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Spotlight on the Calistoga AVA

The Calistoga AVA became effective on January 7, 2010. Though it was the 15th region within the larger Calistoga AVA to achieve official TTB recognition, Calistoga has produced high-quality grapes and wine for more than a century. Winegrapes were first planted there in 1852. That was five years before Agoston Haraszthy founded California’s first premium winery (Buena Vista in Sonoma) and seven years before the town of Calistoga came into being. Napa Valley's first commercial winery was Charles Krug, established in 1862.

As with other early winegrowing areas in California, Calistoga suffered from bouts of phylloxera, economic declines and Prohibition. Many of its best properties fell into disuse between 1890 and the end of World War II. Renewed focus on the wine business came in the 1960’s but growth was slow. In 1990, only thirteen wineries called Calistoga home, the same as in 1890. But interest in Calistoga wines and vineyards has surged over the past 20 years. It's also a town winemakers enjoy living in. Today, there are more than 50 Calistoga-based wineries. [Not all of them make Calistoga AVA wine.]

Most of that number are new ventures, several of the area’s historic vineyards and wineries are also thriving. For example, Chateau Montelena, whose Chardonnay won the 1976 Tasting of Paris, was established (as Hillcrest) by Alfred Tubbs in 1882. It is still one of Calistoga’s most popular destinations. The Eisele Vineyard, originally planted in the 1880’s and owned by Bart and Daphne Araujo since 1990, generates some of California’s highest-rated Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. The nearby Frediani Vineyard provides Carignane from 110-year old vines and excellent old vine Zinfandel. And it is one of the valley’s few remaining sources of Charbono.

The town of Calistoga remains closely tied with its own history, more so than others in the valley. It’s early industries were mining, agriculture and tourism. Enterprising San Franciscan Sam Brannan created the area’s first hot springs in 1862 and, six years later, finished a railway line that brought spa-goers to his door from the ferry terminus south of Napa. Today, visitors have nine mineral pool spas to choose from. Five feature Calistoga’s reknowned volcanic ash mud baths.

Calistoga has worked to preserve it’s heritage by managing growth. The newest buildings on the main drag (Lincoln Street) are about fifty years old. The compact business district is easy to walk and caters to Calistoga residents as well as tourists. Fast food franchises are prohibited in town and chain stores are absent.

Calistoga and the Vaca Range
Calistoga has maintained its authenticity as rural spa get-away. Photo: Fred Swan


The Calistoga AVA is a parcel of approximately seven square miles located in northwestern Napa Valley. It stretches from the Mayacamas Range of mountains on the west into the Vaca Range in the east. The northeastern boundary is irregularly shaped, its fingers poking into hidden valleys and plantable slopes between mountain ridges, nearly interlocking with the Howell Mountain AVA. The southeastern edge abuts the St. Helena AVA. The long southwestern edge is bordered by the Diamond Mountain AVA. To the northwest, the Napa-Sonoma county line forms the boundary. Compared to other Napa Valley AVAs that span the valley, there is little flat valley floor acreage in Calistoga.

small napa valley ava map 2012

Maps courtesy of Napa Valley Vintners. Used with permission.


Calistoga has a Mediterranean climate with hot, dry summers and most of the rainfall coming during winter. Calistoga has the highest peak temperatures of any AVA in Napa Valley, sometimes surpassing 100 degrees during the growing season. Most of the appellation falls into the upper range of Region III on the Winkler-Amerine heat summation scale. A few zones are in the low-end of Region IV.

The mercury drops sharply at night. Cool Russian River zephyrs pour through the Chalk Hill wind gap and cold air drops into the valley from the mountains. Thus, Calistoga has the largest diurnal temperature variation among Napa Valley AVAs, sometimes as much as 60 degrees. As a result, Calistoga's average daily temperature is actually lower than that of the St. Helena AVA.

Calistoga’s daytime warmth and generous sun are well-suited to ripening bold reds. The brisk evenings allow sugar levels to drop, maintaining balancing acidity and lengthening the growing season for full phenolic ripeness.

Calistoga is the wettest AVA in Napa Valley with 38 - 60 inches of rain per year. The actual amount of precipitation varies substantially from year to year, and also between different vineyards in any given year. Those vineyards highest in elevation tend to get the most rain. Humidity is moderate and lower than in most of Napa Valley due to Calistoga’s distance from San Pablo Bay and the relative absence on fog.


Latitude: ~ 38.57 - 38.61 degrees

Elevation: 300 - 1,200 feet

Climate: Mediterranean, upper Range III to low Range IV

Annual Rainfall: 38 - 60 inches, falling primarily during winter

Soils: Various forms and derivatives volcanic soil originating with the Sonoma Volcanic activities that occurred 4 - 10 million years ago. The bedrock is solid volcanic material. (The wine cave at Kelly Fleming Winery provides a great look at rhyolitic bedrock.)

Above the bedrock Calistoga offers a range of soils: fine and heavy ash, stone-studded loam, cobbles and, in the alluvial fans, clay or silt. The granularity and depth of the soil vary considerably across the AVA. Most is well-drained and vigor-limiting.

