Calistoga: Warm Days, Cool Nights and Quintessential Charm on the Northside of Napa

By Published On: February 16, 2022

Situated between two mountain ranges, the Calistoga AVA is located at the northernmost end of the Napa Valley.   Established in 2009, this AVA comprises approximately seven square miles with over 600 acres of planted grapes.   Due to its location, Calistoga tends to see warmer summer days and cool nights that come up from the Russian River and help give the fruit time to recover resulting in the largest diurnal shift within the Napa Valley.  The microclimate lends itself to some really intense and unique fruit. It also allows the grapes recovery time at night allowing for additional acid retention with the goal of  more balanced wines.    

The soil and topography also present some unique characteristics.  Calistoga is made up of rich volcanic soil that provides for better drainage and more of a concentration of berry flavor.  The soil is also more geologically uniform, which  allows for growers to have better control over the growing parameters. 

Calistoga has a history of grape growing with the first vine plantings going back to 1862. The 1840’s gave rise to the American settlers moving west and beginning to farm the land.  A lot of what Calistoga represents today is based on its history, which provides for a deeper understanding of the soils, climate and biodiversity that contribute to the distinct terroir of the region. Included are several vintners that capture that history and spirit.

Vincent Arroyo Family Winery

Matt Moye

At Vincent Arroyo Family Winery, family is everything. The original property was purchased in 1974 when Vince left his engineering job in Silicon Valley to go grow grapes in Calistoga.  After a decade of transforming the property, he finally made his first wines releasing a few 100 cases of Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Today the winery is under the stewardship of Vince’s daughter Adrian and her husband Matt Moye.

Adrian and Matt met at law school, and after practicing for a few years, felt the calling as Vince was getting older and at a crossroad as to what to do with the winery. “I would take a sabbatical to work for him for a year. That was 17 years ago and I never looked back.  After our first son was born my wife left her practice to come help run the family business. She runs the business while I take care of production,” said Matt.

Their original property, Greenwood Ranch, is 23 acres and at the heart of the operation. A big part of their approach is dry farming, meaning no irrigation. Vincent Arroyo’s soils are predominantly clay so when they do get rainfall it goes into underground aquifers where it remains allowing the roots to tap into it. The vines are trained (stressed) to find the water, resulting in less fruit on the vine, but more intense flavors. 

For their Cabernet Sauvignon, they have eight different parcels on their estate they use for this variety. From that, they make two different Cabernet Sauvignons.  For the reserve, they barrel age it for three years in two separate barrels.  After the first year, they sit down and make a blend, which is always 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, but the composition is made up of different blocks each year. The second one is a single vineyard wine sourced from Rattlesnake Acres that is a hillside Cabernet Sauvignon.

In 2005, they planted Tempranillo, which pays respect to Vincent’s heritage as he immigrated from Spain.  “Tempranillo loves the heat– Calistoga is the warmest part of the Napa Valley, so we have found it to thrive,” said Matt. “I find the flavors to be similar to a heavy Merlot. The issue with Tempranillo is educating our customers on what the wine is. They assume it’s the name of a blend. More people are turning on to the variety and we typically sell out of it quite early.”

Kenefick Ranch Vineyards

Working as a neurosurgeon in San Francisco in 1970, Dr. Tom Kenefick first visited Napa Valley and instantly fell in love.  Eight years later, he purchased a 250-acre ranch in Calistoga with nearly half the vineyard plantings being old Italian varieties that were dry farmed and head pruned.  Several years later, they would move onto the property.

Dr. Kenefick’s son Chris has fond memories of growing up there, but a lot of the area has evolved.  “ We still go to Cal-Mart for groceries and Sarafornia when we’re looking to do breakfast out–the cow pasture that was across the street from our property is now a luxury resort so clearly things have changed,” said Chris.

Chris Kenefick

After graduating from college and working in hotel management, Chris returned to the family business. He had been spending vacations up at the property to work events and taking wine classes–it made sense to go back to where it all started.

Kenefick Ranch is located on the eastern side of the valley right up against the hillside providing great drainage all across the property. They are also book-ended by two canyons, which can often produce microclimates. “Since we’re so close to the hillside, we’ve had years of soil eroding long before anyone had planted– which created alluvial fans across our property. This makes for rich and diverse soil,” said Chris.

Due to the large amount of acreage, Kenefick Ranch is able to pick the best blocks for their Cabernet Sauvignon.  They are also experimenting with many different rootstocks and clones to see what works well in a specific area thus creating a bold yet approachable Cabernet Sauvignon that is ready to drink at a young age, but can also be held back for a while. 

