Coombsville: Slow down in Napa’s newest AVA

MATT VILLANO | Posted: Thursday, January 12, 2012 10:10 pm

COOMBSVILLE — With the midday sun beating down on the hills of this stretch of south Napa, the party on the back patio at Marita’s Vineyard was just getting started.

Mara Montes, the winemaker’s younger daughter, explained the difference between her father’s two signature wines, both cabernets sourced completely from vineyards nearby. Pilar Cata, Mara’s godmother, buzzed in from the kitchen with heaping plates of home-cooked Catalan tapas prepared specifically to pair with the wine.

In the center of it all, Bulmaro Montes, owner, winemaker and a 40-year valley veteran, beamed.

“Right here, right now, is what makes Coombsville special,” he said. “In the Napa Valley, this kind of personal touch with the grapes and the food and the vines and the people who work the vineyard is not something you see every day.”

Hard-core wine geeks will tell you that Napa’s newest AVA (American Viticultural Area), formally minted in December, is unique for its volcanic soils, its cooler-than-usual atmosphere and the bold red wines that result. For day-trippers who value subtleties of the tasting experience, the region is special for other reasons: intimacy, accessibility and bucolic wonder.

 

Intimate encounters

The appeal starts with intimacy. None of the region’s 18 wineries is large enough for tour busses. Most of them require reservations. A majority of the wineries offer tastings and food pairings with the winemaker or winery owner.

At some, such as Sodaro Estate and Palmaz, facility tours are standard operating procedure, as well.

“You visit and you become part of the family,” explains Rebecca Griffin, president of the Coombsville Vintners and Growers Association. “That definitely carries over into a visitor experience that’s more down-home and personal every time you come.”

Griffin understands the value of the Coombsville experience.  Her parents founded Sciandri Family Vineyards in the 1990s and she’s still involved there. She also handles marketing communications for Porter Family Vineyards, another family-owned winery down the road.

Griffin notes that while many upvalley wineries can come across to wine country rookies as intimidating, the laid-back vibe in Coombsville is disarming, and is akin to what visitors might find in less prestigious winegrowing regions around the state.

“We’re all just very real,” she adds proudly.

 

Easy to access, explore

Coombsville is accessible, too. Look at a map and you’ll see it’s the closest appellation to downtown Napa. From the Oxbow Public Market to Coombsville is a five-minute drive. On bike, you can pedal from the First Street Bridge to Coombsville without breaking a sweat.

For locals, this means minimal drive times between wineries and downtown restaurants or shows at the Uptown Theatre or the Napa Valley Opera House. For visitors, it means cheap cab fares to and from downtown hotels.

Curtis Strohl, owner of Ancien Wines, likens the appellation to “Napa’s backyard,” noting that Coombsville’s proximity to downtown Napa is one of its best assets.

Strohl adds that Coombsville isn’t accessible only from downtown Napa; it’s a hop, skip and jump from the rest of the Bay Area, too. As the crow flies, the region sits 14 miles from the top of the San Francisco Bay, making it the closest Napa appellation for visitors driving north from San Francisco, Oakland and other parts of the Bay Area.

“If you’re visiting from somewhere else, why would you want to spend time driving up-Valley when you could taste great wine and have great experiences just around the corner?” he asks. “We have everything anyone could possibly want, right here.”

 

Pastoral setting

Finally, Coombsville is in one of the most peaceful spots in the entire valley. The area is bound by the Napa River to the west, Mt. George to the north, the Vaca Range to the east and the San Francisco Bay to the south — creating brilliant contrasts in landscape.

It’s also home to the Napa Valley Country Club.

Between these landmarks, a mix of vineyards and farmland make the appellation feel like a place that time has forgotten.

Blue Oak Lane, the road to Sodaro Estate, runs along the edge of an expansive horse ranch; on any given day, visitors might see horses prancing in the open fields. Inside the Sodaro gates, from an outdoor picnic table near the owners’ (second) home, one can look south over rolling hills and watch the fog as it disappears in the afternoon sun.

“There are many beautiful spots in this valley,” says Andrew McUsic, Sodaro’s direct sales and hospitality manager. “Not many of them are prettier than this one.”

Back at Marita’s, Bulmaro Montes agrees.

Sitting at a table on an open-air patio overlooking his vineyard — this is the tasting room, by the way — Montes surveys the rolling hills and likens the region to another place many people might know.

“To me, it is heaven,” he says. “I can’t think of a better spot to do what I love and share it with the world.”