by Fred McMillin
for November 17, 1998


Carneros Up Close


There was a vineyard in Carneros as early as 1830. There was a winery in Carneros 40 years later. When wine-pioneer Prof. George Husmann set up headquarters in California, it was in the Carneros. By the end of the 19th century, the area's viticultural future seemed assured. But then came the phylloxera insect, the huge earthquake of 1906, Prohibition and the Great Depression. As a result, vine acreage declined continuously for decades.

The Comeback

Carneros is not grape-friendly. Located at the southern end of Napa and Sonoma counties, the area is windy and foggy, with infertile soil. A vine planted in the central Napa Valley will have a trunk as thick as a fighter's arm in five years. Plant it farther south in the Carneros, and in the same time the trunk will not be much thicker than a pencil. Yet, about 1970 vintners started to realize that those scrawny vines could bear exciting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. Carneros vineyard acreage in 1972 was a mere 200. By nineteen ninety two it was over 6,000!...the Carneros comeback. (Sources, Bob Thompson and John Baxevanis).

Cakebread Cellars
Barrel aging vault at
Cakebread Cellars

Joining in the surge was Napa Valley's successful Cakebread Cellars. My panel just tasted the winery's second Carneros Pinot.

The Wine

1995 Pinot Noir, 100% Carneros
Cakebread Cellars
Winemaker—Bruce Cakebread
Fermentation—Lots of delicious fruit flavors by fermenting whole clusters of grapes in open stainless steel fermenters. The floating grapes were punched down by hand three times a day ...tedious, but tasty results.
Aging—100% French oak for 15 months.
Blending—Bruce selected the barrels that showed the most intense Pinot Noir character.
Contact—Sara Cakebread, (707) 963-7443
Price—$28 range


While Carneros ("sheep" in Spanish) can claim to be the fastest growing viticultural district in California, it cannot claim a monopoly on the title. It received its name in a Spanish land grant in 1836. But, two years earlier there was a "Los Carneros" land grant in Monterey County. Later, Kern County had both a spring and a mountain named "Carneros." Also, Santa Barbara had a valley by that name in 1842, though an early atlas misspelled it Cameros. (Obviously, I use the same proofreader!)


About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.



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