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Is St. Helena different from Oakville or Rutherford?

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One regional tasting I like to attend each year is Appellation St. Helena’s. Held last Tuesday, it’s a sitdown tasting in the Rudd Center at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, in a room ideal for tasting. The attendees are low in number (about 30), but high in knowledge, and they include many old colleagues. (It’s the one day a year I’m guaranteed to run into Dan Berger!)

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The reason regions host media and trade tastings is simple: To make the argument that they’re worthy of their AVA designation. This is as much a political and economic point as it is one of pure terroir. In St. Helena’s case, I’ve always felt they have a little of that Rodney Dangerfield “I don’t get no respect” attitude. Oakville and Rutherford are more famous — I’m not saying deservedly so, just that it’s a fact. Calistoga isn’t more famous than St. Helena (except among mudbath aficionados) and so isn’t as much of a threat. Yountville hardly seems to count, as least from a Cabernet Sauvignon point of view. Then there are the Napa mountains, but comparing a village along Highway 29 to the mountains is apples and oranges. No, it’s Oakville and Rutherford that St. Helena is hard pressed to compete with and distinguish itself from, which explains why, every year preceding the tasting, the audience is treated to an overview of St. Helena’s terroir and how different it is from the two communes just to the southeast.

In these presentations, the speaker[s] always try to present their appellations in the best possible light, maximizing whatever makes them unique and minimizing those factors that resemble other growing regions. If it’s true that St. Helena is 5-1/2 degrees warmer on average than Rutherford, and 11-1/2 degrees warmer than Oakville (according to Flora Springs’ vineyard manager, Pat Garvey, but that seems way too high to me), it’s also true that the Cabernets and Bordeaux blends from Napa Valley tend to be more alike than not (variations of quality notwithstanding), and the efforts by promoters to create huge differences between them are often unbelievable. It’s easy, for example, to say that Oakville Cabs tend more toward blue and black stone fruits and berries, and Rutherford Cabs toward red ones, until you have a Cask Cabernet from Niebaum-Coppola, which is all blackcurrants despite its Rutherford location.

There are awesome Cabernets and blends with a St. Helena appellation that are as compelling as anything from anywhere in Napa Valley. Among my favorite wineries over the years have been Vineyard 29, various Duckhorn and Nickel & Nickel bottlings, Salvestrin, Whitehall Lane, Ehlers Estate, Hourglass, and anything from the Sacrashe Vineyard. Spotteswoode always is delicious and the 2005 was a masterpiece. If there’s a way to summarize St. Helena Cabernet (and there will be exceptions to every rule), they tend to be soft and dry, sometimes fleshy, fruity, and always firm in tannins. The best of the 2005s are eminently ageable: Anomaly, Crocker & Starr Stone Place, Flora Springs Rennie Reserve and Wolf, in addition to those mentioned above.

  1. Having made wine in St.Helena for many years I have to say that it is a diverse appellation. The soils up nears Elhers lane are very different the the ones down South at Zinfandel Lane. The appellation is political and not so much drawn because of a unique set of growing conditions. This is not to say there aren’t excellent vineyards in the appellation (Lewelling comes to mind). And you’re right, I found “Napa Valley” on the label is more impressive to people than “St. Helena”. I guess thats why Appellation St.Helena exists.

  2. Morton Leslie says:

    I am a big fan of some St. Helena Cabs, especially Spottswood, and I don’t think they get the respect they have earned. I think maybe some of the best vineyard land in the valley is covered by houses in St. Helena’s “Prestigious” West Side (local joke). If the Spottswood ground was not as good as it is, being in the city limits it would be McMansions. Instead, it produces distinct and vibrant Cabernet, good enough to protect it from the real estate developer. I really don’t know the exact dimensions of the district, and Ehlers lane to Zinfandel is pretty diverse territory. But I can vouch for Madrone Avenue.

    To me there are two important general influences in the “prestigious” West Side. One is the soil which is from alluvial fans coming out of the canyons and streams of Spring Mountain. They have deposited relatively deep, less fertile, warm and well drained soils. In general, soils get heavier the farther East you go from the Spring Mountain foothills. The second is the climate. Most people talk about cooling in the Napa Valley in relation to San Pablo Bay. And most people assume that cooler is better. But in reality when it is warm, when it is cool, and the maximum temperature is just as important. Immediately West above St. Helena the Maycamas range drops into a low ridge (2000 ft) which is the Spring Mountain District. Coastal cooling comes directly across the Santa Rosa plain and spills over Spring Mountain giving not only Spring Mountain a distinct microclimate, but strongly influencing the grapes growing directly below in St. Helena. St. Helena cools off earlier and warms up earlier; the East side of St. Helena being a bit higher and fog burning off first, Both the soil and microclimate aid a balanced grape maturation process which shows up in the wine.

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