Is St. Helena different from Oakville or Rutherford?
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!)
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.