Will Coombsville Get an AVA?

TTB opens proposal for Napa Valley sub-appellation for public comment

by Paul Franson
The proposed Coombsville AVA is east of Napa. Aerial photography © 2003, AirphotoUSA LLC, The Winemaker's Dance by Jonathan Swinchatt and David G. Howell
Napa, Calif.—The Coombsville area east of Napa may finally become an official American Viticultural Area. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) has published the petition to form a new American Viticultural Area east of Napa in the Coombsville area and opened it for public comments, a year and a half after it was submitted by local vintners.

The proposed Coombsville AVA includes 11,000 acres stretching from the Napa River to the eastern rim of the Napa Valley in the Vaca Range.

The west-facing, horseshoe-shaped southern tip of the Vaca Range is a natural boundary that partially encircles the Coombsville area, helping define the north, east and southern boundaries of the proposed viticultural area, which would become a sub-appellation of the larger Napa Valley AVA and the multi-county North Coast AVA. It adjoins the Carneros, Oak Knoll and Wild Horse Valley AVAs, plus the city of Napa, although it includes part of the city including the Alta Heights hills.

The TTB has basically recommended the action, but it will accept and publish public comments submitted by July 25. It promises speedy action if there are no negative comments. To read the petition and comments, visit this link.

Adoption of the new “sub AVA” would seem straightforward. The area is clearly geographically distinct, differs from nearby AVAs in soil and climate and proposes a name long identified with the area.

An earlier and similar proposal suggesting the use of “Tulocay” as a name was rejected by the TTB because that name isn’t generally used for the area, and because a winery already used that name. The bureau invited a new proposal under a different name.

Tom Farella, who wrote and submitted the proposal, says he knows of no opposition at this point; in fact, he says the author of the previous proposal has sent congratulations.

The proposed Coombsville AVA is 125 acres smaller than the Tulocay proposal; the TTB asked the petitioners to exclude a sliver in Solano County to keep it within Napa County.

Under rules reinforced last year, at least 85% of the grapes used in wines labeled with the AVA must come from the area. The four wineries that now mention Coombsville on their labels—5,600-case Bighorn Cellars, 12,000-case Laird Family Estate, 1,000-case Farella-Park Vineyards and 15,000-case Monticello Vineyards—have told the TTB that they’d have no problem abiding by that rule. This is in contrast to the situation that delayed for years the approval of the Calistoga sub-AVA, when two wineries using the town name didn’t use Calistoga grapes.

The name “Coombsville” first shows up on parcel maps from 1883 filed by Frank and Nathan F. Coombs, descendents of Nathan Coombs, the founder of the city of Napa.

The two main drainages, Sarco Creek and Tulucay Creek, flow into the Napa River, the lowest elevation of the proposed AVA. It reaches almost 1,900-feet at Mount George.

Vineyards in the area are mainly in the rolling benchlands that dominate the topography, which provide an array of viticultural microclimates and, therefore, many possibilities for varietal selection. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir thrive in the lower swales and small valleys, while Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet dominate the hillsides.

Grapegrowing and winemaking in the area go back to William Woodward, who, it’s believed, planted vineyards at his Coombsville site prior to 1870. The property was later sold to the Hagen brothers and renamed Cedar Knoll. Henry Hagen turned Cedar Knoll into a premier winery, and production was reported at 35,000 gallons in 1880. At the 1889 Paris Exposition, Cedar Knoll won a silver medal for one of its wines and for its brandy. Hagen Road was likely named after Henry Hagen. Palmaz Vineyards (5,700 cases) is now located at the site of the former Cedar Knoll Winery.

The climate of Coombsville is temperate, due to close proximity to the San Francisco Bay. The cooling effects of maritime fog are felt earlier and last longer than the up-valley sub-AVAs. Also, temperatures are moderated during the cold winter months and during frost season. As a consequence, bud break is often sooner and harvest slightly later, which leads to a longer overall growing season. Another factor is moderation during heat waves, which lessens sunburn and severe vine stress issues.

The geology and resultant soils are dominated by the volcanic rhyolitic tuff that comprises the Vaca Range on the eastern side of the Napa Valley. The weathered hillsides form wide alluvial deposits where most of the vineyards are located. These soils are abundant with rock and gravel and, in some areas, are also layered with volcanic ash deposits common in other parts of the Napa Valley. Together, the two main soil types present additional factors for an array of planting decisions specific to each site.

The area lies between the Carneros and Oak Knoll AVAs in average temperature and rainfall. The Coombsville region is warmer and wetter than Los Carneros viticultural area to the southwest, and cooler and drier than the Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley viticultural area to the northwest, according to Michael Wolf, owner of Michael Wolf Vineyard Services. It averages 19.14 inches of rain annually.

The Coombsville region is a low Winkler-region II (2,550 growing degree-day units), which is cooler by 61 to 683 degree units than the four surrounding areas from which the TTB obtained weather station data. The adjacent Oak Knoll District is warmer at 2,888 GDD units, a high Winkler region II. Los Carneros AVA is Winkler region I at 2,435 GDD units.

Last fall, the Coombsville Vintners and Growers Association, formed in anticipation of the AVA’s adoption, held a trade tasting at Napa Country Club in the area. Its members include Ackerman Family Vineyards (500 cases), Ancien Wines (3,500 cases), Bennett Vineyards, Black Cat Vineyard (900 cases), Christian Vineyards, Coutese Vineyard, Daviana (500 cases), Dickhaus Valley Vineyards, Farella-Park, Frazier Winery (2,500 cases), Inherit the Sheep (225 cases), Le Chanceux-Belle Filles Estate (200 cases), Marita’s Vineyard (200 cases), McCrorie Family Vineyard (2,000 case), Palmaz Vineyards, Porter Family Vineyards (2,500 cases), Sciandri Family Vineyards (500 cases), Simpkins Family Vineyard, Sodaro Estate Winery (1,200 cases), Thomas Michael (500 cases), Tournesol Wine (800 cases) and Tulocay Winery (1,000 cases).

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