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Tasting Wines in St. Helena

by Monty & Sara Preiser

Preisers’ Reserve: For some ten years, winemaker Jeff Cohn helped make Rosenblum Cellars one of the industry leaders. Recently, however, Jeff departed Rosenblum so he and his wife Alexandra can concentrate on their own label, JC Cellars. This winery’s style emulates that of the Northern Rhône Valley and its legendary appellations, such Côte-Rotie, Condrieu, and Hermitage. Jeff, with his infectious smile and contagious enthusiasm, is eager to show off his products, and consumers will no doubt be just as eager to buy them. While the wines are all superb, we discovered one clear favorite.

Seek out the 2003 JC Cellars Ventana Vineyard Monterey County Syrah ($30). A deep purple hue first caught our eye, and then blue floral aromatics (violets and lavender) streamed past our nose. From there it was a lovely jump to layers of red and black fruits (berries, plums and cherries) that caressed the palate. This Hermitage style, yet characteristically California intense, wine captures its own corner of the rainbow.

www.jccellars.com (510) 749-9463

Unless you have visited the Napa Valley, it is difficult to picture and understand why the wines that are made here can be so different from each other in taste and character. After all, we are only talking about a north-south oriented area about 30 miles long and not much more than 5 miles wide – merely 1/6 the size of Bordeaux. Yet, from the southernmost town of Napa, to Calistoga in the north, one cannot travel more that a few hundred yards without being surrounded by grape vines that thrive in the constant daylight sun tempered in the lower valley by cool fogs and breezes from the San Francisco and San Pablo Bays. Further helping create the myriad of wine characteristics is the wide variety of soil types on dry rocky hillsides, on the loamy valley floor along the Napa River, and on the “benches” (gravelly deposits eroded down from the mountains).

Within the Napa Valley there are growing regions that each possess characteristics similar enough to have been granted its own American Viticultural Area (referred to as “AVA” or “Appellation”). You need not be able to name each of the 14 sub-appellations (Napa Valley is itself an appellation) to enjoy wines, but it is extremely helpful to have heard of most of them and to understand what the region brings to the wine.

Modern enology allows the luxury of matching grape varieties with locations that are best suited to grow them. Individual regions feature distinct meso or microclimates (functions of wind, rain, temperature, and time-in-the-sun), as well as terrain (hill, valley, foothill, type of soil, etc.). All of these factors affect and influence the grapes. Understanding even ever so little about an Appellation allows the consumer to have a little advance knowledge of what s/he might expect from a bottle with an AVA name on it.

The St Helena AVA isnestled between the Mayacamas and Vaca Mountains in the northern third of Napa Valley just above Rutherford (renowned for its "dust") where the valley floor begins to narrow.St. Helena sits on a flat plane blessed with gravelly soils that drain well, and receives a perfect balance of sun and frequent cooling afternoon wind from the north. Here one finds highly intense and concentrated wines with firm, approachabletannins. The key descriptor for this appellation may be "elegant"

Last week we enjoyed a dayof tasting atEhlers Estate, where many of the vintners in the St. Helena Appellation showed offwines made from grapes grown only in that AVA.

We truly loved these: 2002 Crocker Starr Stone Place Cuvee ($65), a concentrated offering with a nose of cassis and licorice, and a mid palate of black fruit; 2003 Ehlers Estate Cabernet Franc ($33), a classic of this varietal with integrated elegance of currants, spice, and earth; 2003 Revana ($95), one of the best, with black cherry, smoke, structure, and length; 2002 Vineyard 29 Aida Zinfandel ($75), a big, black, bold, spicy wine with vanilla hints; 2002 Vineyard 29 Red Wine ($120), with spruce and pine in the nose, chocolate at the end, both supported by nice tannins; and the 2002 Parry Cellar Cab about which we have raved in recent columns.

We would go out of our way to drink these: 2004 Ballentine Petit Verdot ($38), which, though still young, starts with a huge nose and puts lots of fruit in your mouth; 2002 James Johnson “Bisou” Cabernet Sauvignon ($60), with black and blue berries, licorice, layers, and elegance; 2003 Chase Hayne Vineyard Centennial Release Zinfandel ($40), full of dark, lush fruit with a little smoke and long bright finish;2003 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon ($110), so good that even the price would not deter us from this layered, blue berry enhanced wine; 2003 Titus Cabernet Franc ($30), with dark red fruit layering into a white pepper, long lasting finish; 2001 Trespass Cabernet Sauvignon ($54), with a body of chocolate mingling with mint and blueberry; and 2003 Sequum Kidd Ranch Zinfandel ($38), just released and showing a nice balance of fruit and spices.

We wouldn’t turn our backs on these: 2005 Casa Nuestra Chenin Blanc ($24), a crisp wine with medium body and lots of pineapple; 2003 David Fulton Petite Sirah ($40), with nice fruit that seems to improve with each vintage; 2002 Rockledge Zinfandel ($19), with lots of smooth cherries, and a good price;and 2001 Varozza Cabernet Sauvignon ($45), a pleasant wine with cherries up front and Exotic spices at the finish.

A bit overpriced for our liking: 2002 Whitehall Lane Leonardini Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($100); 2003 Ehlers Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($75).

Wines made from St. Helena fruit are certainly world class, and, because it qualifies as its own appellation, vintners are permitted to put “St. Helena” on their front labels so consumers know that is where the grapes were grown. However, “St. Helena” is not yet as well known nationwide as some other appellations, so for marketing purposes various vintners elect to use “Napa Valley” instead. Technically, this means the grapes can come from anywhere in the Valley, including regions that may not be as good as St. Helena. Yet, “sales” is the name of the game, and until St. Helena is more recognizable as its own superb appellation, some wines will not have this area prominently displayed on a front label. It is, however, almost always on the back. So look for it and remember, when you see “St. Helena,” quality is almost always assured.

Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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