Napa should embrace its heritage grapes

Napa Valley should embrace its heritage grapes such as Charbono and reduce its reliance on Cabernet Sauvignon, according to Jackson family winemaker Chris Carpenter.

Cabernet Napa

Cabernet Sauvignon accounts for 40% of Napa’s harvest tonnage and nearly 60% of the value of its annual crop

Carpenter, a Cabernet specialist and winemaker for Jackson’s flagship Napa wine brands – Lokoya, Cardinale, La Jota and Mt Brave – expressed his concern about the Californian region’s almost total dependence on one grape, and said that he wished Napa would look to its past varieties.

“The Napa Valley is almost fully planted, and mostly with Cabernet Sauvignon, which is a pretty dangerous situation in terms of the monoculture we’ve created: if a pest ever gets in there, it could wipe out viticulture pretty quickly,” he said, during an interview in London with the drinks business earlier this month.

Explaining Cabernet’s dominance in the region, he added, “There is so much pressure in Napa to use varieties that pay for the cost of the land that even Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are under pressure, even though they are good for cash flow.”

Considering that Napa has a dry Mediterranean climate, db asked Carpenter whether the region should look to Mediterranean grapes such as Syrah.

While acknowledging the quality potential from this variety, he said that it was the superior market demand for Cabernet that prevented more Mediterranean grapes being planted.

“We have two small blocks of Syrah on Mount Veeder, and I’m making a Syrah for our wine club… it’s not that you can’t make really good Syrah in Napa, for example, the Syrah from Coombsville AVA is very good, it’s just that the financial reality versus Cabernet is what doesn’t allow it to happen.”

Chris Carpenter

Chris Carpenter is a Cabernet specialist and winemaker for the Jackson Family’s flagship Napa wine brands – Lokoya, Cardinale, La Jota and Mt Brave

Continuing he said, “The American public doesn’t get Syrah, so, a grower might get $1,000 per ton for Syrah” – which is in stark contrast to the income for Cabernet Sauvignon, which is $8,000 per ton, according to Carpenter.

In terms of white grapes, Carpenter said he would like to see more Mediterranean varieties in Napa, particularly Roussanne and Marsanne, although Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are the dominant whites, again, due to the superior market opportunity for these grapes.

Finally, Carpenter said, “I’d like to see more heritage varieties come back, like Charbono, Petit Syrah or Zinfandel.”

Continuing he said, “Petit Syrah is one of the great varieties of the world; it has the structure of Cabernet but the depth of Syrah.”

As for Charbono, he said that only 18 acres (7.3 hectares) were left of the grape in Napa, and yet, “it is one of the grapes that established Napa”.

According to the Napa Vintners, Cabernet Sauvignon accounts for 40% of the region’s harvest tonnage and nearly 60% of the value of Napa’s annual crop.

The region’s leading five grapes by acreage are, in order, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.

Although Charbono was once believed to be an Italian grape, UC Davis DNA analysis has shown that it’s the same grape as France’s Corbeau grape, or Douce Noire, which originates from Savoie.

It is also the same grape as Bonarda in Mendoza, Argentina, which has the largest plantings of the grape today, with almost 19,000ha in the ground, compared to 36ha in California and just 2ha in France, according to Wine Grapes.

As previously reported by db, Carpenter also expressed his wish that Merlot receive greater recognition for the quality of wine it produces, particularly in the Napa Valley.

“Merlot has been abused in the US… but Merlot produces some of the greatest wines in the world, from Petrus to Masseto,” he said.

Continuing, he observed, “Merlot does well when it’s grown in the right place and produced in the right way, and, beyond Bolgheri or Pomerol, there are spots in other parts of the world where it does well too, and one of those is California.”

Within the region he selected “sweet spots” for the grape in the Napa Valley, which he said were Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain, Mount Veeder and Stag’s Leap, although he also expressed his high regard for Verité’s La Muse, which is made from Merlot grown in Sonoma.

4 Responses to “Napa should embrace its heritage grapes”

  1. Gary Heitz says:

    Chris, Thanks for the good word about Charbono! You are absolutely correct about the situation with cab, but unfortunately, money usually dictates what gets done. When Ginny and I replanted our vineyard in 1984, we opted for heritage over profit. We also had a good buyer for Charbono, Inglenook. Little did we suspect that inglenook would ever go away. Without their market and distribution power, we really struggled. It’s a hard sell, as they say. Over the years we have had to reduce our acreage down to just five. We have some faithful clients who love the fruit and the wine it makes, but mainly are only able to sell small amounts and use it in their tasting rooms or wine clubs. Cab is easier to grow, ironically. I hope Tina and your family are doing well. We often think about the great experiences we had in Slow Food and are grateful to you for making that part of our lives possible. Gary

  2. Bob Rossi says:

    Very enjoyable piece. While I mostly drink French wine now, I got my start in California wine many years ago, and one of the wines I remember was Inglenook Charbono. I also remember the bonus: each bottle came with its own wooden box. And since I expect to be in the Savoie next year, I’ll have to look for Corbeau, although based on my recent trip there I’m not sure it can be found. I also was a big fan of Petite Sirah in my California days, and in fact had an older bottle of Rosenblum Petite Sirah (2008) last night. Also recently had a Petite Sirah from Tres Sabores in Napa.

  3. Hello Chris! I agree 100%. It’s not easy growing unusual varietals in the Napa Valley, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying. I continue to stand by my family’s decision to plant and make wine from Charbono, Petite Syrah, Semillon, Grenache, and Zinfandel. Charbono is so rare that educating the wine drinker is essential to it’s success and I continue to ‘convert’ sophisticated wine drinkers “one glass at a time”!

    All the Best in Life and Wine!
    Vince Tofanelli

  4. Hey Chris, Thanks for preaching our sermon. We at T-Vine have made it our mission to seek out these sites and celebrate them. Greg Brown loved finding them and showing their potential and the road less traveled. We love our Calistoga Charbono, Syrah and Carignan I would add to your list. These sites are getting rare as pressure mounts to go for the obvious but we continue to fly the flag her at T-Vine.

    all the best,

    Sonny Thielbar

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