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St. Helena Star/Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel
The St. Helena Star/Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel recently tasted 15 wines, including these top three white wines from new producers. Photo courtesy of Alan’s Studio on Main, St. Helena

The last five years have been a rollercoaster ride for new wineries in Napa Valley. A lot of tenacity and a solid business plan have pulled many wineries through the economic firestorm. In this time period, 51 new wineries signed on with the Napa Valley Vintners. Wineries that, at first glance, probably still saw the rosy glow that surrounded the wine industry — all seemed good.

The next few years would not prove kind. But recent reports show that the industry as a whole has actually moved forward. Wines sales have increased, including recently, premium wines, and wine consumption has been continuously increasing in the United States for almost two decades. We are now the largest wine-consuming country in the world.

The St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel decided to take a look at the new wineries from the last five years and see what has been crafted from their determination. With a taste of spring in the air, we asked for white wines.

Fifteen different wines were tasted. Sauvignon blanc was the most popular varietal to be submitted. Two different flights of sauvignon blanc were tasted along with a third flight of assorted wines including marsanne, grenache blanc and several chardonnay wines.

Wayne Donaldson of Donaldson Wines noted that the white wines overall had complexity and layering. Peter Luthi, former winemaker of Trefethen and now a consultant, also commented on the wines’ complexity and preferred natural varietal fruit flavors instead of oak or other cellar-influenced flavors.

Elizabeth Vianna of Chimney Rock was looking for balance, a nice flow, and aromatics — not just simple and fruity wines. She didn’t mind oak-influenced flavors and explained it was important how the wines were executed. You can have oak, she said, but it is how you go about using that oak that is important.

Christopher Hoel, sommelier at The French Laundry, was looking for wines that would go well with food. If the wines are too lean and delicate, he noted, they will be overshadowed by the food.

With so many sauvignon blanc wines submitted, the discussion did come back around to the varietal and the many ways the flavors can be influenced in the vineyard and cellar. Interestingly, Eric Carpenter of St. Helena Wine Merchants has seen an increase in premium-priced sauvignon blanc in the market.

The favorite whites from new Napa Valley Vintner wineries were then revealed. These Tasting Panel favorites are the first-place winners from each of the three flights, with the last flight having a tie:

Bello Family Vineyards 2009 Marsanne Napa Valley ($38). The Bello Estate, owned by Michael Bello, sits in the Rutherford Bench district. Aaron Pott is the winemaker, and David Abreu is vineyard consultant. The photo gallery on bellofamilyvineyards.com makes you feel like you have taken a quick side trip to Europe. Sipping on their winning Marsanne, a French grape that isn’t much planted in the Napa Valley, continues the feeling. Delicious tangerine and lemon citrus aromas with pear fruit flavors.

Sleeper Cellars 2009 Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley ($16.95). A fantastic sauvignon blanc from the three owners of BP Wines — Stefan Blicker, Brent Pierce and Cory Wagner, who have collectively been in the fine and rare wine business for more than 30 years. The Sleeper name comes from the term used for something of incredible taste and quality that has not yet been discovered by the greater world. If they keep making wine this good, the name may become obsolete. Great floral, pear and tangerine aromas and flavors.

The Grade Cellars, Sea Fog, 2009 Sauvignon Blanc Calistoga ($25). Owners Brenda Mixson and Thomas Thornton named this wine after the early morning fog which rolls in and complements the warm temperatures in Calistoga. Their winery name, The Grade, comes from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Silverado Squatters,” and is a term the author used to describe area where The Grade Cellars is located. A delicious peach and zesty orange flavored wine.

Ziata 2010 Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley ($26). Karen Cakebread has traveled the world with wine. She lived in Hong Kong and marketed wines in both Hong Kong and Singapore until she came to the Napa Valley in 1989. She handled international marketing, education and corporate hospitality for Cakebread Cellars before crafting her own brand. Ziata is named after her mother, Annunziata. The wine has fresh grass and pink grapefruit aromas with zesty lemon and lime citrus and apple flavors.

All are great white wines, but the group did re-taste these top picks to choose their ultimate favorite. That wine? Ziata Wines’ Sauvignon Blanc. Cheers to Annunziata!

 (Catherine Seda is the St. Helena Star’s tasting panel writer and works for Balzac Communications & Marketing in Napa. She holds a diploma in wine and spirits from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust, and enjoys all things wine. Contact her at catseda@gmail.com. Only wines from Napa Valley Vintner member wineries are accepted and tasted. Not all wines submitted are chosen to be tasted as often there are more wines submitted than tasted. The wines are chosen by random. Many wineries offer local residents discounts on their wines through the Napa Neighbor program, visit www.napavintners.com/programs and click on Napa Neighbor to learn more.)

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