St. Helena: Napa Valley's Holy Grail
by Igor Sill
Introduction by Barry Wiss
Barry Wiss is recognized as one of the most influential wine personalities of Napa Valley. He is a Certified Wine Educator, Certified Sommelier, holds the Advanced Level Certification from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust and serves on the Board of
Directors and Examiners for the Society of Wine Educators.
Being a professional wine educator for Trinchero Winery in St. Helena has given me the great fortune of traveling to many great wine regions. They are all amazing places! Try to name a wine region that is not a beautiful place. However, when it comes to the heart of Napa Valley (St. Helena), I feel as lucky as a tourist every time I drive to work. Not only is St. Helena a charming small town with great people, it offers the very best from Mother Nature to produce some of the world’s most extraordinary wines. It is the narrow center of the hourglass shaped Napa Valley with deep, loosely compacted soils coupled with a perfect Mediterranean climate, Napa Valley’s “Holy Grail”.
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No other wine region on the planet draws as much attention or visitors as Napa Valley. It is visited by some five million people every year, making it the second most visited tourist destination in California (Disneyland is # 1). Perfect for a day or weekend trip from San Francisco, Napa Valley awards one with beautiful scenery, exceptional wineries and world-renowned wines.
I’m frequently asked "Which Napa vineyards produce the very best Cabernet Sauvignon wines?" This isn't an easy question to answer as there are so many exceptional vineyards, talented winemakers and micro-climates in Napa.
My favorite American Viticulture Area (one of fourteen AVAs within Napa Valley), is the treasured St. Helena AVA. So, let's explore the St. Helena wineries and vineyards as a starting point of this much revered wine region.
Napa Valley contains well over 400 wineries, with St. Helena home to some 174 wineries and vineyards welcoming guests with tours, wine education and tasting rooms. While enticing, the sheer number of winery options can be overwhelming. In this article I've focused on St. Helena's particular AVA, which wineries offer exceptional award winning red wines along with its rich history.
Since acquiring my own St. Helena AVA vineyard some 28 years ago, I've taken the opportunity to get acquainted with, tour and taste most of the popular wineries, with numerous repeat visits among my favorites.
On long summer afternoons, the vineyards of St. Helena delight in the California sunshine, under the watchful eye of Mount Saint Helena from which the town drew its name.
The source of the name is evident, but the identity of the person who named it has been variously defined and at times disputed. One authority assigns the honor to Henry Still and William Taylor while celebrating a party in Still's store one evening. A discussion for a town name brought about a consensus by the entire party with the name St. Helena being bestowed, and a subsequent act incorporating the town of St. Helena approved on March 24, 1876.
St. Helena AVA covers just over 6,800 acres of vineyards that are situated at the narrowest point between the Vaca and Mayacamas mountain ranges making it the largest, planted vineyard area of any of the Napa sub appellations. The town and its vineyards are located where the Napa Valley narrows substantially, approximately half a mile wide, increasing the radiated heat from the valley hillsides. The resulting narrow corridor funnels cool evening bay fog and produces wide temperature swings, as a result, it is considered to be the pinnacle of high quality red wine viticulture.
St. Helena boasts a unique topography quite different from its surrounding regions, which create an optimal micro-climate for growing cabernet sauvignon grapes. The exceptional drainage of its gravely volcanic loam soils imparts an environment for Cabernet Sauvignon like nowhere else in Napa Valley. St. Helena's appellation is considered by many to be one of the very best wine growing regions given that its valley floor soils tend to be deeper, much more fertile and produce vigorous growth. The grapes are closely managed to produce intensely concentrated grapes. These exceptional valley floor vintages receive the perfect combination of “terroir” micro-climate, barrel aging and winemaker attention.
You might naturally assume that the north is cooler than the south, but actually, truth is that the valley gets progressively cooler, as it moves south from Mount Saint Helena. Thus, St. Helena vineyards are noticeably warmer than those of its southern neighbors.
Cool Pacific breezes coming over the Mayacamas ranges from the west as well as from San Francisco Bay cools the vines in the evenings quickly and deliver exceptionally intense fruit given the long warm days. As the breezes and fog move northerly they gradually
surrender their coolness with distance from the Bay and ocean.
History of St. Helena Wineries
The history of winemaking in St. Helena is legendary starting with these St. Helena wineries:
- David Fulton planted one of the very first St. Helena vineyards in 1858
- Charles Krug opened his winery in 1861
- Jacob Beringer established a winery in 1876 that now has the distinction of being on the National Historic Register
- Spottswoode winery, was established in 1882 by George Schonewald
Some of the highest wine critic ratings cite St. Helena wineries as producing the very best wines based on awards at prestigious wine competitions, along with ratings from publications such as The Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast.
Legendary St. Helena wines
The area’s wines are discernibly distinctive and continually rank among Napa Valley’s very best:
- Spottswoode’s 2010 Estate Cabernet received 100 points from Robert Parker of The Wine Advocate
- V.Sattui’s Paradiso, a perfectly balanced Bordeaux-style blend receiving Wine of the Year, Platinum award, 97 points from Critics Choice.
- Beringer’s 2007 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon received 97 points from Robert Parker
- David Fulton Winery’s 2008 Petite Sirah garnered a Four Star Gold from California’s largest and most prestigious Wine event, Orange County Fair Wine Society Competition.
And, that's why St. Helena has become the Cabernet Sauvignon social heart beat of Napa Valley and my absolute "go to" favorite for exceptional wines. Enjoy.
The author, Igor Sill, farms a terraced cabernet sauvignon vineyard in St Helena, Napa, California. He's a passionate wine lover; collector; author and a certified Court of Master Sommeliers. Igor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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