From Opus One to Robert Mondavi’s To Kalon Vineyard, Oakville is home to some of the finest wine producers in the world.
If Napa Valley were a dragon, I would pronounce the Oakville American Viticultural Area (AVA) the belly of the beast. As this dragon vanquishes its enemies with breaths of fire, there is no better region to supply its energy to the furnace of its core than Oakville. It is from this region that Napa Valley can sing loudest of its glory with more high profile and top-quality producers, both well-established and new, than any other in all of Napa Valley.
Oakville lies approximately in the middle of the Napa Valley between Yountville in the south and Rutherford to the north. It is only two miles wide but extends its wing tips from the Mayacamas Mountain range in the west all the way to the Vaca Mountain range in the east with the relatively flat land between Highway 29 and the Silverado trail in between. This wide stretch is filled with diverse microclimates and soils. The climate is Mediterranean, and measured to be a Region 3 according to UC Davisâ€™ system of classifying winegrowing regions (1 being the coldest and 5 being the hottest). Oakville is right in the middle, not too cold and not too hot. The cooling fog and wind from San Pablo Bay are strong enough to reach Oakville during the morning, which is important for keeping the refreshing acidity alive within the grapes during growing season to balance the heat and warmth generated during the day. Oakville almost never wants for ripeness in the fruit of its vines. The soils on the valley floor of Oakville could be said to be nearly uniform, a blend of decomposed rock from both bordering mountain ranges and the alluvial and sedimentary soils and gravel of the Napa River flood plain. But as one nears each mountain range, the differences in soils become more apparent. The Mayacamas range in the west is mainly Pacific seabed rock and an assortment of rock known as the Franciscan formation. The eastern end of Oakville along the Vaca range is primarily volcanic.
Oakville is the promised land for Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet is king in Oakville, and one could argue that Oakville is the king of Cabernet in Napa Valley. The list of top producers from this region reads like a bucket list for any Cabernet lover. The well-established blue chip names such as Opus One, Silver Oak and Groth call Oakville home. Two of Napa Valley’s most historically important single vineyards are here: Robert Mondavi’s To Kalon Vineyard and Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard both are still held in the highest regard by all in the Napa Valley. Add to that the list rarefied “cult” wineries such as Dalla Valle, Ghost Block, Harlan Estate and Screaming Eagle, and you can easily see the concentration of some of the greatest wines on Earth.
I would describe the wines that are raised in these vineyards as intensely rich, hedonistic but stately, almost regal. They rarely go “over the top” into overload territory; always holding a sense of decorum and class. The 2010 Opus One is a banner example of the quality level in Oakville. It boasts a wonderfully fresh and intense core of black and blue Cabernet fruit elegantly melded with sweet vanillin and baking spices. The texture is mouth-coating but sleek and refined and yet it will repay cellaring for a dozen years and more. From the Vaca Mountain range side of Oakville hails the 2010 Dalla Valle Cabernet Sauvignon, which is gutsier, more red berry and almost confected fruit.
This wine is nothing if not rich and decadent and quite a showstopper. And from the other facing hillside the 2010 Harlan Estate Proprietary Red is the epitome of class. It beguiles the senses with black fruit, hints of gravel, dark mocha and cocoa nibs; and that is just in the nose. On the palate, it is as intense as any Cabernet I have tasted from anywhere in or outside Napa Valley. It is exceedingly complex and is seamless. This is a wine fit for a king.
The wines from Oakville are also some of the most age-worthy wines in Napa Valley. I can recall wonderful experiences with Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet from the ’70s, 1974 and 1979 in particular. The very first vintage of Opus One 1979 is still a terrific bottle. The earlier vintages of Harlan (1999 being my current favorite) and Dalla Valle (1992) are also stellar wines.
Oakville is to Napa Valley what Pauillac is to Bordeaux. It is home to the largest concentration of Napa Valley’s best. And thankfully for the wines are not as rare as a dragon or guarded by one. They are worth the quest.