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Nov 1, 2009

St. Helena Media Wine Tasting

CIA's Rudd Wine Center
Last week St. Helena held its annual media wine tasting, and I was there---lucky enough to sample five separate flights of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, a few other red varietals, and a few red blends. Nearly 50 wines in all, and with two exceptions they were all 2006 or 2007 vintages.
The tasting was held in the multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art, sleekly-modern Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies, on the California campus of the Culinary Institute of America, just north of St. Helena.

St. Helena AVA: An Overview

ASH boundaries Courtesy Appellation St. Helena
The birthplace of Napa Valley’s wine industry, St. Helena has been an official appellation since 1995. Appellation St. Helena (ASH) is one of 14 sub-appellations within the Napa Valley Appellation. To see an interactive satellite map of ASH, with hot-linked wineries super-imposed, go here.
According to the association of Napa Valley Vintners, vineyards in this appellation are largely protected by the western hills from incursions of fog and wind. This helps to keep growing conditions warm, with mid-summer temperatures often in the mid- to high 90s.
St. Helena elevations range from about 150’ (the valley floor) to 600’ (in the hills); and soils are primarily sedimentary/gravel clay with low fertility to more fertile volcanic. With its Mediterranean climate, the valley has moderate rainfall primarily in winter.
Principal varieties/characteristics grown here include Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot (deep, ripe, often jammy flavors, with firm tannins for structure, and appealing aromas of currant and black fruit); Rhone varieties such as Syrah and Viognier (fleshy, supple and slightly earthy); and Zinfandel (blackberry-like, well-structured).

So, anyway, the tasting…

St Helena 10-09 (2) (Large)Place Setting for the First Flight
Bob Dye, ASH President and co-owner of Charmu Winery with his wife, Louise, got the ball rolling with a quick welcome and then introduced three winemakers.
Mark Porembski, winemaker of Anomaly Vineyards, Charmu, and Zeitgeist, discussed the 2006 vintage, which he described as a “bit of a sandwich vintage” between the ‘05 and ‘07---a very good vintage, as it turns out, but one that apparently had had everybody worried at one point, since it had to work its way through massive rains, a delayed growing season, etc.
Bob Biale of Robert Biale Vineyards talked about the 2007 vintage, which he described as the sort of “idyllic vintage winemakers hope and pray for.” Everything about the growing season was ideal, from elevated temps at the end of January, a slightly early bud break followed by perfect weather (moderate), and the harvest coming in a little early.
Pam Starr. owner/winemaker of Crocker & Starr Wines, discussed the 2009 vintage, just coming to the end of its harvest. Another wonderful year, with a dry-season start, followed by a burst of rain and then warm weather. A mild summer, with splashes of heat followed by cool-downs. And an early harvest: when the surprisingly early heavy rains hit on October 13th, most of the harvest was in.

The Wines

A few of the wines from the St. Helena media tasting
A few of the wines poured at the media tasting
When you’re talking Napa Valley wines, let’s be honest: there usually isn’t much, or even anything, to complain about. And that certainly held true for this tasting. A couple of wines tasted somewhat sour to me, but I’d need to try them again under different circumstances before I’d venture to pass judgment publicly. I don’t know what it’s like for others, but when I taste so many wines at once I find that negative taste feedback isn’t always accurate (on the other hand, when a wine strikes me as outstanding in the midst of such a tasting, it almost always holds up on later inspection).
Anyway, here’s a general comment about the tasting: with some exceptions, most of the 2006 and 2007 wines needed another year or two before drinking, and a few needed more than that. But for most of the wines, everything a wine should have was right there; that all-important structure was firmly in place. A little maturity and they will do very well; a few will do brilliantly.
Looking at my tasting notes, a few wines that stood out to me include (in no particular order):
  • Charles Krug/Peter Mondavi 2007 Limited Release Zinfandel St. Helena
  • Bressler Vineyards 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Jaffe Estate 2006 Metamorphosis (a blend of 85% Cab and 15% Merlot)
  • Robert Biale 2007 Varozza Vineyard Zinfandel
  • Salvestrin 2006 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Spottswoode Estate Vineyard 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Vineyard 29’s 2006 Aida Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and its 2006 Clare Luce Abby Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Charmu Winery’s 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Whitehall Lane 2006 St. Helena Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Wolf Family Vineyards 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Crocker and Starr’s 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Chase Family Cellars 2007 Zinfandel (which comes from 106-year-old vines).
By the way, bottle price of wines tasted ranged from $25 (Charles Krug/Peter Mondavi 2007 Limited Release Zinfandel St. Helena) to $175 (Vineyard 29 2006 Aida Estate Cabernet Sauvignon). Both of these wines made it onto my informal “favorites” list before I had any idea of their price.
If you’d like to see a list of all wines tasted, as well as the winemaker’s tasting notes for each, go here.
All photos: Suzie Rodriguez
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