St Helena AVA – Home of Napa’s First Winery

picture of vineyard in the St. Helena AVA

HISTORY

joseph-phelps-vineyardsThe area’s grape growing dates to 1869, and as far back as 1873 Charles Krug’s winery was situated just north of the town of St. Helena, while Henry Pellet’s (later Pellet and Carver) operation was a little south of town. Both were near the center of Napa Valley on what arguably was considered by some historians as one of most suitable vineyard locations found anywhere in the world. In that year, Krug and Pellet combined their wine lots in rail carloads to ship to eastern cities. By the next season, other dynamics were thwarting what should have been an easy time for the St. Helena vintners. 

Sixteen years had passed since Dr. Crane first produced his own commercial wine, a mere two pipes (approximately 300 gallons). Now the town was teeming with knowledgeable winemakers, including the Beringers beginning in 1876, who used sophisticated equipment capable of producing quality wines. However, the country was in the middle of an economic depression, and the market was flooded with wines produced by the French who faced little trade opposition given the relatively low tariffs on shipments to America. In addition, railroad fees were too high, phylloxera had begun to surface in California, and a glut of wine was beginning to accumulate in Napa Valley.

LOCATION

Map of St. Helena AVA, Napa ValleyThe St. Helena appellation, approved as an AVA in 1995, covers just over 9,000 acres and is roughly defined by the following boundaries:

  • South by Zinfandel Lane (south of the town of St. Helena)
  • North by Bale Lane (south of Calistoga)
  • East by the intersection of Howell Mountain and Conn Valley roads
  • West by the 400-foot elevation line at the foot of the Mayacamas range.

The appellation is located where the Napa Valley floor narrows, between the Mayacamas and Vaca mountains.

St. Helena is considered to be the center of quality viticulture in Napa Valley. The history of winemaking here is legendary and St. Helena’s wines are unique. Today, it is home to some of Northern California’s largest wine producers and the area’s wines still rank among the valley’s best.

STATISTICS

  • Climate: Warm, due to greater protection from western hills, with less fog or wind incursions. This narrowest part of the Napa Valley floor floor provides more heat reflection off the hillsides. Mid-summer temperature peak is often in the 85 to 90°F range .
  • Elevation: 200 to 475 feet.
  • Rainfall: 38 to 40 inches annually.
  • Soils: South and west borders are more sedimentary, gravel-clay soils, with lower fertility and moderate water retention. Further north and to the east soils are prevalently volcanic in origin and are deeper and more fertile.
  • Principal Varieties and Characteristics: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot: deep, ripe, often jammy flavors, with firm tannins for structure and acid for long cellaring. Appealing aromas of currant and black fruit. Syrah: Fleshy, supple and slightly earthy. Zinfandel: Blackberry and dark fruit notes, well-structured. Sauvignon Blanc: fresh and fruit forward,  crisp and fresh, not “grassy” with aromas of passion fruit and lemon.

There are an estimated 80 wineries that call the St. Helena appellation in Napa Valley home, and a number of others who use fruit – primarily Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel – from the AVA. Some of the more well-known producers are Spottswoode, Beringer, Charles Krug, Corison, Duckhorn, Flora Springs, Freemark Abbey, Heitz, Joseph Phelps, and Merryvale.

CLIMATE AND SOIL

The St. Helena AVA is located in an up-valley area, where the climate and soils are quite different from the surrounding regions. The marine air incursion that affects the lower areas of the valley is not so dominant here. However, cool Pacific breezes from the north reach St. Helena earlier, cooling vines quickly. Flora Springs Winery - St. Helena, Napa Valley

The climate is warm due to greater protection from western hills, with less fog or wind incursions. This is an area where the valley floor narrows from a wide 19,000 feet at the Oakville Cross Road to just 3,500 feet at Lodi and Bale Lanes. The narrowing of the valley floor provides more heat reflection off the hillsides and mid-summer temperature peak is often in the mid- to high-90 degree range. Growing degree-days are uniform along this stretch of the valley floor and lower slopes, averaging just under 3600 degree-days. Average rainfall is 38 to 40 inches annually. 

The region’s soils are a mix, beginning on the south and west borders with a more sedimentary, gravel-clay, with lower fertility and moderate water retention. Further north and to the east soils are prevalently volcanic in origin and are deeper and more fertile. 

The valley in this area is narrow and is almost entirely the product of river erosion, unlike any other stretch of the valley floor. The St. Helena area has a fairly uniform, steep gradient, as compared to the entire Napa Valley floor, indicating that it is a zone of erosion from a formerly more powerful Napa River. Elevations within the AVA range from 150 to 600 feet. 

The one break in gradient occurs where the river turns southward near Big Tree Road (just south of Bale Lane) and exerts more force to cut through bedrock. Thus, although alluvial fans extend across the valley floor from their tributary canyons to the Napa River, the fans here are small and relatively young compared to the rest of Napa Valley. The Sulphur Creek fan is the largest of the group, as it issues from a very large drainage basin. Fans of the eastern side of the appellation are very small, largely due to the resistance of obsidian (i.e. volcanic glass) bedrock here and the small tributary basin size. 

The Napa River floodplain, and its associated recent terraces, varies in width throughout this section of Napa Valley but has formed important terraces along the eastern valley edge. Distinct breaks in the natural vegetation are seen at the terrace/alluvial fan transition, as the terraces have more fertile soils with a greater water-holding capacity.

UNDER-THE-RADAR WINES FROM OAKVILLE 

2014 Stanton Petite Sirah, St. Helena

Wine Spectrum 93+ The 2014 Petite Sirah is an attractive, floral, blueberry and blackberry-scented wine with flavors that reinforce that notion. The wine is medium to full-bodied, velvety textured, opulent and luscious. Drink it over the next 7-8 years.

The Stanton family has grown grapes in the Napa Valley since 1947. We began making our own wine in 1999. For this first vintage and the next three we used grapes exclusively from our Oakville vineyard. In addition to the Oakville property, the Stanton family owns two vineyards in St. Helena. We presently grow seven different red-wine varieties which include: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Petite Sirah and Mourvedre. See Our Vineyards for more details. With the combination of great “estate grown” fruit and the artistic winemaking skill of our winemaker, Dave Phinney, we hope to continue growing and producing wines that you will enjoy.

2013 Calafia Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena

Wine Spectrum 93+ The color is dark red with a purple hue. The black fruit aromas are of blackberry, licorice  and cassis with cinnamon nuances and dark chocolate.  The flavors are also of black fruits with allspice, nutmeg and cinnamon. The wine’s texture is round and coating with French oak nuances in the finish. Very approachable now, it can age another 8-10 years.

 

 

2012 D-Cubed ‘Korte Ranch’ Zinfandel, St. Helena

Wine Spectrum 93 The 2012 Korte Ranch Zinfandel is both complex and intense. The wine has aromas of bright blackberries and plums with nice cedar and tobacco behind the fruit. The structure and tannins are smooth in this full bodied wine. This vintage of Korte Ranch has flavors of berries and hints of cedar and oak that meld into the long finish which is loaded with berries and hints of smoky oak.

The Korte Ranch is a classic old St. Helena Vineyard, planted around 1910, that is 100 Years ago! Korte Ranch is head-trained and dry-farmed planted on the St. George rootstock and produces wonderful Zinfandel from the gnarly old vines.  199 cases produced.

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