Aerial view of sunrise and a misty morning over vineyards / Getty
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On the western side of the Napa Valley, from roughly Yountville to Calistoga, lies some of the best ground ever given to Cabernet Sauvignon, strewn along the benchlands and hillsides of the Mayacamas Mountains. Here sit the western portions of the Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford and St. Helena appellations and the entirety of Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain and Diamond Mountain. Hidden within its folds are a handful of ghost wineries, long abandoned, yet nonetheless, links to a distant past of homesteaders and pioneers—signs of the Mayacamas’ long well-understood viability and endurance in agriculture.
The appropriately named Mayacamas Olds grew up at Sky Vineyards on Mount Veeder, established by her parents in 1973 at 2,100- feet elevation. As a child, Olds learned every aspect of the wine business from the literal ground up. She then earned a degree in fermentation science and an MBA in corporate sustainability, and has become a sought-after viticulturalist.
“I’m 100% biased because I grew up in the Mayacamas,” she says. “But up in the mountains it feels magical—there’s a feeling of wildness from Mount Veeder to Diamond Mountain. The hillsides become less extreme with gentler slopes and more uniformity the more south you go, and you get cooler closer to the Bay.”
In its entirety, the mountain range encompasses 52 miles from north to south and reaches heights up to 4,700 feet, straddling to the Sonoma side, where the Moon Mountain AVA is another recognition of the range’s special charms. On the Napa side, the vineyards—many nestled within redwood forest—face mostly east, allowing them to breathe cooler air from the Pacific Ocean and avoid the direct sun and afternoon heat felt more acutely on the valley floor and Napa’s eastern side.
Geologist David G. Howell, coauthor of The Winemaker’s Dance: Exploring Terroir in the Napa Valley, describes the main geologic takeaway as this: “The Mayacamas Mountains are less than 2 million years old and are actively growing, as are the alluvial fans that are commonly called the westside benchlands.” According to Howell, those vastly varied deposits account for a dizzying array of unique soil types.
The Once and Future King, Benchlands
Some of the most historic vineyards planted in the Napa Valley exist along these benchlands in Oakville and Rutherford, where gently sloping alluvial fans and rich volcanic soils provide good drainage and balanced vigor. Here, earlier ripening grapes with an intensity of flavor are possible, freshness is retained and tannins structured.
The Beckstoffer Missouri Hopper Vineyard, Vine Hill Ranch Vineyard, Martha’s Vineyard and To Kalon Vineyard, are all here, as are the wineries and estate vineyards for Bella Oaks, Detert Vineyards, Far Niente, Futo Estate, Harlan Estate, Inglenook, MacDonald Vineyards, Promontory and Staglin Family Vineyard. Some of the land can be traced back to original Rancho Caymus plantings by George Yount in 1838, the beginning of viticulture in the Napa Valley.
“Many historic vineyards on the Napa side are roughly aligned with those geologic features called alluvial fans—the gravelly nature of which promote drainage and were therefore particularly suited to farming grapes,” explains Graeme MacDonald of MacDonald Vineyards, whose estate plantings were once part of the original To Kalon Vineyard. “In the pre-Prohibition era, To Kalon was not recognized for its Cabernet Sauvignon, but instead famous for Crabb’s Black Burgundy [Refosco]. If a site can transcend grape varieties and wine styles, it must truly be due to a sense of place.”