Herding Delicious Cats in St. Helena
After more than 100 years the St. Helena Viticultural Society has re-organized, re-launched, and re-emerged. The Society’s coming out party was yesterday at a tasting organized by the Society in Napa Valley. The fancy, somewhat Victorian, name underwhich this collection of St. Helena-based growers and winemakers has chosen to work together might obscure the fact that the Society is a promotional organization.
They want wine lovers and the wine trade to take notice of them.
If they keep throwing tasting events like yesterday’s they will garner notice. But the question that they, and every other promotional organization in the wine industry, must ask themselves is For What Do They Want To Be Noticed?
If they want to be noticed as simply a collection of wineries that produce really outstanding wines, then they shouldn’t have a tough time. The Cabernets I tasted yesterday were really very very good. The wineries pouring included those that have a long and outstanding reputation, such as Spottswoode, Ballentine and Vineyard 29, along with newcomers such as Anomaly, William Cole, and Revana.
But I think if the Society is going to really make a mark, they must set their sights higher than simply becoming a collection of wineries that make very good wines. This is always the challenge for appellation or "terroir" based organizations.
Inevitably, the SHVS will become known as a collection of Cabernet producers. But being known as Cabernet specialists inside a cabernet appellation (Napa Valley) really isn’t much of a revelation or an achievement. It goes without saying.
BUT, JUST WHAT IS "ST. HELENA CABERNET"?
Is there something about St. Helena-grown grapes, the St. Helena terroir, that leads to wines of a particular character? Were the Society to establish this as their identifying feature, then they might really have something unique, useful and promotable on their hands. I for one, after spending only one afternoon with the wines of St. Helena, am not in a position to say that there is a thread of consistent character that runs through these wines. Some were very big, attractive, extracted, dark berry-infused wines ready to drink young. Others were inclined toward a more elegant, structured format that delivered more of a cassis/pencil lead/licorice core. Still others slammed me with enough tannin that I really would have to commit them to the cellar for a good five years before revisiting them in search of a flattering complexity.
But what I tasted is beside the point. Imagine trying to get 40 or more wineries to agree to characterize their wines the same way. It doesn’t happen.
At best what the St. Helena Viticultural Society can do to promote their wines is 1) get widespread agreement among their members to use the "St. Helena" appellation on their labels alongside the words "Napa Valley," thereby indicating the commitment to the appellation, 2) finding someone with a strategic sense, well-developed promotional skills and keen administrative skills to guide the organization toward more exposure (I think they found this person in Julie Ann Kodmur), and 3) working to to get the trade, media and early adopting wine drinkers to start thinking about the nature of the St. Helena appellation out loud.
Herding Cats Toward their Checkbooks
Guiding an appellation association is tough business. Sometimes it’s a matter of herding cats. Other times it is a matter of spending lots of time overcoming a natural resistance to providing enough funding to do the job. Interestingly, the appellation groups that have the easiest time of garnering attention from drinkers, media and trade are those that promote a lesser known appellation: New things are shiny.
St. Helena wines and their wineries are new, and old and part of something well known. Yesterday’s tasting demonstrated what we knew (that these are really very very good wines). The tasting, well-organized, comfortable and hospitable, also demonstrated that the Society seems to know what they have to do to leave a good impression and build for future impressions.
MY FAVORITE WINES OF THE TASTING:
2002 Anomaly Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon
2003 Ballentine Vineyards "Betty’s Vineyard" Syrah
2002 D.R. Stephens Estate "Moose Valley Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon
2003 Edge Hill Winery "St. Helena Estate" Mixed Black
2004 Heitz We Cellars Grignolina Rose
2002 Revana Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
2001 Salvestrin Winery Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
2001 Spottswoode Estate Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
2002 Titus Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
2000 William Cole Vineyard Cuvee Claire Cabernet Sauvignon