Vineyard Acres: 2,500 plantable acres

Primary Grape Varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah

AVA Organization: Calistoga Winegrowers 

Kelly Fleming Winery, like many others in the Calistoga AVA, is tucked in a valley you can't see from a main road. Photo: Fred Swan

Wineries located in Calistoga*

Amici Cellars (Aiken Wines and Meander are co-located)
Araujo Estate Wines
Atlalon winery
Barlow Vineyards
B Cellars
Bennett Lane Winery
Canard Vineyard
Calistoga Cellars
Carter Cellars (co-located with Envy Wines)
Carver-Sutro Wines
Chateau Montelena
Clos Pegase Winery
Coquerel Family Estate Wines
Cuvaison Estate Wines
Dutch Henry Winery
EMH Vineyards
Envy Wines
Frank Family Vineyards
Helena View/Johnston Vineyards
Jax Vineyards
Jericho Canyon Vineyard
Jones Family Vineyards
Joseph Cellars Winery
Kelly Fleming Winery
Kenefick Ranch Vineyards & Winery
La Sirena
Larkmead Vineyards
Lava Vine
Madrigal Vineyards
Olabisi Wines
Paoletti Estates Winery
Phifer Pavit Date Night Wines
Rios Wine Company
Robert Pecota
Sterling Vineyards
Storybook Mountain Vineyards
Summers Estate Wines
Switchback Ridge
The Grade Cellars
Tofanelli Family Vineyard
Tom Eddy Winery
T-Vine Cellars
Twomey Cellars
Vermeil Wines
Vincent Arroyo Winery
Zahtila Vineyards

 *This list is based upon the location of the winery or tasting room. Wineries that have Calistoga mailing addresses but are located elsewhere, such as Diamond Mountain AVA, are not included above. Nor are wineries that make Calistoga AVA wine but are not located therein. On the other hand, there are a few wineries above, such as Aubert, that don't currently make Calistoga AVA wine but are physically located within the AVA.

A Selection of Significant Calistoga Vineyards (beyond those named as wineries above)

Amoenus Vineyard (Turnbull Wine Cellars)
Blueline Vineyard (Hourglass Wines)
Eisele Vineyard (Araujo Estate)
Fisher Vineyards, Napa Valley Estate
Frediani Vineyard (Vermeil Wines)
Palisades Vineyard (Carver-Sutro)
Three Palms Vineyard (Owned by Sloan and John Upton, Duckhorn has exclusive rights)


Where to Stay in Calistoga

wmudbathprofile3A 1For an authentic, uniquely Calistoga experience, choose Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort. Right on Lincoln Ave., it's no more than a 10-minute walk to any of the downtown tasting rooms, restaurants or shops. Rooms range from recently remodeled motel room overlooking the patio to bungalows with a kitchen. The spa offers everything from facials, massages and mineral whirlpools to Calistoga's best mud bath (see photo at right). Room rates start at $149.

Solage Calistoga offers a high-end resort experience. Located on the valley floor south of town, it's elegant and modern yet relaxing. The chic rooms come with two cruiser bicycles and a semi-private patio. When the weather is good — which is most of the time in Calistoga — you can chill fashionably in their outdoor lounge or poolside cabanas. The on-site restaurant, Solbar, is one of the two best dining experiences to be had in Calistoga (more below). The spa is everything you'd expect from a top international resort. However, they offer mud body masks rather than the traditional Calistoga mud bath. Room rates start at about $350.

People who just want the best price on a clean, no-frills room head to Comfort Inn Calistoga. It books up fast Spring, Summer and Fall. Rates start around $104.

Where to Eat in Calistoga

JoLe Farm to Table - My top recommendation for Calistoga dining is JoLe. Organic, locally-farmed ingredients are prepared with imagination and beautifully plated. The succulent food leans toward Mediterranean-inspired small plates but goes well beyond. The dining room is elegant, but we sat at the broad marble dining bar and had a great conversation with the fellow manning the wood-fired oven and doing much of the plating. I went for six-course tasting menu ($80). Everything I tried was delicious, but I swooned over the Grilled Octopus with Chorizo, Potatoes and Olives as well as the Lamb Neck Poutine with Polenta Fries, Feta and Peppers. And don't miss the Warm Hazelnut Crepes with Brown Sugar Ice Cream and Toffee for dessert. The one-page wine list is full of very good choices and everything, except a handful of reserve items, is available by the glass, half-carafe or bottle. Corkage is $15. JoLe, at 1457 Lincoln Ave., opens at 5pm Thursday - Sunday.

The grilled octopus at JoLe really grabbed me. Photo: Fred Swan

Solbar - The Michelin-starred restaurant of the Solage resort satisfies both famished wine tasters and the spa crowd with a menu that's divided into "healthy, ligher dishes" and "hearty cuisine." There are wonderful choices on each from meat-free dishes such as Sunchoke and Potato Agnolotti with Arrabiata Sauce, Broccoli Romanesco, Smoked Potatoes and Sunchoke Chips to a stick-to-your-ribs Free Range Chicken ala Plancha with housemade Andouille, Etouffé Sauce, Griddled Cheddar Grits and Red Mustard Greens. If you've not been to Solage before, driving Silverado Trail in the dark of night while trying to locate the restaurant can be harrowing. I recommend advance reconnaissance, or arrive early and enjoy the lounge. (I've found the drink service to be slow. Allow plenty of time if you're in the mood for a pre-dinner cocktail.)

Hydro Bar & Grill - A local’s favorite that claims to have the best hamburgers in town. I haven’t tried every burger in Calistoga, but Hyrdro’s really is good. 1403 Lincoln Ave., open daily 8:30am to 10pm+

Palisades Deli Cafe - This little cafe is a local favorite for it's hearty and creative sandwiches. It's also a good place to pick up a quick cup of coffee and breakfast sandwich or burrito as you head out for a morning of tastings. It's located in the entrance of the historic Calistoga Train Depot.

Cal Mart - An independent, family-owned grocery store just across the street from Dr. Wilkinson's, is a Calistoga institution. It's been there since 1968 and offers all the stuff you'd expect, including hot, prepared foods, made-to-order sandwiches and a very good cheese department. It's the place to go for picnic fixings.


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This article is original to Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. Mud bath photo: Dr. Wilkinson's. All rights reserved.