Tony Soter, who now makes excellent Pinot Noir in Oregon under his Soter Vineyards label, laid the groundwork at Etude before selling it to the Beringer-Blass conglomerate. Current winemaker, Jon Priest, continues to make velvety, suave, immediately enjoyable Pinots that are characterized by red fruits, spices, forest floor scents and particularly fine-grained tannins. Grapes are harvested from the Etude Estate Vineyard in Carneros, a patch of rocky, well-drained soil of volcanic origin, unusual for the region. Pinot Noir for the Heirloom release comes from specially planted old Burgundy clones and is a step up in intensity and density from the regular bottling without the loss of elegance. For years, Etude has been one of America's favorite Pinot Noirs on restaurant wine lists but don't sleep on the Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Merlot, which are catching up.
Napa Valley is the most famous wine-growing area in the U.S. It begins at the base of Mount St. Helena in the north and tapers off some 30 miles to the south into the floodplain where the Napa River enters San Francisco Bay. From Mount St. Helena to the city of Napa, the valley is defined by two north-south ridgelines of the Coast Range Mountains.
The bulk of grape growing for Napa wines takes place on the valley floor and on the gentle slopes adjoining the floor, the best-known example probably being the Oakville Grade. The floor ranges from less than a mile in width in the north to about 3 to 4 miles across in the south. The hills to the west of the valley floor are part of the Mayacamas Range; they contain key appellations such as Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain, and Diamond Mountain District. With the exception of Howell Mountain, the hills on the eastern side of the valley are not nearly as important or as well known.
From its earliest days, Napa Valley has been the home of some of California's most famous wine estates. Today, the valley boasts upward of 36,000 acres planted to Napa wine grapes and some 250 wineries, most of which offer high-caliber, often expensive Napa Valley wines. With some notable exceptions, the best California Chardonnays, Cabernets, and Merlots come from Napa; these varieties make up two-thirds of the vines in the region.
Because of its huge size, Napa Valley is home to varied microclimates that support many different kinds of wine grapes. For example, the cool Carneros region by San Francisco Bay yields good Chardonnay and Pinot Noir; and at the other end of the valley, the warmer Calistoga area can produce perfectly ripe Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and monster Cabernets, but it usually overcooks Pinot Noir and other heat-sensitive varieties. On wine labels, the term ""Napa Valley"" has included all but the most outlying and inhospitable lands of Napa County.
It is remarkable that an industry essentially less than a half-century old could capture the attention of the American wine-buying public to the degree that California has. Powerful consumer interest in California wine is driven by two major factors. The more obvious reason is that California's best wines, which come from grapes grown in a benign climate featuring endless sunshine, very warm summer days, and generally dry harvests, and wonderfully fruity, full, and satisfying, and rarely too austere or tannic to be enjoyed from day one.
California is blessed with an extraordinary range of soils and microclimates, allowing for the successful cultivation of many varieties. In at least three out of four years, the best sites produce healthy, ripe fruits that are the envy of European producers in more marginal climates. The other reason Americans buy so much California wine is that California is the home team. Clearly, a high percentage of domestic wine drinkers are more comfortable buying American wines (and not just wines of California) than imports. Then, too, foreign bottles are generally identified by place name, rather than by the more familiar varieties that American wine drinkers have come to know and enjoy.
Moreover, in much of North America, outside the top 15 or 20 largest metropolitan markets, consumers have limited access to imported wines even if they wanted to buy them.
For many, Napa Valley is California wine, and Cabernet is king in Napa Valley. Meanwhile, the Burgundy varieties Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have gravitated to cooler areas, generally closer to the Pacific, such as the western stretches of Sonoma County, the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, and the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez valleys within Santa Barbara County. Syrah vines have yielded interesting wines in a range of styles all over the state, in regions as disparate as Mendocino County, the Sonoma coast, Carneros, Paso Robles, and Santa Maria Valley. Very good Zinfandel similarly comes from multiple growing areas, although to date the age-of-vines variable has been almost as important as geography. Zinfandel, though its roots are in Europe, is a true California original and the only California wine imitated abroad. It's also a variety of which there are still significant plantings of very old vines, in some cases dating back to the end of the 19th century.
Medium to full-bodied wines with flavors of black cherry, plum, and tobacco
Roasts, hamburgers, other grilled meats
Merlot enjoyed a surge in popularity in the 1990s as consumers suddenly discovered that they could enjoy aromas and flavors similar to those of Cabernet in a fleshier, softer wine with smoother tannins. A wave of Merlot plantings followed, frequently in soils and microclimates completely inappropriate for this variety, and the market was soon flooded with dilute bottles from young vines and high crop levels, and weedy, herbaceous examples from underripe fruit. Many of these undernourished wines were overoaked in attempts to mask their deficiencies. Over the same period, a number of Cabernet producers began picking riper fruit and doing a better job managing their tannings during the making and aging of their wines. The result was an upswing of powerful, satisfying Cabernets that were far less austere in their youth -- and a sharp decline in interest in Merlot.
Still, California's best Merlots, some of which predated the vogue for this variety in the 1990s, continue to be some of the finest examples of this variety outside Bordeaux -- in the same quality league with wines from Washington State and Italy's Tuscan coast region. Expect to find broad, supple wines with medium to full body, typically with aromas and flavors of black cherry, plum, dark berries, dark chocolate, tobacco, and earth, and suave, fine-grained tannins. Merlot also rules in Pomerol, and nowhere in the world does this variety make more complete wines than on the flat, clay-rich plateau that lies at the heart of this appellation.