Quite possibly, the most interesting St. Helena Star/Napa Valley Vintners wine tasting panel in 2014 was one that didn’t happen. A tasting of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons was scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 11. But, because of the winter storm that dumped a huge amount of rain, 4.09 inches, on the Napa Valley that day, it was canceled.
Good thing, too, because the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, where the tastings have been held for the past seven years, ended up closing that afternoon. The weather was just too nasty for anything other than hunkering down in front of a warm fire with a glass of, what else, Napa Valley red wine.
The rain was a blessing on drought-stricken California. By the end of December 12.57 inches of rain had fallen for the season.
For the rest of the year, the Star/NVV panel tastings went off without a hitch, and each month panelists spent a couple of hours tasting and critiquing various Napa Valley Vintner-member wines. The panel is made up of winemakers, assistant winemakers, sommeliers and retailers from the area. Attendance is by invitation only.
Serving on the panel for the past six years is Catherine Bugue, who holds a diploma in wine and spirits from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust. She works for Balzac Communications & Marketing in Napa and teaches all things wine through the Napa Valley Wine Academy, which she co-founded with Jurg and Christian Oggenfuss. She is also the lead writer for the articles from each of the monthly tastings, which are normally held in the Rudd Center at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena.
This article highlights many of the tastings from the year and lists the top Napa Valley Vintner-member wines from each of those tastings.
2011, 2012 chardonnays
With the arrival of spring, the St. Helena Star/Napa Valley Vintners tasting panel judged a large number of chardonnays from 2011 and 2012, which ranged in price from $30 to $70.
Generally speaking the panelists preferred the 2012 vintage as they felt those wines showed more fruit, acidity and balance than the 2011 chardonnays. Additionally, panelists surprisingly found the wines to be sweeter than they would have expected. Panelist Stacey Vogel commented, “I was quite surprised in the amount of sugar I found in these wines, especially in the 2012 vintage.” Todd Graff, winemaker for Frank Family Vineyards, agreed and said he found the wines to have an “element of Moscato in them.”
- 2011 Alpha Omega, $64
- 2011 Franciscan Estate Cuveee Sauvage, Carneros, $40
- 2012 Brown Estate Vineyards, $55
- 2012 Frank Family Vineyards, $34.75
- 2012 Oakville Ranch Vineyards, Oakville, $50
- 2012 Trefethen Family Vineyards, $32
2013 sauvignon blancs
Twenty-six panelists gathered in mid-May to taste and judge 24 sauvignon blancs from the 2013 vintage. The panelists found the wines crisp and refreshing, with lots of fresh fruit. Gone were the styles from a few years ago when Napa Valley sauvignon blancs were chardonnay wannabes with lots of toasty oak.
Michael Scholz, winemaker at St. Supery, said the sauvignon blancs were more similar than not and were “clean, bright and certainly not fat or flabby.” Chris Phelps, winemaker at Swanson Vineyards, added, “The wines had a sense of balance not seen in years — very refreshing, literally.”
Alan Viader of Viader Vineyards & Winery mentioned “the elegance and prettiness” of the wines but also noticed that “some threw in the extra dimension that oak flavors provide.” Oak continues to be used in Napa Valley sauvignon blanc winemaking, with fermentation in neutral oak barrels and subtle oak flavors in several of the wines, yet not to the extent of previous years.
Top 2013 sauvignon blancs
- B Cellars, Julianna Vineyard, $29
- Crocker & Starr Wines, $34
- Hall, $24
- Honig Vineyard & Winery, $17
- Hunter III Wines, $28
- Kenefick Rnahc Winery, Calistoga, $24
- Salvestrin, St. Helena, $24
- St. Supery Estate Vineyards & Winery, $20
With the arrival of summer, the panelists settled in for a tasting of four flights of rosés, ranging in price from $16 to $35. Selected at random, rosés in each flight ranged in color from a pale pint to a deeper, darker purple. Made from a wide variety of grapes, rosés incorporate some color from the grape skins, depending on how long the skins are in contact with the juice. Overall, some of the panelists were very well-balanced, crisp and refreshing, although others were turned off by the darker-colored rosés.
