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St. Helena –
Napa Valley’s Holy Grail

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December 19, 2016
Introduction by Barry Wiss  |  Article by Igor Sill

Barry Wiss is recognized as one of the most influential wine personalities of Napa Valley. He is a Certified Wine Educator, Certified Sommelier, holds the Advanced Level Certification from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust and serves on the Board of Directors and Examiners for the Society of Wine Educators.

Being a professional wine educator for Trinchero Winery in St. Helena has given me the great fortune of traveling to many great wine regions. They are all amazing places! Try to name a wine region that is not a beautiful place. However, when it comes to the heart of Napa Valley (St. Helena), I feel as lucky as a tourist every time I drive to work. Not only is St. Helena a charming small town with great people, but also it offers the very best from Mother Nature to produce some of the world’s most extraordinary wines. It is the narrow center of the hourglass-shaped Napa Valley with deep, loosely compacted soils coupled with a perfect Mediterranean climate – Napa Valley’s “Holy Grail.”


Trinchero Napa Valley vineyard.

Trinchero Napa Valley vineyard.

No other wine region on the planet draws as much attention or as many visitors as Napa Valley. It is visited by some five million people every year, making it the second most-visited tourist destination in California (Disneyland is #1). Perfect for a day or weekend trip from San Francisco, Napa Valley rewards one with beautiful scenery, exceptional wineries and world-renowned wines.

I’m frequently asked which Napa vineyards produce the very best Cabernet Sauvignon wines. This isn’t an easy question to answer, as there are so many exceptional vineyards, talented winemakers and microclimates in Napa. My favorite American Viticulture Area (one of 14 AVAs within Napa Valley) is the treasured St. Helena. Since acquiring my own St. Helena AVA vineyard some 28 years ago, I’ve taken the opportunity to get acquainted with, tour and taste most of the popular wineries and make numerous repeat visits to some of my favorites. So, let’s explore St. Helena’s vineyards as a starting point of this much revered wine region.

Napa Valley contains well over 400 wineries, with St. Helena being home to some 174 wineries and vineyards that welcome guests with tours, wine education and tasting rooms. While enticing, the sheer number of winery options can be overwhelming. In this article, I’ve focused on St. Helena’s particular AVA, whose wineries offer exceptional award-winning red wines along with a rich history.

On long summer afternoons, the vineyards of St. Helena delight in the California sunshine under the watchful eye of Mount Saint Helena, from which the town drew its name. The source of the name is evident but the identity of the person who named it has been variously defined and, at times, disputed. One authority assigns the honor to Henry Still and William Taylor while they were celebrating a party in Still’s store one evening. A discussion for a town name brought about a consensus by the entire party, with the name St. Helena being bestowed and a subsequent act incorporating the town of St. Helena was approved on March 24, 1876.

Vineyards in St. Helena.

Vineyards in St. Helena.

St. Helena AVA covers just over 6,800 acres of vineyards, which are situated at the narrowest point between the Vaca and Mayacamas mountain ranges, making it the largest planted vineyard area of any of the Napa sub appellations. The town and its vineyards are located where the Napa Valley narrows to approximately a half mile wide, which increases the radiated heat from the valley hillsides. The resulting contracted corridor funnels cool evening bay fog and produces wide temperature swings. As a result, this area is considered to be the pinnacle of high quality red wine viticulture.

St. Helena boasts a unique topography quite different from its surrounding regions, which creates an optimal microclimate for growing Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. The exceptional drainage of its gravelly volcanic loam soils imparts an environment for Cabernet Sauvignon like nowhere else in Napa Valley. St. Helena’s appellation is considered by many to be one of the very best wine growing regions because its valley floor soils tend to be deeper, much more fertile and produce vigorous growth. The vines are closely managed to produce intensely concentrated grapes. These exceptional valley floor vintages receive the perfect combination of “terroir” microclimate, barrel aging and winemaker attention.

Concert in the park in St. Helena.

Concert in the park in St. Helena.

You might naturally assume that the north is cooler than the south. Actually, the truth is that the valley gets progressively cooler as it moves south from Mount Saint Helena. Thus, St. Helena vineyards are noticeably warmer than those of its southern neighbors. Cool Pacific breezes coming over the Mayacamas ranges from the west, as well as from San Francisco Bay, cool the vines in the evenings quickly and deliver exceptionally intense fruit, given the long warm days. As the breezes and fog move northerly, they gradually surrender their coolness with the increasing distance from the Bay and ocean.

The Entrance to Spottswoode Estate.

The Entrance to Spottswoode Estate.

The history of winemaking in St. Helena is legendary. David Fulton planted one of the very first St. Helena vineyards in 1858, followed by Charles Krug’s opening of his winery in 1861. Jacob Beringer’s winery opened in 1876, and it now has the distinction of being listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Spottswoode winery was established in 1882 by George Schonewald. A host of other prestigious wineries are squeezed into the valley’s funnel; among them are Duckhorn, Joseph Phelps, Markham, Grace Family and V. Sattui.

Some of the highest wine critic ratings cite St. Helena wineries as producing the very best wines based on awards at prestigious wine competitions, along with ratings from publications such as The Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast.

Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.

Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.

The area’s wines are discernibly distinctive and continually rank among Napa Valley’s very best. Spottswoode’s 2010 Estate Cabernet received 100 points from Robert Parker of The Wine Advocate. V. Sattui’s Paradiso, a perfectly balanced Bordeaux-style blend, received Wine of the Year, Platinum award, and 97 points from Critics’ Choice. Beringer’s 2007 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon received 97 points from Robert Parker, while David Fulton Winery’s 2008 Petite Sirah garnered a Four Star Gold from California’s largest and most prestigious wine event, Orange County Fair Wine Society Competition.

And, that’s why St. Helena has become the Cabernet Sauvignon social heartbeat of Napa Valley and my absolute “go to” favorite for exceptional wines. Enjoy.

The author, Igor Sill, farms a terraced Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard in St. Helena, Napa, California. He’s a passionate wine lover, collector, author and a certified member of the Court of Master Sommeliers. Igor can be reached at igor.sill@gmail.com.

About the author

Barry Wiss