In the year just past, the St. Helena Star/Napa Valley Vintners tasting panel sampled hundreds of bottles of wine and chose their top wines for each tasting. Those results have been published throughout the year, but it’s clearly time for a recap.

One surprising fact stands out: Brooks Painter, director of winemaking at both St. Helena’s V. Sattui Winery and Calistoga’s Castello di Amorosa, knows what he’s doing. The tasting panelists chose five of his wines as some of the best throughout the year and some were the best values of all the wines tasted that month.

A wine lover could do worse than buying these five: 2006 merlot ($25); 2007 chardonnay ($26); 2007 Vittorio’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($35); 2008 pinot noir from the Henry Ranch in Carneros ($36) and Castello di Amorosa’s 2007 flagship reserve cabernet sauvignon, “Il Barone,” which lists at $98.

Tom Davies, president of V. Sattui, said since Brooks joined the team in spring 2005, he “has proven to be a very highly-capable winemaker and is instrumental in our efforts to make wines that compete with the very best of the Napa Valley. Brooks has also assembled an incredibly talented and hardworking vineyard and production staff that is committed to over-delivering on quality.” He added he is proud of their efforts and accomplishments.

Davies then talked about the results from the tasting panel, “I believe they recognize what our loyal fans have known for many years — V. Sattui makes very good wines at affordable prices.”

Another local winery, St. Helena’s Boeschen Vineyards, had two of its wines place in the top group for each of the tastings: the 2009 Katie Rosé Merlot from St. Helena ($20) and its 2009 sauvignon blanc, which sells for $33.

The tasting panel is made up of between 20 and 30 people a month and includes a variety of winemakers and retailers, as well as others involved in the Napa Valley wine industry. 

Usually for a month’s tasting, 50 to 200 bottles of wine will be submitted, depending on what’s being tasted. In December, 30 people tasted and judged “flagship” cabernets and nearly 96 separate entries were submitted, although only 36 were tasted. (Some of the remaining cabernets will be tasted and judged later this month.)

From 2010, then, the tasting panel has come up with a “baker’s dozen” of top wines, the best values of the best wines tasted each month.

They are as follows:

Early in the year, the panel tasted and judged chardonnays that had to be made by Napa Valley Vintners members and made from Napa Valley grapes (as with all the tastings). For this tasting, the chardonnays could not be from Carneros. The top wine: V. Sattui Winery 2007 chardonnay ($26) from the estate’s Carsi Vineyard in the southern reaches of Yountville. It “displays aromas of honeysuckle, lemon curd, cream and honey with a kiss of toasty oak. On the palate, the wine has good balance with weighty texture, finishing crisp and clean.”

For the 2008 pinot noirs there are two top wines, both crowd-pleasers,  Frank Family Vineyards and Merryvale Vineyards, both from Carneros and both selling for $35. The Frank Family wine, made by Todd Graff, a frequent tasting panel member, is “full of deep earthiness and dark cherries.” The Merryvale pinot is “full of smoky, wild strawberries with caramel and herbs.”

On April 15, the panel met to sample 10-year-old cabernets and of the 21 wines judged, the Signorello Estate cab sold for $66 when released, compared to $100 and more for the remaining top six wines. The 1998 Signorello was the first vintage made by Pierre Bierbent, current winemaker and vineyard manager at Signorello.

As spring weather turned warmer, the tasting panelists judged reds that are just right for picnics, all priced under $25. Two of the best values were the 2008 Ca’Momi Rosso di Napa, which has dark cherry aromas and flavors with a juicy cherry palate. It is topped with a 100 percent recyclable “Nova Twist” screwcap that was first introduced by Ca’Momi. It retails for $10.99. The Tangley Oaks 2007 merlot ($14.99) has “lots of juicy berries and a bit of heat from the alcohol but is beautifully made.” For a year, a percentage of all sales of this wine goes to the Arbor Day Foundation for planting trees.

In June, Napa Valley rosés were featured. The 2009 Saintsbury Vin Gris of Pinot Noir from Carneros, which sells for a penny less than $15, is part of the “baker’s dozen.” It is “a light pink color with enticing strawberry and herb flavors, finishing with some spice.”

The following month found the tasting panel enjoying the valley’s best sauvignon blancs. Two from the 2009 vintage are the best values: those from Turnbull Wine Cellars ($15) and from Honig Vineyard & Winery ($16). The Turnbull, made from Oakville grapes, “has a rich palate with lemon zest flavors and a spicy finish.” The Honig “is a mixture of lemon-lime, banana and light spice on the finish.” Additionally, writer Catherine Seda said it is a very fun wine.

Special wines that are sold only in the winery’s tasting room were the subject of the August tasting panel. These wines are treated with care and usually only a small amount is made. A quintessential Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon was the best value ($35) of these rare and affordable wines. It is the 2007 V. Sattui Winery Vittorio’s Vineyard, which “is very fleshy and full of dark cherry and blackberry flavors.” The tight tannins make this cab just right to pair with a juicy, grilled steak.

The 2008 vintage chardonnays, all from Napa Carneros, were the subject of the September tasting. The best wine was $60, but the best value was a $24 chardonnay from Calistoga’s Clos Pegase. The wine made from grapes grown in Mitsuko’s Vineyard is “round and ripe with peach and lemon zest flavors.” It is fermented in French oak and stirred on its lees.

In November, the focus was on the 2008 petite sirahs. The best value was the wine from Ballentine Vineyards at $24, as it competed against wines ranging from $35 to $45. According to writer Michael Wangbickler, who shared reporting duties with Seda this year, the tasting panelists liked this wine for its complexity and richness. He added it “has a heavy body with firm, dusty tannins with good balance.” Unusually, the panelists liked the younger 2008s rather than those from either 2006 or 2007, which seemed out of balance and lacked the “vibrancy and youth” of the younger wines.

Finally, at the end of 2010 the panel gathered to taste the Napa Valley’s “flagship” cabernets, those that cost a bundle (from $95 to $225) and are the winery’s best reserve wines. The panelists noted the overall top quality of the top six wines, which were “not big wine bombs, but made in a more elegant style.” Over the years, the winemaking in the Napa Valley has improved to create beautifully crafted cabernets with complexity, depth and elegance.

The best value: the $95 reserve “Il Barone” cabernet sauvignon from Castello di Amorosa. So this list ends as it started — with a wine made by Brooks Painter.


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