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Stars of St Helena tasting revealed

In its continued efforts to distinguish its wines and region, Appellation St Helena held a media tasting of wines from over three dozen producers at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone’s Rudd Center.


The tasting began with three short sessions on the region and the character of recent vintages.

Beth Miliken, president of Spottswoode Estate Vineyard and Winery, discussed the borders of the appellation, which run north of Zinfandel Lane and surpasses Big Tree Road and even Bale Lane at its north eastern border.

She noted the diversity of members, from larger participants like Charles Krug to the smallest, Parry Cellars, with half an acre.

Mario Monticelli, the vineyard manager at Trinchero Napa Valley, discussed the vintages to be tasted that day: the 2008 and 2009.

He called 2008 a strange year with below average rainfall; a nice warm spring; early budbreak which brought on damage from frost; followed by heat spikes during bloom.

The berries were smaller as a result, and clusters were looser, which Mario called “Mother Nature grape thinning for you”. October brought on nice, moderate weather which aided even ripening before harvest.

Of the 2009 vintage, Mario reminded us of the downpour in May which led to bigger canopies. More leaf pulling was required that year.

Heat spikes were followed by more rain and rot became an issue, with many working hard to dry out their vineyards. Again, before harvest, nice weather came, with harvest delayed by two to three weeks.

Pam Starr, owner and winemaker of Crocker & Starr Wines, and consultant on numerous wine projects, went over names given to these vintages: 2009 being the “juicy, ripe, bright and incredibly perfumy vintage” and the 2008 the “power, concentration and balance vintage”.

Starr also touched on the 2011 vintage (her 29th vintage), calling it the “vintage of the winemaker”.

She explained that everything that could be done in the vineyard was done, and it was up to the winemakers to retain delicious wines of origin.

Starr noted that while St Helena generally harvests slightly earlier than other appellations, there have been less and less degree days (days where the grapes ripen over the growing season) and harvests have been continually delayed since 2008.

Following the tasting, numerous vintners, including Doug Boeschen (Boeschen Vineyards), Dave Yewell (Yewell Family Vineyards) and Stephen Parry (Parry Cellars) were on hand to answer any questions from the media.

The wines tasted fell into the following flights: one white, two of Cabernet Sauvignon, a red Bordeaux-style, and a Zinfandel-Petite Sirah-Port. The wines all showed incredible fruit flavours and richness on the palate.

Highlights of the wines tasted include:

Joseph Phelps Vineyards 2010 Sauvignon Blanc ($25) which is a refreshing, creamy wine filled with melon and citrus flavors.

Corison Winery 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, Kronos Vineyards ($98 ),a beautifully balanced wine with fresh blackberry and baking spice flavors.

J. Lohr Vineyards and Wine 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, Carol’s Vineyard ($40) which has big everything — dark colour, tons of fruit, spice and more, but all in balance.

Midsummers Cellars 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon,Tomasson Vineyard ($ 40) has concentrated black berries, soft tannins and a smooth ride on the palate with a long finish.

Robert Biale Vineyards 2009 Zinfandel, Varozza Vineyard ($44) is a very balanced Zinfandel. Great blackberry and spice flavors.

St Helena, both the name of a town and a sub-appellation of Napa Valley, is a thriving hub of the Napa Valley wine industry. There is a large concentration of wineries and winemakers making St. Helena their home today.

The late 1800s in Napa Valley were miserable. The Mission grape being used in California wines was proving to be unpopular in the all-important East Coast market. The country was going through a recession, French wines were popular and coming in via low tariffs, while the railroad fees for getting California wines back east were high. Add to that the phylloxera disaster, and things were looking bleak.

A group of Napa Valley winemakers decided to put their heads together to work against these dire problems, and in December of 1875, Charles Krug, Henry Pellet and Seneca Ewer held their first meeting.

With subsequent meetings, membership grew and the St Helena Viticultural Club was established. Important quality-changing pledges were made by club members such as planting international varieties and stopping the practice of chaptalisation in their wines.

While the viticultural club has changed its name since and is now Appellation St Helena, the organization continues to promote the St Helena appellation as a place as of “possibly the best soil and climate on Earth for growing grapes”, and “harvesting and producing wines made from the world’s best varieties”, as their organisation materials attest.


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