Sensational St. Helena 9 min read
Pour out the wine without restraint or stay, Pour not by cups, but by the bellyful, Pour out to all that will. -Edmund Spenser Epithalamion
St. Helena offers an embarrassment of riches when it comes to food and wine. It is home to the famed Culinary Institute of America – the professional birthplace of dozens of talented chefs who went on to culinary fame and fortune. It is the wine country equivalent of Miss Universe pageant, with beauties everywhere you look.
Appellation St. Helena is a thriving viticultural community that stretches from the heart of the valley floor to 400 foot elevation. It boasts an extensive diversity of geographic and climatic conditions and is planted to a wide variety of grapes. It’s fifty plus vintner members redefined the standards of excellence once set by Charles Krug.
Here are twenty-one examples of wineries who call St. Helena home. Notably, many brands listed source fruit outside of appellational boundaries:
This picturesque twelve acre mountain estate is located on beautiful Pritchard Hill, overlooking Lake Hennessey. Crafted by Philippe Melka, the wines from this spectacular estate are stunningly pure in their terroir and varietal expression.
Jim Barbour, legendary consulting vineyard manager to many of Napa’s premier wineries, also produces his own wine. The grapes for his estate wine are sourced from a low-yielding, dry farmed vineyard, planted to Grace budwood. Celia Welch (whose clients include Scarecrow, Keever, Kelly Fleming, Lindstrom, etc.) is the winemaker. She crafts wines are that distinct, elegant, and plain stunning.
Miniscule production means you should be getting on the mailing list right this second.
A cult since its inception, Bryant Family wine is as exclusive as it is extraordinary.
Don Bryant’s vision of greatness involved such notable wine personalities as Michael Rolland, David Abreu and his one-time winemaker, Helen Turley. A slew of famous winemakers followed; this elusive, mailing list only brand remains a huge cult among the cognoscenti.
Valeri Bure was in the middle of a flourishing hockey career when his Montreal teammates introduced him to pleasures of fine wine. His initial attraction never wavered and turned into a hobby into a second career of vintner. Bure aspires to create small lots of meaningful wines. He hired Luc Morlet, a 20-year-old industry veteran with stellar track record to implement his vision. The result? Phenomenal offerings.
Founder, Don Long, hoped to create family legacy when he acquired 1,000 acres on then little-known Pritchard Hill. In the 1970s, his son David Arthur Long, began planting vines on the property. Don’s vision solidified when David’s daughter Laura joined the family business. Twenty-five years of stellar winemaking at one of Napa Valley’s premier sites has earned the David Arthur brand national acclaim and extensive critical praise.
Don Stephens, an attorney and private equity guru, acquired a stunning hillside estate in 1996 and planted it predominantly to Cabernet. Winemaker Michael Hirby, who joined DR Stephens in 2010, is a rock star since his Behrens & Hitchcock days. He crafts delicious wines of character and authenticity. The wines, which are highly allocated, are featured in a limited number of top restaurants. I fell in love with their Chardonnay, most of which is rumored to have disappeared into Don’s private cellar.
If you are not familiar with Larry Fairchild’s labor of love, take note. Larry’s extraordinary instincts, attention to detail, and relentless pursuit of excellence has resulted in top-notch wines. Made by the highly regarded and sought-after Philippe Melka, the wines are expansive, profound, and yet, elegant. A signature trait of a master winemaker at work.
It’s remarkably easy to fall in love with both the estate and its engaging proprietor, Manuel Pires, who transformed a steep rocky plot into a hillside paradise. Composed of fruit sourced from four separate blocks, the wines have uncommon breadth, depth of flavor and age worthiness. Philippe Melka, once more, gets well-earned credit for his exceptional skills. Vineyard manager, Jim Barbour, steadily guides this precocious, yet immensely generous land. Their wines engage your very soul.
Jeff Smith and Kelly Maher, coupled with the winemaking genius of Bob Foley (Pride, Foley, Switchback, Paloma) created a brand that immediately caught fire with wine industry insiders. Their wines are estate sourced from two vineyards; one located in St. Helena, and one in Calistoga. Try their divine Malbec and don’t forget their gorgeous Sauvignon Blanc.
Much has been said about Joseph Phelps’ legendary brand. Back in 1974, a construction company owner with a love of Burgundy, Joe Phelps, built a winery which became synonymous with all things great about Napa Valley. Now, a 40-year-old phenomenon, their flagship Insignia blend is widely regarded as one of the wine world’s greatest achievements. If there was a Napa Wine Hall of Fame, Joe and his legacy would surely occupy a prominent spot alongside Robert Mondavi, Joe Heitz, or André Tchelistcheff.
This husband-wife collaboration , Martha McClellan (Sloan, Checkerboard) and Bob Levy (Harlan, Bond), planted their hillside vineyard in 1999. With such renowned founders, Levy & McClellan was poised for a runaway success. This humble, yet wildly talented couple, produce wines of uncommon elegance and refinement.