Top 2013 rosés
- Canard Vineyard, Councher de Soleil, $30
- Fortunati Vineyards, PRANZO, $20
- Jericho Canyon Vineyard, $35
- Round Pond Estate, $24
- St. Supery Estate Vineyards & Winery, $16
2013 aromatic whites
What makes a white wine more aromatic than another? That was the question for the panelists during a July tasting that featured four flights, all priced between $18 and $30.
Bob Bath, Master Sommelier, CIA Wine & Beverage instructor and one of the regular panelists, said, “It’s not just the fruit characteristics that you typically get with a Riesling, chenin blanc or even sauvignon blanc for that matter. It’s more about the floral notes in a wine that make it aromatic.”
The categories of wines included Alsatian, Bordeaux, Rhone and miscellaneous, which included two wines made from rare grapes, both from Spiriterra Vineyards, a Scuppernong and a Muscadine.
Favorite 2013 Aromatic whites
- Ballentine Vineyards Chenin Blanc, $19
- Fortunati Vineyards, Viognier, $32
- Franciscan Estate, Equilibrium, $23
- Silenus Winery, Riesling, $22
At the end of summer, the panelists gathered to taste through five flights of merlot from the 2011 and 2012 vintages. Panelists agreed that the well-made merlots are very nice, popular with consumers and are often less tannic than cabernet sauvignon. Additionally, merlot is “an easy introduction to red wine” for consumers and the rounder, softer tannins make merlot easy to drink.
Napa Valley producers who specialize in the wine either bottle it as a varietal or use it as an important blending grape.
- 2011 Franciscan Estate, $21
- 2011 Castello di Amorosa, $34
- 2011 Behrens Family Winery, $80
- 2012 Ballentine Vineyards, $28
- 2012 Peju, $35
2009-2012 cabernet sauvignons
At the end of 2014, two tastings of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon were held: one of cabs priced at $50 and higher and one of cabernets made from grapes grown on the hillsides. It’s generally agreed that Napa Valley is well-known for its cabernet sauvignon; the climate, terroir and soil types set the valley apart from other grape-growing regions. Cabernets are often described as elegant, smooth, velvety and rich. Often described as the “king of red wine varieties,” a quality cabernet sauvignon spends more time aging to develop its intense fruit and character.
At the first tasting, panelists judged 28 wines in four flights. The concensus was the 2011 vintage was a bit overly manipulated with oak, the 2012s offered bigger fruit and aromatics and the 2009 and 2010s were holding up very well for their age.
- 2010 Alpha Omega, ERA, $210
- 2010 Black Stallion Winery Transcendent, $135
- 2011 Ideology Cellars, Oak Knoll, $125
- 2011 Merus, $145
- 2011 Monticello Vineyards, Corley Reserve, $85
- 2011 Pellet Estate, $95
- 2012 Rombauer Vineyards, Diamond Selection, $70
- 2012 Textbook Mise en Place, $50
Three vintages of cabernets, 2010, 2011 and 2012, were a part of the tasting of 29 wines, with prices ranging from $44 to $210 and grown at elevations from 400 to 2,000 feet. Panelists generally agreed they liked the 2011 hillside cabs better than the 2010 and 2012s, even though it was a difficult year to make wine. Sterling’s Alison Rodriguez explained: “The 2011 hillside wines are showing better (than valley floor) because the soils are better draining and there is enough air circulation in cooler years, it’s not surprising.”
Top hillside cabs
- 2010 Burgess Cellars, $44
- 2010 ERBA Mountain Vineyards, $55
- 2010 Rarecat Wines, $100
- 2010 Vineyard 511, $125
- 2011 Cornerstone Cellars, $80
- 2011 Davies Vineyards, J Davies, $90
- 2011 ZMarketta Winery & Vineyard, $69
- 2011 Spring Mountain Vineyard, $75
- 2012 Artesa Winery, Foss Valley Ranch, $85
- 2012 Frank Family Vineyards, $150.