhouses like Opus One continue to draw tourists seeking the luxury wine experience. Additionally, cult-Cabernet-classics, like Screaming Eagle, maintain Napa’s reputation on the global stage, demanding premium prices for small quantities.
Mount Veeder AVA
With elevations reaching 2,600 feet (792 m), Mount Veeder is home to about 1,000 planted acres that sit above the fog line. This typically means grapes experience a longer growing season (with less diurnal range) as the days are cooler and nights are warmer than on the valley floor. As a result, grape yields are low, but the resulting wines have immense ageability.
The majority of plantings, about 64%, are Cabernet Sauvignon. Because of the terrain’s cragginess, plantings are limited. The AVA produces about 40,000 cases per vintage, accounting for only 1.3% of Napa Valley’s annual production.
Prominent producers include Pilcrow, Mayacamus, Lagier Meredith, and Hess.
The area is named after the American pioneer, trapper, and frontiersman George C. Yount. After settling in the area in 1836, he was the first to plant grapevines in the 1840s, influencing how the region would develop, so much so that the town — originally named Sebastopol — was renamed in Yount’s honor following his death in 1867.
Yountville’s 3,800 acres of vines receive some cool marine influence from San Pablo Bay, lessening intense summer heat that affects areas further up the valley, contributing to a long growing season.
Stags Leap District AVA
Stags Leap District is roughly 6 miles (9km) north of the city of Napa in the eastern portion of the Napa Valley along the Silverado Trail. Half the appellation’s 2,700 acres are planted with vines, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, as exemplified by legendary wineries like Clos du Val and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, the latter of which won first place for its 1973 rendition in the 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting, beating out classified Bordeaux estates.
The palisades’ rock facades reflect the sun’s heat onto the vineyards below, causing temperatures to rise more quickly than neighboring AVAs. However, afternoon marine winds funnel from San Pablo Bay and help cool the air, allowing for a good diurnal range at night, helping balance the grapes sugar and acidity levels.
Atlas Peak AVA
There are 28 members in the Atlas Peak appellation, accounting for 1,500 vineyard acres. The first 100 vines were planted in 1870 by James Reed Harris. The area’s popularity grew throughout the 1880s and 1890s, with some vineyards even surviving the Phylloxera epidemic. However, viticulture came to a halt during Prohibition, and no new vines were planted until the 1940s.
The AVA’s peak elevation is 2,663 feet, making it the most prominent peak in the area. It’s on the western slopes of the Vaca Range, separating Napa Valley and the Sacramento Valley. Most vineyards sit above 1,600 feet, increasing grape’s UV exposure. The soils are mostly volcanic, rust red in color, bringing distinct minerality to the wines.
The high elevation means vineyards are cool; however, rainfall is minimal. Combined with well-draining soils, these conditions mean irrigation is often necessary.
Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley AVA
The Oak Knoll District AVA is located at the southern end of the valley floor, just north of the City of Napa and south of Yountville. It spans 8,300 acres, roughly half of which have grape vine plantings.
Aside from Los Carneros AVA, Oak Knoll District is the coolest and most moderate than any other region in Napa Valley due to its proximity to San Pablo Bay. It’s also one of the lowest in elevation, with its highest point at around 800 feet. The valley’s largest alluvial fan formed by Dry Creek creates the defining feature of the district.
Wineries in the area, including Fortunati, Black Stallion, and Matthiasson, still focus predominantly on Cabernet Sauvignon. However, thanks to the climate, Chardonnay and Merlot are more equal players. Vineyards planted to Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir — somewhat less common in warmer Napa Valley AVAs — are more standard in Oak Knoll.
Los Carneros AVA
Los Carneros AVA spans parts of Sonoma and Napa counties. According to the Carneros Wine Alliance, the AVA grows just over 10-thousand acres of vines: 6,813 in Sonoma and 3,416 in Napa. Soils are mostly clay and very shallow, with more loam and hillside alluvials in the northern section. The hard claypan prevents deep-rooting, limiting yields.
It’s a cooler climate, with marine winds from San Pablo Bay and via the Petaluma Gap to the west. It’s an ideal spot for cultivating varieties like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – much of which goes into sparkling wine production.
Like other Napa Valley AVAs, winemaking history began in the mid-1800s but was nonexistent through Prohibition. The area’s resurgence began in 1942 when Louis M. Martini purchased the Stanley Ranch property, recognizing the area’s potential for sparkling wine.
Directly east of the City of Napa, in the valley’s southeastern corner, Coombsville became the 16th Napa Valley AVA just over a decade ago. Most of the area’s vineyards are west-facing, tucked into the foothills of the Vaca Mountain Range, leading up the slopes of Mt. George. The soils are primarily weathered volcanic rock and alluvial deposits from the surrounding Vaca Range.
Fog typically burns off in the late morning. The breezes off San Pablo Bay keep the area significantly cooler than other AVAs, sometimes as much as 10 degrees during summer.
Wild Horse Valley AVA
The Wild Horse Valley AVA shares many of the same characteristics as Los Carneros, including its proximity to San Pablo Bay. However, it lies on the east side of the valley, with elevations rising to 2,130 feet (649 m) up the Vaca Range.
It’s the smallest AVA, straddling Solano County, with just under 100 acres planted to vine, mostly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Because there are so few wineries in the area, yet the fruit is so highly prized, it’s often an integral blending component in other Napa Valley wines.