One of Napa’s most sought-after consulting winemakers, Philippe Melka, also produces his own wine. His highly regarded wines earn stellar reviews each and every vintage, regardless of what nature delivers. Sourced from a variety of sites within Napa Valley, his Metisse, Mekerra, Majestique and CJ blends represent Philippe’s vision of what the diverse vineyards of Napa Valley can deliver.
Critically acclaimed Merus was established by Erika J. Gottl and Mark Herold in 1998, which was considered by many critics to be a very challenging vintage. However, having earned 93 points from Robert Parker on their first release, the brand established itself as an undisputed contender for greatness. In 2007 Merus was acquired by Bill Foley and the wines are now crafted by the renowned winemaker David Ramey (Chalk Hill, Dominus, Rudd) and David Lattin (St. Emillion and Troplong Mendot). It boasts 7,000 square feet of caves and a remodeled, state of the art winery. The wine? As intense and complex as ever.
Luc Morlet hails from a prominent vintner dynasty in France, yet he was inexplicably drawn to the charms of California wine country. A few years after settling in California and crafting stellar wines for his clients (Peter Michael, Bure, Cabaud, Carte Blanche, Vineyard 7 & 8), he and wife Jodie started their namesake brand. Their handcrafted Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and sparkling wines have won over critics, trade and consumers alike.
Named after the ancient Roman poet who wrote about transformation and transcendence, Ovid Estate wines are a perfect blend of ancient technique and modern technology. Planted to classic Bordeaux varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot are crafted by Austin Peterson, along with winemaking consultant Andy Ericsson. Their ever-changing blends tell a powerful tale of sense of integrity and finesse. The wines offer a wide spectrum of aromas; a virtual kaleidoscope of flavors and sensations.
Once in a while a brand is born of seemingly unlikely confluences. A former U.S. Army medic, an investor, a winemaker came together to produce what is perennially one of my favorite Napa wines. The brand survived a devastating 2005 fire that wiped out their entire production, ownership changes, and divorce. With nine years under its belt, Realm Cellars production has grown from a handful of cases to 2,500. Their fruit is sourced from some of the most notable vineyards in Napa, including the famed Beckstoffer – Dr. Crane and To Kalon Vineyard.
The parcel of land lying above the fog zone on majestic Spring Mountain, now known as Vineyard 7 & 8, was acquired in 1999 by the Steffens family. It was planted by the industry veterans David Abreu and Rick Forman, predominantly to Cabernet, along with some Chardonnay. Martha McLellan and Wesley Steffens collaborate on making wines of purity and distinction. Meticulousness, micro fermentations, rigorous yield control and hand sorting contribute to the magic made in the cellar. One of my top Napa wineries delivers exceptional offerings each and every vintage.
Located on Napa’s famed Highway 29, Vineyard 29’s history began in 1989 when Tom Paine and Teresa Norton came to Napa Valley to retire and instead found themselves in the middle of planting and tending to a vineyard on their newly acquired property. The original winemaker was Gary Galleron, followed shortly by Heidi Barrett. The brand was acquired in 2000 by Chuck and Anne McMinn who also picked up Aida vineyard nearby. The McMinns built a state-of-the-art gravity flow winery and caves, filled it with the finest equipment, and hired Philippe Melka to make the wine. Minimal intervention, labor intensive techniques and use of finest modern technology to monitor every part of winemaking process ensure wines of maximum integrity and intense varietal character.
Owner, Josh Clark, is a Napa Valley native who has spent most of his youth in the vineyards. Josh not only took over the family’s vineyard management business, he also set out to produce stellar wines under his own label. Saunter wines are crafted by none other than Thomas Rivers Brown, who developed a stellar reputation while working at Turley Estate under the tutelage of Ehren Jordan.
Named after an imposing work of art at the estate, Seven Stones’ three acres of vineyards are tended to by the famed Piña Vineyard Management. Boasting the wine making prowess of Aaron Pott, this stunning property overlooks Meadowood Resort. Seven Stones produced a hit Cabernet Sauvignon in its very first vintage. Immense and complex, the wines are ultra-concentrated and age worthy, yet offer a bevy of satisfying hedonistic characters upon release, an unbeatable combination.
Spottswoode was established by Mrs. Albert Spotts in 1910 and acquired by Mary and Jack Novak in 1972. Spottswoode’s first Cabernet Sauvignon was released in 1982. Today the historic vineyard is known for its Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, wines of impeccable balance, refinement, and integrity. Winemaker Aron Weinkauf is in charge of the estate’s meticulously farmed twenty-four blocks. He remains faithful to the Novak’s pursuit of perfection in every vintage.
Follow the yellow brick road of stellar vineyards and winemakers and you will find yourself in the wine wizard’s paradise.
A great way to immerse yourself into St. Helena is to attend the annual BASH event that takes place in April at the CIA and is a tremendous opportunity to taste over a hundred wines from the same appellation side by side.
Some believe there is nothing better that the intensity of mountain fruit, some love the plush, seductive dance of the valley floor wines. Both are a wonderful adventure for the mind and palate. What are you waiting for? St. Helena, the wine goddess awaits your company.