Distinctive Hillside Wines: the Evolution of Crystal Springs AVA of Napa Valley

By Published On: August 17, 2023

Credit: Steven Burgess

For Steven Burgess, his origin story reads like a compelling novel, beginning with childhood memories of presenting family wines in the heart of Napa Valley and evolving into a deep understanding of the industry’s marketing.  A degree in Agriculture Engineering Technology, along with experience selling wine exposed him to a crowded wine landscape.  After exploring different career paths, he returned to the family winery, Burgess Cellars, in 2004. He recognized the importance of storytelling and differentiation  in sales, navigating the economic downturn and addressing issues with blends. Consumers’ desire for more accurate, region-based stories led him to consider creating an AVA (American Viticultural Area). Despite initial lack of support, he persevered, gathering information and drafting an AVA proposal for “Crystal Springs of Napa Valley,” with input from Coombsville AVA co-author Tom Farella.

The recognition of Crystal Springs of Napa Valley as an official AVA could profoundly impact the region’s reputation and its wines.  While boasting an array of prominent producers and unique wines, the lack of cohesiveness and varying stylistic choices have hindered a unified identity. By gaining AVA status, the area would garner positive attention, credibility, and acknowledgement. Lesser known brands and growers stand to benefit, and the rising tide of recognition would bring clarity to consumers and the media alike. Situated entirely within hillside terrain, the AVA designation would highlight the shared terroir while accommodating individual stylistic expressions.

As for including “Napa Valley” in the formal AVA proposal, the decision was motivated by the need for distinctiveness. The term “Crystal Springs” is widely used in various products, necessitating a unique identifier.  Additionally, aligning with the conjunctive label law, “Crystal Springs of Napa Valley” stands alone without confusion.

Credit: Steven Burgess

The distinction of being an all hillside AVA sets the region apart, as over 90% of Napa Valley AVA consists of valley floor vineyards.  This designation yields smaller berries, guaranteed maturity, pronounced tannins, and deeper flavors.  Lumping the entire valley into a single flavor profile undermines true understanding and appreciation.  Hillside vineyards are distinct in their rootstocks, clones and growing practices. Unlike valley floors, hillside rows are either terraced or aligned with slope, impacting canopy training.  This enhances consumers’ ability to anticipate flavor profiles, body, and alcohol content.  Notably, Bordeaux varieties from Coombsville differ from Rutherford or Chiles Valley, demonstrating the AVA’s impact on wine characteristics and expectations.

Situated amidst Saint Helena, Calistoga and Howell Mountain AVAs, this hillside area has long struggled to define itself.  The need to explain its location repeatedly has been a dampening factor. Jokes about being “almost Howell Mountain” have created unfavorable sentiments. Attempts to associate with Howell Mountain AVA have been met with resistance, as the hillside is distinctively different. This designation will further resolve a significant PR and marketing challenge as it grants exposure at trade tastings grouped by nested AVAs, finally allowing these wineries and growers to stand out.  

Crystal Springs terroir, climate and geography contribute distinctive flavors to its Cabernet Sauvignon through factors like hillside position, cooler nights, and a higher skin-to-juice ratio. This yields wines with concentrated flavors, elevated tannins and careful oak management to avoid excessive tannin infusion.  In comparison to the valley floor Cabernets, Crystal Springs exhibits greater tannin, color, and body.  Compared to Mountain-top wines, it generally offers more body and similar color depth, with often less tannin due to the struggle some mountain wines face in achieving ripeness. This AVA also benefits other varieties, Zinfandels flourish here, with a notable nod to Napa Valley’s history.  Cabernet Franc develops a rich body and aroma, while Petite Sirah stands out with a serious, non-jammy character, marked by firm tannins and blackberry notes. 

Credit: Steven Burgess

Steven’s approach had been collaborative from the start, seeking assistance from a local trade group known for its expertise in such matters. Regrettably, their constrained resources had thwarted progress. It was not until 2016 that he had resolved to take matters into his own hands, firmly believing that personal investment was key to achieving the desired outcome. During the Federal comment period, the timeline extended, yielding unexpected endorsements from neighboring AVAs, fellow vintners and the Napa Valley Vintners Association.

Currently, the AVA proposal stands at an exciting juncture, having smoothly navigated the federal government’s public comment phase. The anticipation is palpable and the realization of the vision seems imminent.  As the pieces hopefully fall into place, the vision extends beyond the vineyards themselves.  The overarching goal is to create a framework that will champion and educate on the region.  A minimum of five board members is envisioned to ensure diverse perspectives and a well-rounded decision making process. Once the AVA becomes a reality, the newly formed association will serve as the beacon, not only realizing the immediate goals, but also spearheading future endeavors that arise, guiding the Crystal Springs of Napa Valley towards a flourishing future.

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 .