Napa Valley, the most famous wine region in the USA, has many sub-appellations but none more beautiful and quaint than St. Helena, which claims the mantle of being the “birthplace” of the Napa Valley wine industry. Home of so much Napa Valley history, St. Helena is also the home of Greystone Cellars, home of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and formerly Christian Brothers Winery, Beringer Vineyards (founded by the Beringer brothers in the 1870s) and Charles Krug Winery, cited as Napa’s first winery which was established in 1861 and owned and operated by the Cesare Mondavi family since the 1940s. The St. Helena American Viticultural Area (AVA), approved in 1995, is approximately 8 miles long, running north and south, and about 5 miles wide at the widest. The northern boundary is defined by Bale Lane and the southern by Zinfandel Lane. It encompasses Rt. 29 and the Silverado Trail. Today, St. Helena thrives as an important, historic Napa Valley community.
I have been fortunate enough, recently, to participate in two events coordinated by the Appellation St. Helena (ASH) organization. The ASH is the successor to the St. Helena Viticultural Society, established in 1875 but later disbanded during prohibition. 128 years later, in 2004, it was reestablished as the ASH. The ASH had, at the time of our tasting, 50 winemaking members and 7 wine growing members.
The first event was a special Media Tasting, held in November 2011 at the CIA’s Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies and the second, the 2012 Appellation St. Helena Trade Tasting was this past weekend at the Carriage House on the Charles Krug Winery grounds (I will write about this event in a separate installment). The ASH Media Tasting at the Rudd Center was an enlightening and, can I say, sobering experience. The Rudd Center is a ‘designed for tasting’ facility with terraced rows of laboratory type counters. Each seat has its own dump sink and there are water taps between each. To enhance your ability to assess color and clarity, each seat also has a back lighted opaque counter section.
After the welcome and some introductions by Rebecca Fine, the Chair of this event and Marketing Director at Trinchero Napa Valley we received an overview of the appellation by Beth Milliken, President of Spottswoode Estate Winery & Vineyard. Beth was followed by Pam Starr, owner/winemaker at Crocker & Starr Wines and Mario Monticelli, Winemaker at Trinchero Napa Valley. Pam and Mario offered winemaker and winegrower perspectives on the 2008 and 2009 vintages from St. Helena. Fascinating and informative to say the least.
Offered the daunting ‘task’ of tasting over 40 wines in 5 separate flights over a 3.5 hour period, the decision to see, smell, swirl, sip, and SPIT was a no-brainer. The opening flight included 3 Sauvignon Blanc wines from 3 different winemakers in the ASH. Each was unique in its style and flavor profiles while maintaining the characteristic crisp and citrusy freshness of this Bordeaux varietal. A perfect morning shock to ones palette to get started! Then the fun began.
The next two flights included 23 different Cabernet Sauvignon from the members of ASH. Some of these were Estate wines and some single vineyard. Most were from very small family owned wineries with total production as little as 150 cases while others were from household Napa names like Freemark Abbey (the only California Winery to have two wines at the 1976 Judgment of Paris), Flora Springs, J. Lohr, Spottswoode and Trinchero.
Although some of these wineries are not located in St. Helena, like J. Lohr, the wines offered were those that were made using St. Helena grapes. Others, although located in St. Helena, make wines using other Napa grapes like Mt. Veeder or Carneros AVA. Despite the differences in winery size and other variations it was clear that the ASH wines have a certain profile that is mouth-watering and consistent. It may be that the grapes lend themselves to this style or that the winemakers are attempting to achieve a certain ASH profile but even after 23 different Cabernet Sauvignon that profile came through. The balance achieved with the typical bell pepper, mint and local eucalyptus flavors and the structure and complexity make these wines highly regarded.
The final two flights were Red Bordeaux and other Reds. The organizers were wise to change it up after 23 Cabs although there were two more Cabs in this flight. Most interesting of the Red Bordeaux were two blends (2007 Metamorphosis and 2008 Transformation) from Jaffe Estate Wine and the 2009 Petit Verdot from Ballentine Vineyards. The Other Reds were dominated by Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. Robert Biale Vineyard was the standout in both varietals. The 2009 Varozza Vineyard Zin and the 2008 Petite Sirah from the Thomann Station Vineyard were full-bodied and loaded with structure and flavor for these distinctive grape varietals.
Finally, after all of this, the floor was opened for questions. Doug Boeschen, Boeschen Vineyards and Dave Yewell, Yewell Family Vineyards were real troopers hanging in there. Doug and his family are both growers and winery owners producing about 500 cases annually with 4 different wines. Dave and his family are strictly growers and have been in St. Helena for 14 years.
This event, hosted and organized by Appellation St. Helena, prove that despite a phenomenal history of elegant grape growing and wine making for more than 150 years, the best is yet to come! For any who had thought that St. Helena AVA had reached its zenith in wine growing and wine making decades ago, they should look up the definition of pluperfect. The continuity represented by the historic wineries and the creativity and freshness injected by the newer growers and wine makers heralds wonderful wines around the corner. They also proved how much there is to learn about California wine and its rich history.