When they came to Napa, Jim and Ann Knighton were looking for a nice manageable retirement home; specifically something in St. Helena, maybe a pool, a turn-key house, and absolutely no vineyards. But like so many before them who have been lured by the siren’s song of the valley, what they ended up with couldn’t have been more different — they bought 50 acres of mountainside land with an old, abandoned vineyard, no pool, and no house. I suppose the scenic and historic charm of the place simply won out. The property sits just next to Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, bordered on the east by the Old Lawley Toll Road, and on the west by Jericho Creek. The old garage that was renovated to become their modest home was the original toll house where Stevenson spent part of his honeymoon, as told in the novel “The Silverado Squatters.”
The Knightons ended up planting two blocks of vines on slopes that rang from 1,000-1,600 feet in altitude at up to a 30% grade. “Whenever you are up here, it’s a hike,” winemaker Keith Emerson told me. In fact, parts of the land would have been too steep to develop under the current regulations, but because the land had already been planted back in the 1970s, the project was approved as a replant and they were able to proceed.
The vineyard is mostly Cabernet Sauvignon (with I think a few tiny parcels of Merlot) on steep, rocky, volcanic soils. While the base has obsidian and other hard volcanic rock, there is a thin layer of small, rocky topsoil which is the result of the Dwyer Slide, a giant landslide that happened 10,000 years ago. The topsoil provides some degree of water retention in what otherwise would be pure rock. The vineyard is not considered part of the Calistoga AVA, which extends up to about 900 feet — anything above that is classified as too high and unplantable in the AVA survey. High-quality mountain vineyards up to 1,600 feet are designated Napa Valley.
Despite their initial reluctance to get into the wine business, the Knightons have done everything right so far. They hired Piña Vineyard Management, one of the top viticultural companies in the valley, to plant the vines, and were quickly approached by David Ramey, Diamond Creek, and Chuck McMinn of Vineyard 29 with offers to buy their first crop. They chose to sell to 29 which planned to use the fruit in their Cru program, in which grapes from various top-quality vineyards in Napa are bought and used in the winery’s more affordable, approachable, non-estate blend. As part of the program, Vineyard 29 makes two barrels of wine for the grower — the first vintage was 2007, and the wine turned out pretty well. The Knightons sold about 48 cases to friends and family and from there there was no turning back.
After the bumper crop of 2012, the Knightons added a second label called Ava Grace (after their granddaughter). The grapes that year had excellent flavor and ripeness but not the structure and depth they wanted for the Reserve, so Jim and Ann decided to bottle it separately. Today Knighton produces about 200 cases annually: 50-75 of the Reserve and about 150 of the Ava Grace, which is slightly more forward and approachable in style.
“Without the resources Vineyard 29 brings to the table, I doubt this whole thing would make any sense,” Jim Knighton explained. Fortunately, that relationship is solidified and going nowhere. With the vines gaining in maturity, and with Keith Emerson of 29 as winemaker, the Knightons are well poised for the future.