Doug Ernst and I remember the beginning of the St. Helena Star/Napa Valley Vintners tasting panel differently.
In his Nov. 1, 2007 editor’s column announcing the beginning of the panel and the publication of the first column by Emily Bell, his version is as follows:
The Star had tried a blind tasting panel in 2006 but he writes, “We failed to understand that the amount of work that goes into a blind tasting would distract us from our main mission — to produce an excellent paper. There was simply too much to do and too few people to do it.”
That was before he hired me at the Star, which was in August 2006.
Ernst writes that I dragged the Star “back to the drawing board, suggesting that we ask for more help from the community at large. Strangely enough,” he writes, “We got it.”
My story is that Ernst had the idea and asked me to make it happen. At the time, I didn’t know anything about running a wine tasting panel, but Ernst suggested I talk to Terry Hall, the communications director of the Napa Valley Vintners. Hall suggested we get Stefan Blicker to coordinate it – he clearly is the expert wine guy – and Bell, who worked at Ehlers Estate, to write up the story. We scrounged up a group of panelists, mostly winemakers and folks in the wine trade that I knew, for that first tasting.
Our topic was grandiose, “What wines should go with the Thanksgiving meal?” and it showed our inexperience, as we got a random number of reds and whites, difficult for anyone to judge, because they are different wines.
But, that mid-October tasting in 2007 was a start. And now, it’s been a decade that the Star and the Napa Valley Vintners have collaborated on the panel tasting. The third partner in this effort has been the folks at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. We have met for more than 100 times – once a month for 10 years — in the wonderful classrooms at the Rudd Center. They have been gracious in letting us intrude into their classroom schedule and have always provided the glassware.
Many aspects of the tasting panel have changed: Our writer for the past many years has been Catherine Bugue, co-founder of the Napa Valley Wine Academy. At the Napa Valley Vintners, I work with Cate Conniff and Patsy McGaughy. Blicker is no longer the coordinator. In fact, since he moved his business to Napa, he hasn’t been a part of the tastings.
A few parts haven’t changed: I still run the tastings and coordinate them for this newspaper; we still hold them at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone – what a great partner they’ve been in the past decade – and panelists are still Napa winemakers and assistant winemakers. Most significantly, too, is the fact that we’re still tasting and judging wines made in the Napa Valley, from grapes grown in the Napa Valley.
In those 10 years, we’ve tasted and sampled an amazing number of Napa wines and judged them against one another: Napa cabs against Napa cabs; zins against zins; and pinot noirs against pinot noirs. You get the picture. Each month, Bugue writes an article telling which wines were the best and why. I’ve always felt that 20 people judging the wines is better than just one or two on the newspaper staff.
Many of these vintners, including Kristin Belair, Alan Viader and John Skupny, have been constants for the past 10 years, offering their advice and thoughts on the wines that we’re judging. We enter the scores on an Excel sheet on a laptop computer and, if we’re doing things right, it’s easy to tell which wines won which flight. We release the names of the top-scoring wines of each flight. We taste current release wines, so that you can go to the winery or grocery store to get them.
In March, Editor & Publisher, a national magazine covering the newspaper industry, awarded an honorable mention to the tasting panel in its annual competition, “10 Newspapers That Do It Right.” The magazine choose 10 top awards and 10 honorable mentions.
Getting back to what Ernst wrote more than 10 years ago, there’s one thought that has remained the same and has guided us for the past decade:
“Because wine is the Napa Valley’s life blood and because the St. Helena Star has space devoted to wine each week, it seemed plausible that the newspaper could feature a useful wine tasting column once a month. By recommending a half-dozen wines per month, based on the opinions of experienced vintners, restaurateurs and other wine enthusiasts, we could add value to the Star’s wine coverage.”
The Star/NVV panelists will gather this afternoon – postponed because of the North Bay wildfires – and raise a toast to the effort it has taken in 10 years. We will toast the panel with Schramsberg sparkling wines and then sample and taste Napa Valley cabernets from 2007, in honor of our anniversary. And, you can read Bugue’s story about those wines and the tasting later this month.
Thank you to all who have supported our efforts in the past decade; we look forward to another decade of tasting and evaluating the “life blood” of the Napa Valley.