What if you grew up in a town that everyone knew where it was, but you could not put the name of the town on your birth certificate, your driver's license or even on a postcard? You would probably be a little frustrated, just like the winemakers in Calistoga, California used to be.
While many California wine lovers know that the town of Calistoga is located at the northern most edge of Napa Valley, most probably did not realize that until recently, wines produced in or near Calistoga could not reference the area on the label. That's because Calistoga and the surrounding area was not recognized as a separate American Viticultural Area or AVA. The wines were traditionally labeled as "Napa Valley."
An AVA is a specific geographic region that is demarcated by unique characteristics such as soil type, climate, physical landmarks (rivers, lakes, valleys) and elevations that clearly distinguish it from other surrounding areas. There is no physical restriction on the size of an AVA. It can be large or small and can cross political and administrative borders, such as county and state lines. A bottle labeled with a specific AVA must contain wine that was produced in the AVA from grapes -- at least 85 percent -- that were grown in the AVA. "Produced" means that the grapes must be crushed, fermented and vinified into wine in the AVA.
Bo Barrett, head winemaker at Chateau Montelena, spearheaded the campaign for Calistoga's AVA recognition back in 2003. When the AVA was finally granted for use in 2010, Bo was quoted as saying, "The wines that have Calistoga on the label ... have integrity. It's a unique and special place and that's what Calistoga AVA means."
To me, it means beautiful wines that are produced from grapes grown in an area that has large swings in daytime and nighttime temperatures and rich volcanic soils. To wineries in Calistoga, it means a place that they can finally call home. Retail prices are approximate.
Consulting winemaker August "Joe" Briggs knew that he could capitalize on his experience and contacts in Napa to produce exceptional wines, so in 1995 he and his wife Sally founded August Briggs Winery in Calistoga. Today, winemaker Jesse Inman carries on the tradition of producing hand-crafted wines. The 2010 August Briggs Zinfandel ($33) is a charming wine with balance finesse. The fragrant nose of blueberry liqueur, blackberry and cherry is a tantalizing precursor to the full, ripe flavors of spicy cherry, raspberry and red plum. The wine is kept in balance by loads of soft tannins and noticeable acidity. Characteristic notes of black pepper and dried sage slide in on the lengthy finish. QPR 9
In 2002, Randy and Lisa Lynch where looking to crush some grapes that they were growing on their second-home property when they stumbled on a facility for sale. They ended up buying the winery and naming it Bennett Lane Winery. Today, the Lynch's own vineyards located throughout Napa Valley, but the 2008 Lynch Family Estate Cabernet ($95) is made exclusively from the best grapes grown on the 12-acre parcel surrounding their home in Calistoga. The wine possesses intoxicating aromas of dark red fruit, violets and cocoa. Richly textured flavors of blackberry, dark cherry and blueberry jam jump out on the front of the tongue while subtle notes of black plum and vanilla fill in on the supple, incredibly lengthy finish. QPR 9
Chateau Montelena is one of the most famous wineries in Calistoga. Jim Barrett, along with his son Bo, began making wines at Chateau Montelena in 1972 and quickly gained fame when their 1973 chardonnay was voted the best white wine over other famous French wines at a tasting in Paris in 1976. Today, Bo heads up the winemaking team and continues to produce world-class wines. The 2008 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($140) is definitely a big splurge, but the expansive flavors of cassis, dark plum and black cherry, and the powerful-yet-elegant finish is definitely worth the price. Lingering notes of dark chocolate and rich espresso complete the picture. QPR 9.5
Note: QPR is a rating system that compares the quality a wine delivers relative to the price. A QPR of 10 is considered an excellent value.