Only about 10% of the total grape production goes into the Kenefick Ranch wines– the remaining fruit is sourced to wineries like Nickel & Nickel, Cade and Elizabeth Spencer.   “In my opinion, the key to making these relationships work is having constant, open communication with our partners. We’ve had a few natural disasters come up in recent years, but our relationships have continued to stay in place because we communicate with the winery, and together, come up with a solution that works best for everyone. This valley is completely based on relationships and how you treat people you work with,” said Chris.

Larkmead Vineyards

Established in 1895, Larkmead Vineyards has played a pivotal role as Calistoga has transformed from the wild west to a world class wine destination.  Pivotal to the Larkmead’s success is that it has been owned by the same family since 1948 when Larry and Polly Solari purchased the estate.  In the early 1990’s, their daughter Kate and husband Cam took over, bringing a modern spin and focus on winery for all to enjoy.

Larkmead Vineyards

The estate is positioned at the narrowest part of the Napa Valley. The vineyards span from the benchlands of the Mayacamas to those of the Vaca range offering more diverse soils– intersected by multiple waterways resulting in a variation of large pieces of gravel to fine loamy soils.

In the cellar, winemaker Avery Heelan is aiming for perfumed wines that are vibrant and distinctive from their respective  sites.   She does not  want to mask aromas with boldness or oak. “When crafting our wines, I am looking for tannins that are luxurious in their youth, but can age gracefully for decades in bottle,” asid Avery.

Larkmead’s varietal Cabernet Sauvignon offers a snapshot of the 110 acres of vineyards, blending grapes from vines of different ages as well as diverse soil types. They are looking to highlight the distinctness of each vineyard block to make an elegant and classic wine.

They also make a Tocai Fruilano, a white grape variety from northeastern Italy.   This wine allows customers to experience the history of Larkmead.   “Many years ago, before Nape Valley was known for growing Cabernet Sauvignon, we had many heritage varieties grown on the estate, including Tocai Fruilano.  Originally these vines were grown around the Solari family home and were a favorite of Polly,” said Avery.  “As the beautiful head trained vines have aged out of production, we have continued to make a small amount of the wine to pay homage to our history.” 

What is on the horizon in Calistoga?

For over 150 years, Calistoga has been known for its healing mineral hot springs and has been a destination for relaxation in the valley. It still has that small town charm with two lane roads and family owned shops.  Truly a place where visitors can escape the hustle and bustle of life.

Matt is cautiously optimistic, “We are experiencing a trend of high end accommodations and restaurants coming to town with some of the old guard leaving. I don’t think it’s a bad transition, as people are making better wages and businesses are seeing an uptick. I think we just need to be smart in the growth.” 

In Chris’s view, Calistoga has always felt like one of the most down to earth places in the valley just now with the addition of a few high end resorts and plans for new restaurants. “All this will make Calistoga even more of a destination location than it already is, which I’m looking forward to,” said Chris. “I think over the next decade, Calistoga will continue to secure it’s foothold as a top destination for any kind of visitor.”

Wine Recommendations

Larkmead Vineyards 2018 Napa Valley Solari – Sourced from the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon blocks on the estate. Red cherry aromatics with flavors of black currants,raspberry and a little touch of tobacco.   Excellent tannin structure with a great finish.  This wine will only get better with time and continue to evolve over the next several decades as the tannins soften showcasing Calistoga Cabernet at its finest. 

Larkmead Vineyards 2018 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon- a composition of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc. Garnet red in color with flavors of blackberry, raspberry and cassis. Beautifully textured with a nice long finish. Drink now or hold back for ten plus years.  

Kenefick Ranch 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon, “Chris’s Cuvee” – dark luscious red in color with flavors of black cherry, chocolate and a touch of spice. Big, bold expressive flavors round out the finish.

Kenefick Ranch 2017 Cabernet Franc, “Caitlin’s Select”- gorgeous bright red wine with flavors of dark cherries, milk chocolate and pepper with a nice rounded finish.

Kenefick Ranch 2017 Pickett Road Red-  a composition of 63% Petit Verdot, 25% Merlot and 12% Cabernet Franc. Gorgeous vanilla bean aromatics. This bold wine has flavors of blueberry and boysenberry followed up by a nice long finish.

Vincent Arroyo Family Winery 2019 Estate Tempranillo- black cherry aromatics with flavors of plum, raspberry and black licorice. Nicely balanced with smooth tannins.

Vincent Arroyo Family Winery 2019 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon- nicely structured with flavors of blackberry and raspberry. 

About the Author: Joe Campbell

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Located out of the Sierra Foothills of California, Joe Campbell provides color commentary as well as insight within the wine industry both from the lifestyle consumer and business segments of the industry. He can be reached via email at : joe@winebulletin.net .