The Secret is in the Dirt

IT HAPPENED IN what seemed like an instant. One minute I’m navigating some switchbacks up the side of a slope in Skyline Wilderness Park, trying to stay in step with the speedy Annie Favia, who invited me here. The next minute, I’ve got a panoramic view of the Coombsville AVA, where Favia crafts her wines, next door to Faust vineyards.

To the south, the Napa River meandered toward the San Pablo Bay, which seemed a lot closer than 11 miles away. To the north was Mount George and the rest of the Vaca Mountains, which effectively peter out in Coombsville and hem in the region on two sides. Bubbled up in the middle were vineyards, not a lot of them, fanning their amber-orange autumn plumage in the morning light. The vineyards are the “cup,” Favia says, which sits atop a “saucer” created by an ancient volcanic caldera.

I’d have loved the cup-and-saucer analogy had I heard it over the phone, but I loved it even more while gazing out at the real thing. The same is true of any great wine growing region: You can read all the text you want, look at the most detailed maps, but nothing beats putting boots on the ground. When you taste a wine from a place you’ve visited, you truly are transported back there.

Faust winemaker David Jelinek

You also develop a keener sense of why a wine is the way it is. Most wine lovers are happy to stop at “delicious” and go no further, but for some, it’s not long before the “T” word is in regular rotation. Because it looks so much like the French word for earth, or land, terroir is often thought to be synonymous with soil. What is now Coombsville was likely first formed by the collapse of a volcano, after which its soils and contours were shaped by the flow of the Napa River and the uplift of the Vaca Range. Overall, Coombsville’s vineyards climb from sea level, or thereabouts, to about 1,900 feet at the edge of the Vaca Range. At lower elevations, there’s more alluvial (i.e. river-deposited) material, like gravel and cobble, and, as you climb higher, more volcanic rock.

But, while percentages vary, a similar melding of alluvial and volcanic soils is found throughout the Napa Valley. In all, there are 16 distinct appellations (AVAs) with the Napa Valley, and each defines a unique natural environment for grape growing. Terroir isn’t just the dirt, it’s the whole situation.

Coombsville is Napa Valley’s newest AVA—it was codified in 2011, following an application/petition process spearheaded by local grower Tom Farella—but its unique situation has been known to many for generations. It’s a bowl-shaped depression perfectly positioned to collect and hold cool air and fog that’s funneled up from the San Pablo Bay. On average, according to Annie Favia, it’s about 10 degrees cooler in Coombsville during the growing season compared to up-Valley appellations like Oakville and Rutherford.

Diurnal temperature swings in Coombsville are also wide, which helps to slow grape maturation—resulting in a more balanced, complete kind of ripeness. Grapes accumulate not just sugar but polyphenols and other compounds that lend aromatic and textural complexity. Grapes grown in cooler environments also maintain higher levels of natural acidity. In hotter climates, there’s always the danger of a rapid plunge in acidity, and toward the end of the growing season, it can happen in an instant.

“Coombsville is not an old AVA, but it has a long history,” says Paul Goldberg, former president of Napa Valley Grapegrower’s Association. Even within the confines of the Faust property, he says, is a distinct terroir. For one, Bettinelli has identified some pockets of Cortina Series soil, not common in Napa, which contain large, rounded river rocks like those found in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. For another, he says the property’s network of small streams creates a hospitable environment for wildlife. “That vineyard has a more diverse assortment of animals than any one we farm,” he says.

“There’s an energy to exceptional vineyard sites,” says Jen Beloz, Faust’s Estate Director. “I really do feel it when I’m in the Coombsville vineyard. Having the soil, the microclimate, and then for it to be such a beautiful place on top of it, that’s exceptional.”

Read up on Coombsville and you’ll inevitably encounter a mention of how it was thought to be too cool to get laterripening varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon fully mature. But Coombsville pioneers like Farella, and John Caldwell, knew better. Plenty of the iconic Cabernets of yore, dating back to “Paris Tasting” era if not before, incorporated Coombsvillegrown fruit for backbone and European-inspired freshness. Like Beloz says: The wines have energy.

“We’re into our third decade now, so there’s wisdom there, too,” Beloz muses. The team’s been tasting the 2022 vintage Faust wines from the full assortment of Napa vineyards, and in these tastings—always conducted “blind”—the Coombsville-grown wines are always readily identifiable. “Blue fruit, graphite, focused tannins, and a lot of minerality in the finish,” she says. Annie Favia agrees. There is an unmistakable “Coombsville character.” The wines are “darker, more mineral, with lively acidity and pinpoint tannins.” So, get used to that “T” word. It really does explain a lot.

Back to Pact Journal | Volume III | Spring 2023