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Tasting the 2006 St. Helena Cabs


Communal, or township, tastings in Napa Valley are always wonderful, valuable experiences. The comparisons between the five towns along Highway 29 — Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena and Calistoga — and Bordeaux/Medoc’s 5 communes — Graves, Margaux, St. Julien, Pauillac and St. Estephe — are too tempting even for the most cynical of journalists to avoid.

Yesterday was the annual St. Helena tasting, produced by their regional association, Appellation St. Helena. The event is held at the Rudd Center, located on the campus of the Culinary Institute of America, just north of tony St. Helena. The tasting is for the media, us ink-stained wine writers (in this age of computers, the fourth estate can no longer be called “ink-stained,” but it’s a phrase that conjures up a lovely image), but this year, there were only about 1/2 or 1/3 the usual crowd, and I’m not sure why. Have so many wine writers lost their jobs?

I’ve spent years trying to “figure out” St. Helena. After last year’s tasting, I remarked, in my blog, that the St. Helena producers always seem to have a little of that Rodney Dangerfield “I don’t get no respect” feeling, Oakville and Rutherford being better known. I still, after all these years, wouldn’t be able to describe to you a St. Helena character that would apply broadly to all of its esteemed Cabernets. But I did write these words down after this year’s tasting: St. Helena 2006: ripe, classic, elegant. Dry. Great structure and acidity. Ageworthy. Admittedly, that’s pretty basic stuff, but it’s the best I can do to include all the 90-plus point wines (and there were many of them).

I sat next to Dan Berger, as I do every year, and he made an interesting remark. He said, concerning the 2006 vintage, “This is a vintage Wine Spectator will trash, because it’s elegant.” (I don’t know how the Spectator rated the 2006 Cabernet vintage in Napa.) I originally wrote, in Wine Enthusiast, that it could be “even better” than the magnificent 2005, although subsequently I rated it 5 points lower, with a 90 rating. However, all this points out the difficulty of sweeping vintage generalizations, especially over so broad an area as Napa Valley.


Berger and me

I agree with Dan that, based on the St. Helena tasting, the 2006s are not as flashy or fleshy as the 2005s (or the 2007s, for that matter). But they are very good wines that need time to show their stuff. The more I taste, the more I appreciate structure —  not taste, so much, as the architecture that frames taste. You can call the 2006 Cabernets “lighter” (a relative term: lighter than what?), or earthier (tobacco, dried herbs), or more tightly reined (acidity, tannins). Whatever, the pedigree of these 2006 St. Helenas is evident: these are brilliant wines to lay down for at least six years. Among those that impressed me the most were Sabina Estate, Spottswoode, Vineyard 29 Aida Estate, Vineyard 29 Clare Luce Abbey Estate, Anomaly, Boeschen, Corison Kronos Vineyard, Crocker & Starr, Egelhoff, Hall Bergfeld (which I rated for Wine Enthusiast last spring and gave 93 points), and an impeccable Whitehall Lane.

Back to the Napa town comparisons, I’m not sure we’ll ever have a definitive assessment of what “Rutherford” or “Calistoga” or “St. Helena” or any of the other towns really is, when it comes to Cabernet Sauvignon. Too many variables in the mix. But one conclusion I can support is that St. Helena certainly has no reason to feel short-shrifted against Oakville or Rutherford. And I agree with what Charlie Olken commented on this blog yesterday: “In time, it is my hope that ‘commune’ style appellations like St. Helena, Rutherford, Oakville and others will be augmented by smaller distinctions that are more given to wine-style similarity rather than geographic proximity.” I’ll add this: the ultimate “smaller distinction” is the individual estate.

  1. You know, the idea of an individual estate being somehow legally recognized as a sub-AVA of some sort is appealing to me for some reason. Having said that, I suspect it would be in effect for about a year before it became so prevalent due to political wrangling that the idea became so diluted as to be no longer useful.


  2. Dude, Chateau Grillet in the Rhone is an individual appellation. But the individual estates here shouldn’t ever be recognized legally as appellations. That should be up to the marketplace.

  3. Because St. Helena produces relatively fewer great bottles of wine than Rutherford or Oakville, I have studied it less, but I do know, as pointed out yesterday, that there exist very distinct exposure, slope, soil and climatic differences as one tours around the territory covered by the commune AVA of St. Helena.

    I can’t point them out, however, because I have not done the research. But let’s look at Rutherford and Oakville. Just in gross terms, there are about five bands of difference going west to east across the valley and these bands have more in common across AVA boundaries than they do from one side of the commune boundary to the other.

    Let’s take what is called the West Rutherford Bench. It is a line or band of alluvial soils that, in truth stretches from Yountville (think Dominus) to St. Helena (think Spottswoode), and while there are soil differences in that stretch of alluvial soils lying essentially west of Highway 29, the wines from that stretch are more like each other than they are on the other side of the valley near the Silverado Trail.

    Yet, the AVA boundaries are by commune, not by commonality of growing conditions or relative exposure, etc.

    So, Rutherford is a not quite easy to pin down because, despite the brilliant results it produces from west to east, it still produces differences, and Quintessa is never going to taste like Staglin.

    The same is true for what I think of as the middle band–the valley floor. There is a commonality of character, both in taste and in structure of wines that come from the valley floor north of Yountville all the way to St. Helena.

    Bottom line, getting back to St. Helena, is that the differences in St. Helena are magnified because of the changes in climate caused by the narrowing of the valley and by the smaller alluvial fans rather than one more or less continuous fan. And, to me, those kinds of differences, while not yet fully describable, call for smaller area distinctions at some point.

  4. I find that my experience with 2006s is so different from everything I read. I’d say the majority of the 2006 Napa Cabs I’ve had are already tired, some with significant bricking – and these are all the big dollar/scorers. WS gave the vintage 95 points… I just don’t see it.

  5. Michael: That hasn’t been my experience. How have those wines been stored? No decent 2006 Napa Cab should be tired.

  6. That’s why I’m surprised. I’ve had maybe a dozen or so cult-y 2006s and well over half seemed like they had 6+ years on them without the good stuff from bottle age. Can’t guarantee provenance, but I don’t believe that could be such a consistent problem.

    It’s good to hear that your (and others’) experience is different. I’ll bookmark this for a future told-you-so. 😉

  7. From your descriptions, Steve, I would have to surmise that Napa is finally beginning to make Washington-style wines.

  8. Paul, which means…?


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