A recent Trade Tasting in sun-washed St. Helena offered a unique opportunity to taste so many of the wines made from appellation St. Helena grapes, one of the largest appellations in Napa Valley. The event took place at the historic Charles Krug Winery Carriage House virtually across the street from the equally historic former Christian Brothers Winery, Greystone, which now houses the Culinary Institute of America west coast location. Adding to this sense of history, the St. Helena appellation wears the mantle "birthplace" of the Napa Valley wine industry.
Appellation St. Helena (ASH), is an organization of 80 winery and grower members, which promotes the high standards of grape growing and wine making for which the St. Helena American Viticultural Area is famous. Originally founded in 1875 as the St. Helena Viticultural Society and then disbanded during Prohibition, the organization has been revived recently and includes membership for wineries outside the appellation that use grapes produced by member growers.
The 9th annual trade tasting offered an opportunity to taste wines from ASH members. They ranged from large and famous wineries such as Beringer, Raymond, J. Lohr and Charles Krug Winery, which has been owned and operated for 70 years by the Peter Mondavi Sr. family, to the medium sized like Vineyard 29 to the very small including Charnu Winery, Califia Cellars, Dancing Hares Vineyard, Sequum, Louer Family Vineyards - Triumph Cellars, Varozza Vineyards and David Fulton Winery while tasting flavorful mouth treats and palate refreshers provided by Oak Avenue Catering in St. Helena.
Charles Krug - Peter Mondavi Family produces about 65,000 cases annually. For this trade tasting they were pouring two very delightful wines. The 2008 St. Helena Zinfandel and the 2012 St. Helena Sauvignon Blanc were exceptional with the 2008 Zinfandel offering perfect balance, strong jammy fruit and a perfect match for food. The old tasting room at the winery will be demolished soon as the historic Redwood Cellar is undergoing a transformation to a beautiful new hospitality center. This unique and historic Peter Mondavi Sr. family operation really provides a friendly and inviting tasting experience. Do not miss it!
Vineyard 29, aptly named with its location on Highway 29, Napa's central highway which slices its way from south to north through the Valley, produces about 7,000 cases a year. They offered three of their premium wines as well as their 2011 Premiere Napa Valley Blend as a barrel sample. The wines were lush and very characteristic of the St. Helena appellation. Especially well received and very balanced were the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Aida Estate and the 2010 Zinfandel Aida Estate. Visits to the winery can be arranged by appointment only (707-963-9292).
It is especially fun and very often rewarding to search out the very small and micro-wineries producing less than 1000 cases and focusing on ultra premium wines. St. Helena boasts a plethora of wineries in this category. Some are relatively new while others have a very long history. A few of this years favorites follow in no specific sequence:
Although Varozza Vineyards grows eight different varietals on their 40 acre estate, they sell most of the fruit to other premium Napa wineries. They retain enough from their harvest to produce about 550 cases of ultra premium Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah. A very historic winery, dedicated in 1885, the Varozza family has owned it since 1913. Current owners, Dianna and Jack Varozza recently recruited Kristy Melton as their winemaker (2010). The 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon is very balanced with lush flavors, characteristic of the varietal. It is rich in color and mouth feel with a long supple finish.
Charnu Winery, owned and operated by Bob and Louise Dye, had their first vintage in 2005 which was released in 2008. They produce about 500 cases with grapes they source from Napa Valley. Their 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (100% Cab) has dark garnet color and a rich nose of black fruits. The 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, also 100% Cabernet, offers ripe fruit flavors and a smooth finish and received a 95pt score from the Wine Enthusiast. They also offered barrel samples of the 2010 Premier lot which shows great potential. Charnu has a second label called Red Dye (nice play off their name) which is a 100% St. Helena Cabernet Sauvignon blend made for immediate enjoyment. They produced 140 cases of this recently released 2009 vintage. For a tasting appointment call 707-963-6045.
MaryLee and Randle Johnson have been producing Calafia Cellars wines for over 30 years. They own the vineyard and Randle is the winemaker. He honed his skills at Stags' Leap Vineyard and is currently winemaker at Hess Collection. They produce about 350 cases annually of their Bordeaux blend called LaReina with small quantities of grapes from other vineyards. The 2008 LaReina is 74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Petit Verdot and 11% Malbec. It is exceptionally lush, brilliant and very well balanced and it retails at $65. Appointment only at 707-963-0114.
Paul Skinner, PhD, owner and winemaker at Sequum has a day job as President of Terra Spase Vineyard Consulting. Paul owns St. Helena Kidd Ranch Vineyard and has been producing fine ultra premium wines since 2003. Each of his offerings at the tasting, a 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, a 2009 Syrah and a 2010 Zinfandel (all Kidd Ranch) reflect his unique understanding of soil and climate as they interact to produce the finest of grapes. Sequum wines are surprisingly value priced considering the nature and costs of small lot production. Paul produces about 600 case per year and they retail between $35-$60 a bottle. For information visit the website (www.sequum.com) or call 707-967-8597.
Unlike most St. Helena winemakers, Fulton Mather, great grandson of founder David Fulton and current owner with wife Dink, makes only Petite Sirah. His 14.5 acre old vine Petite Sirah vineyard produces anywhere from 300 hundred to 400 hundred cases per year depending upon mother nature's whims. The current vintage 2009 Petite Sirah (281 cases) has received several Silver Medals while the 2008 Petite Sirah received 92 points from the Wine Spectator. The 2009 has black fruit and plenty of cassis on the nose as you might expect from an old vines Petite Sirah. Very much worth a visit as great grandfather David Fulton is on record as building the first commercial stone wine cellar within the town limits of St. Helena in 1861. Visit by appointments only (707-967-0719).
Appellation St. Helena is a very special place within Napa Valley with great history, wonderful vineyards, growers and winemakers who possess unique and charming personalities with excellent wines to match. With the California Culinary Institute (CIA), the Wine Spectator Restaurant at Greystone and many other fine dining locations downtown, St. Helena deserves your attention. The next best opportunity to taste a wide variety of wines from St. Helena is the bASH event at the CIA on April 13th and it is open to the public. Get your tickets before it sells out!