Mt. Veeder Appellation
Officially recognized in 1990 and rising at the southwestern quadrant of the Napa Valley, the 25-square-mile Mt. Veeder appellation (MV) takes up a huge swath of the eastern Mayacamas - about half the size of the city of San Francisco - extending from the southern foothills of the mountain range that melt into the Carneros AVA at the 400-foot contour line to two miles or so north of the Oakville Grade, rising to about 2,600 feet above sea level. Its western boundary is the Napa-Sonoma county line.
Out of a total of 15,000 AVA acres, according to published statistics, only about seven percent (or a few more than 1,000 acres) are planted to grapevines, which accounts for a bit less than three percent of total Napa Valley AVA planted acreage. The remainder of the steep, rugged region is still relatively wild, heavily wooded with fir, madrone, laurel and redwoods, and inhabited by bears, bobcats, red foxes, coyotes and the occasional mountain lion; eagles and turkey vultures soar overhead.
"There wasn't even electricity on Mt. Veeder until 1945," notes Randle Johnson, who's been part of the MV winemaking-vineyard management cadre (Mayacamas Vineyards, Hess Collection and his own brand, Calafia) for three decades and knows every nook and cranny of the mountain, as one discovers while touring with him in a 4-wheel-drive vehicle.
The 2,677-foot volcanic peak that dominates the southern Mayacamas has long been so thick with redwoods that, from the 1880s through World War II, the region was known as "Napa Redwoods," a term that appeared on some early wine labels as an appellation of sorts. After the war, that regional moniker gradually gave way to the geographical prominence of Mt. Veeder, named after Reverend P.V. Veeder, a Presbyterian minister in Napa during the latter half of the 19th century. He loved to hike in this wild setting, often bringing members of his congregation along for the experience.
While still largely unspoiled, MV currently has about 17 wineries and 24 growers (no one seems to have an exact count, and the numbers are subject to change). An operation called a winery may not, in fact, produce its wine on MV; actual production facilities are far fewer in number.
Cabernet Sauvignon, as a single varietal and blended with other Bordeaux varieties (merlot, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot), has been king of this mountain throughout the AVA's modern history, albeit usually in limited quantities. Its Cabs are intensely flavored because the climatic and soil conditions in steeply sloped vineyards produce abnormally small berries. Most MV Cabs exhibit a distinctive brambly quality and firm, fine-grained tannins.
Additionally, there have always been some notable MV Zinfandels as well as MV-grown Rhône varietals, particularly Syrah, which has lately been gaining considerable acclaim for the same kind of intensity displayed by the Cabs. Chardonnays here tend to start out lean and somewhat austere with a tight, flinty edge, fleshing out somewhat with time in the cellar.
"The vineyards' high altitudes keep fog from reaching the grapes most days, unlike vineyards on the Napa Valley floor, and daytime mountain air temperatures are usually 10 to 12 degrees cooler than the valley, which prevents the grapes from baking in the constant sun," Johnson explains, pointing out that MV is closer to bay-cooled Carneros than other Napa AVAs.
Idyllic climatic conditions such as these were not lost on Napa's early white settlers - most of German and Swiss extraction - who established winemaking on Mt. Veeder in the 1860s. They chose the mountain's steep, thin-soiled slopes for vineyard sites over the flat, rich loam found on the Napa Valley floor. Then, as now, there are a variety of soil types from which to choose. In the higher elevations - above 1,000 feet - there's plenty of volcanic debris and weathered tuff, which is compressed volcanic ash deposited millions of years ago from the eruption of the now-dormant Mt. Veeder volcano (there's considerable evidence that most of the AVA was formed by tectonic uplifting). Lower down the mountain, the soil profile is mostly sedimentary sandstone and shale.
Well-draining soils such as these don't retain much moisture, which is both a blessing (for growing great grapes) and a curse (limiting vineyard planting). And even though MV gets twice as much rainfall as the valley floor - more than 30 inches per year - it drains off quickly. So in order to establish a viable vineyard, the first challenge is to find water and drill a productive well.
Napa vintner Robert Craig is very well acquainted with the demands of mountain viticulture. In the 1980s, Craig directed vineyard development on MV for Hess Collection. He has since established the Robert Craig Winery on Howell Mountain and has made a Cabernet Sauvignon from Pym Rae fruit (labeled simply as "Mt. Veeder") in every vintage since 1993.
"Pym Rae is the quintessential Mt. Veeder terrain - labor intensive and viticulturally challenging," Craig observes. "The vineyard's topography of steep slopes and ridgelines at 1,800 feet, which can change in elevation by as much as 500 feet, creates many different vineyard microclimates with varying exposures to sun, wind and fog."
Such diversity affects harvest. "Each vineyard block is managed separately and harvested separately in several passes through the vineyard over several weeks," Craig explains. Yields range between one to three tons per acre (modest compared to five to seven tons on the valley floor). "These tiny berries in small bunches have concentrated juice and a high ratio of seeds to skin," he continues, "creating intensely flavored wines with excellent tannin structure."