Wednesday, September 28, 2011

St. Clement Vineyards and Judd's Hill Winery: End of Summer Wine Tasting in the Napa Valley

California is now in transition from Summer to Autumn and each day I can feel the mornings getting cooler while the afternoons remain warm with an interspersion of hot evenings. Slowly vine leaves are turning color - from green to yellow, orange, red and brown. 

Along with the weather change there is a transition in my wine moods as well - from drinking cool whites, rosés and light to medium bodied wines like Pinot Noir, to seeking after big, earthy, dense and concentrated reds like mountain grown Cabernet Sauvignon.

With that in mind, this past Saturday I headed up north on Highway 29 through the Napa Valley and stopped in St. Helena at St. Clement Vineyards. Then I headed up to Howell Mountain just to enjoy the scenery back down into the valley, traveling south on the Silverado Trail and stopped in at Judd’s Hill Winery

St. Clement Vineyards – Saint Helena, Napa Valley

St. Clement Vineyards is a small winery just north of the town of St. Helena neighboring Beringer Vineyards and the Culinary Institute of America at the old Greystone Winery.

The tasting room is located in a Gothic Victorian house built in 1878 by Fritz Rosenbaum, an affluent manufacturer and importer of fine mirrors and glass who furnished the opulent homes of San Francisco’s “Gilded Age.” The Rosenbaums made Riesling and Zinfandel in the cellar underneath their house. 

The location was named St. Clement when William Casey, a local ophthalmologist, bought the house and built a 10,000 case stone winery behind it. The name was a tribute to Casey’s ancestors, who helped found the state of Maryland. The cross that is part of the St. Clement logo can be found on the Maryland state flag.

St. Clement has very little acreage of vines of their own but they have built on a legacy of highly respected small production wines by utilizing long-term relationships with some of the top winegrowers from a diversity of Napa Valley sub-appellations including Diamond Mountain, Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder, Rutherford and Spring Mountain. This high percentage of mountain fruit combined with the a balance of valley fruit from the valley floor in Rutherford results in wines that are dense, concentrated and complex with firm tannin structures and exceptional depth.

St. Clement’s portfolio of stunning Napa Valley wines is anchored by the flagship Oroppas Cabernet Sauvignon. The first vintage of Oroppas was made in 1991 when the winery was owned by the Japanese Sapporo Brewery, the name “Oroppas” is Sapporo spelled backwards. Over the years, it has become a style icon for St. Clement.

In 1999 the winery was purchased by its current owner, Beringer Wine Estates along with the 21-acre Abbott’s Vineyard in Carneros which supplies the winery’s single vineyard Abbott’s Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay.

From the front porch of the Victorian house you can get a spectacular “bird’s eye” view of the beautiful valley floor below and casually choose to taste one of their flights. I chose to taste all of them, utilizing my spit cup in order to avoid intoxication.

My first wine was the 2010 Bale Lane Sauvignon Blanc. On the nose picked up white grape fruit, lemon zest and a hint of clam shell. The nose was confirmed on the palate, yet the wine also has a slight creaminess while maintaining a crisp acidity with a prolonged mineral finish. A really nice wine for $21.

The second pour was the 2009 Abbot’s Vineyard Chardonnay from Carneros. On the nose it has green melon, cantaloupe, apple, and canned pears followed by a hint of vanilla custard. The wine has bright acidity, with a blend of subtle and bold flavors, starting with mixed melon, surrounded my yellow apples, a hint of clove and subtle tropical fruit with a slight hazelnut on the return. Overall, a really nice Chardonnay for $19.

My first red was the 2008 Napa Valley Merlot. On the nose it has fresh raspberry jam, bright cherries, rose petals, black pepper and spice. On the palate the wine is fruit forward and is very “drink me now” approachable with a cherry lozenge like lingering finish.  This wine sells for $28.

My second red was the most quality-price-value oriented, the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a deep dark earthy wine that displays a terrific bouquet of black currant, blueberries, blackberries, licorice, coffee, dark chocolate, and cedar. On the palate is provides a full-bodied mouth feel with silky and sweet tannins and a prolonged finish. This wine would beat hand down many Napa Valley Cabs that sell for twice the price of   $36 a bottle. Needless to say, I brought one home!

My third red wine pour was St. Clement’s flagship – the 2007 Oroppas Cabernet Sauvignon.  This is an opulent, dense and concentrated, displaying an array of black fruits - blackberry, black currant, and black cherry – followed by roasted coffee and bittersweet chocolate and anise, with flavors that are focused and full-bodied, supple tannins followed by a prolonged finish. An absolutely fabulous wine that is justified (in fact, perhaps a “value”) at only $55 a bottle. The ONLY reason why I did not buy a bottle was because I thought the 2007 Cabernet was an even better bang for the buck.

My fourth and final red wine was form the library, the 2005 Steinhauer Ranch Howell Mountain, Cabernet Sauvignon. A dark, dense and concentrated wine with a nose full of concentrated dark fruit, especially black cherry, followed by dark chocolate, a slight smokiness and followed by a spicy finish. I was expecting a wine like this to grip my back teeth, yet it has extremely silky and sexy tannins. A really nice wine but I don’t think I’d hold on to it too much longer – this is a “drink me now wine.” A bit steep at $80 a bottle.

