Napa Valley’s Wine Epicenter
Of the 16 unique American Viticultural Areas that comprise Napa Valley’s 789 square miles, St. Helena is considered the epicenter of Napa Valley wine. Home to some of Napa Valley’s most historic and recognizable wineries and vineyards, this AVA is considered to be the birthplace of Napa Valley’s commercial wine industry. Today, the area continues to buzz with innovation, collaboration, distinction, and an unrelenting spirit of excellence and collaboration that brings together world-class wine talent.
Officially approved as an AVA in 1995, it wasn’t until 2004 that the AVA was represented by a formal group known as Appellation St. Helena. Its focus – to bring attention to the exceptional quality of the wine grapes and wines produced within its boundaries, which are defined by Zinfandel Lane to the south, Bale Lane to the north, the intersection of Howell Mountain and Conn Valley Road to the east, and the 400-foot elevation line of the Mayacamas Mountain range to the west.
“St. Helena (and Rutherford) is really the heart of where it all started here in Napa Valley from a historical perspective,” said Beth Novak Milliken, president and CEO of Spottswoode Estate Vineyard & Winery and Appellation St. Helena’s first acting president. “If you look at the original houses, from Charles Krug to Beringer to Sutter Home to Louis Martini to the Christian Brothers, and then four miles south to Beaulieu and Inglenook, you will note that this area was where most went in the late 1800s to establish their vineyards and wineries.”
Grape growing here dates back to the Mexican land grants of the 1840s when General Vallejo gave European settler Edward Bale a wedding gift of property in the small town of St. Helena, which Bale promptly planted successfully to Mission grapes. Soon, others such as Henry Pellet and Dr. George Belden Crane began to farm their land to grapes as well, and St. Helena’s wine industry was underway.
In 1861, Prussian immigrant Charles Krug founded his winery, and in 1873, he and Pellet combined their wine lots and shipped them to a non-receptive East Coast audience that scoffed at the use of Mission grapes as opposed to European varieties. This perceived notion that his grapes were not of proper quality led Krug and other wine pioneers to establish the St. Helena Viticultural Club with a goal of improving the quality of the region’s grapes and elevating the perception of the wines. Their strategy would turn Napa Valley into the world-class winemaking destination that it is today, and establish the spirit of collaboration and goodwill that continue to strengthen St. Helena’s winemaking community and Appellation St. Helena.
The hourglass shape of the AVA’s geography, its 21 different soil types, and its distance from the cool waters of San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean set it apart from other growing regions throughout the world. Its vineyards are located on mountain bench-lands, within ancient alluvial fans, and on the Valley floor that sweeps toward the Napa River. Consistent sunshine locks-in heat during the day, and at night, the region’s slender width funnels’ moderating breezes dramatically cool the vines, helping the fruit to develop ideal balance and acidity, the AVA’s trademark. “Typically, on a foggy day, the sun will shine through to St. Helena earliest as the fog rolls back over the Mayacamas to the west and pulls away south towards the bay,” explained Pam Starr, founder and owner of Crocker & Starr Wines. “Disease pressure is low, so grape growing can be more experimental. The mountains protect us from extreme diurnals. The impact of St. Helena terroir is found in our wines which have great natural acidity, modest ripeness, and silky tannins with good concentration.”
“That early fog burn-off, and the subsequent sunshine, when properly managed in the vineyard, allow for beautifully ripe fruit (in our case, never too ripe) which retains its acids well, allowing us to craft wines of great core strength with freshness and vivacity,” added Novak Milliken.
The AVA is comprised of roughly 12,000 acres, of which approximately 6,800 are planted to grapes – more than any other AVA in Napa Valley. More than 400 different vineyards are located within the appellation. Many types of grapes excel in St. Helena, but the most frequently cultivated are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel, and Sauvignon Blanc. Wines made here often have similar characteristics because of the growing conditions. Identifiers include pure, blue to black fruits that are deeply layered and devoid of green characters, concentrated coloring, good structure with balanced acid, ripe, luscious tannins with soft edges, and a supple, elegant texture.
“The common thread for St. Helena fruit is suppleness and richness that provides both power and balance,” said Thane Knutson, winemaker at Raymond Vineyards. “The St. Helena AVA is surrounded by AVAs that give you very different experiences, and some of these appellations are harder to understand, while St. Helena is very harmonious.”
“Over the years, our single-vine- yard wines from the St. Helena appellation have been among the most highly acclaimed wines our family has produced,” said Flora Springs Estate Winery & Vineyards general manager Nat Komes. Nat is the grandson of the winery’s founders, Jerry and Flora Komes, who made St. Helena their winery home long before the area became an official AVA. “My grandparents recognized this area as an incredible place to grow wine grapes, with the climate and soils particularly well-suited to Cabernet Sauvignon.”
“Overall for me, the big one-word description of this AVA is diversity,” said Philippe Melka, proprietor of Melka Estates and Atelier Melka where he serves as a consultant to number of Napa wineries. “Diversity of soil and microclimate, of planted varieties, of winery size, of price point, of wine style, and wine culture.” But beyond the wine and the vines, St. Helena is a community. “The sense of neighborhood here is powerful,” said Novak Milliken. “We work together well, ASH being the main driver for our coming together. We are proud of our growing region/appellation and working together to high- light what we can do here is a great benefit of being a part of the St. Helena community.”
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Article By: Fran Miller