California’s Carneros region may have been overshadowed by other appellations, but a small group of vineyard owners and vintners are looking to restore youth and excitement

One time, not so long ago, the most famous and sought-after place to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in California was Carneros. The region, which lies partly in Napa and partly in Sonoma, showed so much promise that big-name sparkling-wine producers from France and Spain opened Carneros outposts. Today, the former hot spot has been overshadowed by newer, cooler appellations..

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The only American Viticultural Area (AVA) to straddle both Napa and Sonoma counties, Carneros, established in 1983, is fog-cooled and refreshingly undeveloped, compared to many nearby regions.

While other areas have risen in reputation and favor with tourists for having more to do, many of Carneros’s most famous names haven’t offered much in the way of tastings or tours.

That’s changing. There’s no doubt Carneros can produce enviable Pinot Noir, and, in smaller amounts, Merlot and Syrah. Its true calling card might be Chardonnay, a grape that has been quietly making it famous all along. And two of its most respected vineyard-designated growers are, after decades in the business, building wineries of their own.

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I have been attending the Carneros Wine Alliance's annual barrel tasting for several years now, only partly because of the high-quality commemorative coffee mugs they hand out at the end of the event. I'm also trying to answer a question: Is there such a thing as a Carneros style?

But let's back up for a minute—I realize that, if you aren't familiar with the wines from this region, Carneros does sound a bit like an optional filling for your burrito. Taking a historical name for the region, Spanish for "the rams," Los Carneros was established as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1983. The region is unusual in that it's shared between Napa Valley and Sonoma County, and was the first AVA to be defined mostly by its cool, windy climate rather than arbitrary boundaries—resulting in the ugliest mug on the map. I think it resembles the head and shoulders of a dragon, with whiplash.
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The Carneros Wine Alliance held their annual Spring Barrel Tasting on Tuesday, March 22, 2016. Below are my tasting highlights from the event, and just before that is a brief history of the region, written by Catherine Bugue, Director of Education at the Napa Valley Wine Academy.

I’m tellin’ ya, folks. I’m a big Carneros Chardonnay and Pinot fan and this year didn’t disappoint. The 2013s and the 2014s showed very well–the 2013s were especially juicy and delicious, while the 2014s were a bit more austere, and gave a stellar performance. The 2015 barrel samples were fun. They were barrel samples, ya know? And for those interested, we do dive deep into Carneros in our American Wine Studies course (did you know that the Carneros AVA lies within both Napa and Sonoma AVAs?) Okay. On with it! – Jonathan Cristaldi

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YOU WOULD THINK that something as old as the oak wine barrel would not change much from year to year. Coopers still make them from two ingredients—oak boards and metal hoops— ingeniously held together by a few nails to keep the hoops from shifting and a little paste to cement the heads.

Yet they do change each year. They change in subtle ways such as different sources of wood, longer seasoning periods and new toasting techniques. As straightforward as those changes may sound, they are very complex for coopers, who may have worked five or 10 years on the adjustments before introducing them.

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Carneros alliance elects board Napa, Calif.—The Carneros Wine Alliance announced that Crista Johnson of Schug Carneros Estate Winery is the new chair of the board and Carla Bosco of Bouchaine Vineyards is the vice chair. T.J. Evans of Domaine Carneros continues to serve as treasurer. The rest of the board includes Anne Moller-Racke of Donum Estate, Alison Crowe of Garnet Vineyards, Jennifer LaRosa of Poseidon Vineyard, and Sam Jamison of Carneros Hills Winery. According to a statement released by the alliance, Crista Johnson has been on the Carneros Wine Alliance board since 2014. In addition to serving on the alliance board, Johnson runs marketing communications at Schug Carneros Estate Winery. She obtained her first wine industry job at Negociants USA in Napa, where she built up her experience and knowledge while handling sales and marketing for imported Australian and New Zealand wines. In 2011, Crista accepted a position in the marketing department at Schug Carneros Estate Winery. Carla Bosco has served on the Carneros Wine Alliance board since 2014 and previously served as secretary of the alliance. Bosco formally ran marketing and public relations for the national non-profit Women For WineSense. Three years ago she joined Bouchaine Vineyards.  

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Carneros Wine Alliance
The Carneros Wine Alliance is a non-profit association of wineries and grape-growers in the Carneros American Viticultural Area (AVA).  Carneros is the only appellation located at the crossroads of two major wine regions, the Napa and Sonoma Valleys.  Influenced by the maritime breezes and fog from its southern border with the San Pablo Bay, Carneros produces the region’s finest Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and sparkling wines. The Carneros Wine Alliance is committed to promoting the distinction, diversity and above all, quality, of the grapes and wines from Carneros.