For more information or to visit:

St. Clement Vineyards
2867 St. Helena Highway North
St. Helena, California
Hours: 10am to 5pm
Phone: 1-866-877-5939

Judd’s Hill Winery – Napa California

The weather last Saturday was absolutely fantastic. Although there was overcast in the Bay Area up in the Napa Valley it was moderately warm with clear blue skies which undoubtedly, along with the great wines, drew many tourists to the area. As I drove around looking for another winery to visit as I drove by each one I saw had a full parking lot along with touring busses and limousines. When I see those, I just keep on driving! The truth is, the best time to visit the Nap Valley is during the week when the tourist traffic is low.

Heading south from St. Helena along the Silverado Trail as I neared the end a winery caught my eye that had somehow escaped by eye in the past. Located near Luna Vineyards is a small winery that is hidden from view behind a hedge of trees and on the other side of a narrow bridge that crosses the creek along the side of which is the only indicator of what is hidden behind the trees – Judd’s Hill Winery. If you blink while driving by you’ll more than likely miss it. In fact I did and had to turn around to investigate as I asked myself, “Was that a winery?” The sign in front states, “By appointment only” so I called to see if I could do an unscheduled “drop in” tasting and since I was a “party of one” they accommodated me.

They have a very small tasting room with a single table and they have a few outside as well. So, before their next club member party arrived I was able to sample five of their wines, one of which I was pleased to find was a Pinot Noir.

Judd’s Hill Winery was founded by garage winemakers Art and Bunnie Finkelstein who have been producing wines in the Napa Valley since the 1970s. After a successful career as an architect in Los Angeles, Art began making wine at home in the early 70’s and received top honors from every wine competition he entered including the Los Angeles and Orange County Fairs. In 1979, Art purchased a vineyard south of St. Helena, where he designed and built Whitehall Lane Wine releasing his first wine in 1980. But as the winery successfully grew to produce over 30,000 cases a year Art found himself tied up more in the business aspect of the winery rather than doing what he loved which was – making wine. So, along with his brother and partner in the business they decided to sell Whitehall Lane in 1988.

Then, along with his wife, Art purchased a 14-acre hillside vineyard in the eastern hills of Napa Valley. There he designed and built his second winery, Judd’s Hill with the desire to produce no more than 3000 cases of wine annually, which allow him to maintain and enjoy a hands-on approach to every aspect of wine production. His first release of Judd’s Hill wine was the 1989 Cabernet Sauvignon.

My first taste was the 2010 Napa Sauvignon Blanc. Lemon grass, melon and Golden Delicious apples on the nose and palate, crisp acidity and a lingering citrus finish. A really nice wine, but there many like it under their $24 price tag.

My second wine was the 2010 Napa Valley Rosé. I’ve had many rosés over the years made form Zinfandel, Syrah, Grenache and more recent from Pinot Noir. But this is the first I have had that is a blend from Cabernet and Merlot. On the front it has a whisper of Cabernet like character followed by cranberries, rose petals, watermelon and a touch of spice. Then on the return I again get a whiff of Cabernet and Merlot-like characteristics A truly unique style of rosé worth the $22 a bottle so I brought one home.

For my third wine, I used my own Reidel stemware in order to taste their 2008 Estate Pinot Noir. On the nose I picked up smoky root beer notes followed by cranberries, red apple skins and just a touch of cinnamon stick. A really nice wine for $34, so I brought one home.

The fourth pour was from their library, a 1996 Pinot Noir. This was a very rare opportunity to sample an aged Californian Pinot. At first it was a little Pinotage-like, but as it opened up it was actually quite nice. Though present, the primary fruit characteristics (cherry) have waned, which is to be expected, so it is a lot more earthy with dry tea leave notes followed by cigar box and dried cinnamon stick. If it wasn’t for the $55 price tag I would have bought one for around $30 or so.

My fifth wine was the 2010 Burke’s Blazing BBQ Old Vine Zinfandel. This is the first time I have ever tasted a wine in Napa that was honestly made from Lodi grapes, sourced form the Mokelume River.  I know Lodi grapes are often secretly blended into Napa wines so I thought this was a bold move. A robust but not overbearing wine exuding raspberry and blackberry, plum and anise that has well balanced fruit, spice and body. A nice wine for $30… but there are many far better for $10 less.

My sixth wine was the 2007 Kairos Cabernet. Made from 100% organically farmed and certified Cabernet  Sauvignon grapes from the Kairos Vineyard adjacent to the winery, on a gentle hillside slope facing south. I picked up bell pepper, blackberries, black currants, dark pipe tobacco and anise. I liked it but it no way merits the $55 price tag. The 2007 Oroppas Cabernet Sauvignon from St. Clement has the same price tag and yet totally blows this wine out of the water.

My final pour was another library wine, the 2003 Estate Howell Mountain “Judd’s Hill,” a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cab Franc. Really young in appearance, ruby-red, black fruits, a hint of mint and a tarry note on the nose. A classic Bordeaux profile that is fruit forward on the palate, with blackcurrant, tobacco leaf and cigar box. Finishes firmly tannic and persistent. A really nice wine, a bit too steep at $75 a bottle.

For more information or to visit:

Judd’s Hill Winery
 2332 Silverado Trail
Napa, CA 94558

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