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The Napa Hillbillies

Most times when I fly out to Napa Valley, I mentally group the wineries I’m planning to visit into those along Highway 29 on the west side of the Valley, those near Silverado Trail on the east side and those in the Carneros south of Napa city. Since the Napa wine boom began a half century ago, most of the wineries causing all the buzz – from the showcase estates to the small cult cellars – have been located along the lower bench land or not far from the flood plains of the Napa River.

This was not always the case.  Over a century ago, there were dozens of Napa mountain vineyards, many with small, adjacent stone wineries. But these wineries were mostly gone by the end of Prohibition, turned into ghosts as they disappeared into the encroaching forests. After Prohibition, many of the vineyards were restored, but in most cases the grapes were trucked off the mountainsides to be processed into wine down in the valley.

I was reminded of this when I drove up Sage Canyon Road this fall to visit Chappellet Vineyards.  “We were one of the first modern wineries to actually locate in the mountains, not just have vineyards up here,” Cyril Chappellet reminded me as he showed me around the family’s beautiful winery and rolling vineyards. After a moment of thought, I realized that he was right. I believe the only prior winery to be located truly in the mountains was Stony Hill on the other side of the valley, but don’t quote me on that.

Cyril was 10 years old when his parents – Donn and Molly – moved to what was then a remote, desolate mountainside above Lake Hennessey in the mid-1960s, far away from the Napa Valley floor where all the activity was taking place. Today, the estate remains in full glory, but the place is otherwise still remote from the valley’s congestion and a chore to get to. The average tourist day-tripping from San Francisco is not likely to arrive at their tasting room tour – only devoted wine club members and the occasional writer.

Over the past few decades, more and more new wineries have crept up from the valley floor to join the Chappellets and the McCreas of Stony Hill, like the fish in those New Yorker cartoons that flop out of the sea, grow feet and legs and begin climbing toward higher ground.  There are now five Napa mountain districts or sub-appellations not counting the east side’s upland valleys.  Spring Mountain and Mount Veeder each has about 25 wineries. Atlas Peak has around 20, with smaller numbers on Howell Mountain and Diamond Mountain.

And I enjoy getting off the beaten path to go visit them.  It’s quieter up here, some damn fine wines are being made, and the scenery is often stunning. I can almost feel my chinos and fancy shirt gradually morphing into jeans and a rough sweater with each hairpin turn I navigate on my upward trek to drink wine with the Napa Hillbillies.

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