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When the tasting panel first formed they were trying to determine what wines go best with Thanksgiving. Now, 10 years later the St. Helena Star/Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel in monthly blind tastings selects their favorites out of some of the best Napa Valley has to offer in a program that celebrated a milestone anniversary and received Congressional recognition.

“This community tradition has helped journalists and the wine community build stronger relationships,” read the proclamation written by Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena). “The articles that journalists write about these tastings help consumers learn about wine and appreciate the hard working winemakers in our community.

“The Tasting Panel has been providing quality information to our community about Napa Valley wines for the past 10 years. I am proud to have such a great tradition to showcase the best wine in the world.”

The framed proclamation was presented by Maria Ayala-Calderon of Thompson’s office to Dave Stoneberg, St. Helena Star editor, at the panel’s tasting last week where they sampled and judged cabernet sauvignons and red blends from the 2007 vintage, in honor of their first tasting.

Stoneberg, who founded the Tasting Panel with others in 2007, thanked numerous people, some who were attending as panelists, including Stefan Blicker, co-owner of BPW Merchants, who was the professional wine person who helped kick off the blind tasting program.

“For quite a few years the wines were delivered to the Star offices and I would carry them, literally across the railroad tracks to Neil Aldoroty’s 55 Degrees for storage. We got entry sheets for each wine. And I remember a photo of Stefan in his office covered with tasting sheets. He was trying to figure out what wines we would taste that month, how many could we choose from the 50 or 60 wines that were submitted,” Stoneberg said.

In the beginning years it wasn’t always easy to get wines submitted for the tastings, or to get panelists to carve out time of their day to participate in the tastings.

“For the first few years, Terry Hall and Brandy Leonards from the Napa Valley Vintners worked with me on the panel. This morning as I was picking up the wines for this afternoon, Brandy remembered what it was like. She said she struggled to get people to the tasting, struggled to get people to submit wines. Brandy said she’d take them to lunch and begged them to come and taste. Obviously her efforts have paid off,” Stoneberg said.

Attended by 20 to 25 panelists that include winemakers, vintners, wine educators, journalists and occasional visitors, the blind tastings are conducted in three to five flights depending on the number of wine submissions, all which come from winery members of the Napa Valley Vintners. The room goes quiet as panelists swirl, sniff, sip, spit, and jot down notes before assigning a score, as Stoneberg says, “With one being your best, and six your worst.”

Stoneberg keeps a tally of each flight and at the end of the tasting asks panelists for their thoughts on what they tasted. After conducting more than 100 tastings over the years, Stoneberg has learned who he can count on for frank and honest comments. It’s kind of like Las Vegas – what is said in the Rudd Center, stays in the Rudd Center, at the Culinary Institute of America, where most of the tastings have taken place. Except for the comments noted by Catherine Bugue, co-owner and director of education at the Napa Valley Wine Academy, who writes a story for the Star about the tasting and the winning wines. Then the wines are revealed and the group scores announced.

Those who attend, many of them winemakers, relish the opportunity to not only taste other wines from Napa Valley, but share thoughts on what they’ve just tasted, and hear what others think. Sometimes these winemakers are blind-judging their own wines.

“It is a tremendous opportunity to stay in touch with Napa Valley Wine people, winemakers, owners, marketing/PR folk and new people coming into our industry,” said John Skupny, vintner of Lang and Reed Wine Company. “On top of that, I get to ‘sharpen the saw’ tasting some of the best wines made anywhere.”

The varietal and vintage of the wines being judged varies from month to month. There have been judging of chardonnays made in oak, and those without oak, sauvignon blanc, a wide variety of cabernet sauvignons including tasting those based on price point such as $50 and under one month and $50 and over the next. Pinot noir from Carneros even gets its due.

“Blind tastings give us an opportunity to fairly evaluate wines, and that’s our profession,” said Hugh Davies, vintner of Schramsberg and J. Davies wines. “We want to produce wines that really taste good, and tasting blind is the key methodology employed to measure success.

“The Star/NVV tastings get us away from our winery into a broader pool where we can pick up other input as well. There is a lot of camaraderie in this business. We’re all working together to improve, enhance and build towards the future.”

Editor and Publisher, a trade publication for the newspaper industry, recognized the Tasting Panel in its March 2017 article “10 Newspapers that Do it Right,” which praised the Tasting Panel for creating “a better way to report on the wines they were recommending to readers.”

“You know when I got here almost seven years ago I was the editor of The Weekly Calistogan, started kind of at the bottom of our little chain of newspapers, and Dave invited me to one of these things, and I said to him after, I think, the first one, ‘Dave, do you realize what you’ve got here? Do you realize how special this is?’” said Sean Scully, editor of the Napa Valley Register and director of news content for three weeklies, including the Calistogan and the Star.

“What’s special about it is, it gives us at the Star and the Register, access to you guys, to the wine industry, because what do we do that’s any different than any other little 10,000 circulation daily, or 2,500 circulation weekly in the country — we’re right in the heart of wine country and we have access to you guys, who make the wine, who sell the wine, who understand the wine, who grow the grapes. And the thing that I think is most special about this panel, it gives us direct access to your wisdom,” Scully said.

The access to the wine professionals has helped us all as journalists, individuals and as a company to better understand wine and the industry, he said.

“I think this panel has a life and an identity that’s bigger than the St. Helena Star, it’s bigger than the Napa Valley Register and it’s come to exist on its own and it’s thanks to Dave Stoneberg and his great work. Some of it’s been accidental, some of it’s been like planned. He’s done great work with it,” Scully said.

While some NVV colleagues have come and gone, Stoneberg has been the thread that’s held the panel together all these years.

“Thank you all for being here, for sticking with us through the years. For providing a foundation for newspaper articles that tell the world what we already know — in the Napa Valley the wines are pretty fantastic. And we’ve proven that each month for the past 10 years. Thank you,” Stoneberg said.


The Weekly Calistogan Editor