Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Whitehall Lane Winery – St. Helena, California

Whitehall Lane was founded in 1979 by pioneering vintners Art and Bunnie Finkelstein who have been producing legendary wines in the Napa Valley since the 1970’s. They named the winery after the road that runs along the south border of the property, Whitehall Lane. They focused their winemaking efforts to producing a small production of high quality Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Later they sold the winery and founded Judd’s Hill Winery which I visited in September, 2011.

Today Whitehall Lane Winery is owned by Thomas Leonardini, who acquired the property and facility in 1993. The Leonardini family then expanded and renovated the winery’s production by instituting a new barrel-aging program and sourcing more fruit from the finest Napa Valley vineyards.

The Leonardi family now owns six vineyards on 110 acres which includes the location of the winery on the Whitehall Lane Estate Vineyard (Rutherford AVA), the Rutherford West Vineyard (Rutherford AVA), the Bommarito Vineyard (Rutherford AVA), the Oak Knoll Vineyard (Oak Knoll District AVA), the Leonardini Vineyard (St. Helena AVA) and the most recently purchased Fawn Park Vineyard (St. Helena AVA).

These prime valley-floor vineyards, including the Leonardini Vineyard in St. Helena, are dedicated to producing fine Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.

Since the Leonardini's acquisition of Whitehall Lane Winery in 1993, all of the Cabernets in the reserve program (with the exception of the “off” year 1998) have scored between 91-97 points in The Wine Spectator. Whitehall Lane Winery is also the only winery in the world to place #5 or higher in the Wine Spectators Top 100 on three separate occassions. The winery has also been voted “Winery of the Year” from the Quarterly Review of Wines and Wine and Spirits Magazine.

The tasting room has two different flights. The first includes their Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The second is their Reserve flight consists of a line-up of Cabernets. I chose the latter and tasted the following wines:

My first pour was the 2008 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, a blend of 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, 4% Malbec, and 2% Petite Verdot. This wine is very bold and intense with loads of black cherries, cassis and blue berry pie. It is full bodied with a well-rounded mouth feel but with a little of heat on the finish. This wine sells for $40 a bottle.

My second wine was the 2008 Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is deep and inky dark purple and red towards the rim. On the nose this wine is similar to the previous Cab, but on the palate it has much bolder and yet supple tannins with a firmer grip but on the finish the wine has less alcoholic heat. The flavor profile also has an additional note of cocoa on the return. This wine sells for $75 a bottle.

My third wine was the 2008 Millennium Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. The Millennium vineyard is located less than one-half mile from the winery estate on the northwest edge of the Rutherford Appellation. Whitehall Lane purchased the property in 2000 and all but four acres of this 20-acre vineyard property is currently being replanted. After removing the vines at the end of 2007, they conducted an analysis of the soils throughout the vineyard in order to isolate vineyard blocks based on soil criteria. Subsequently they have created four new vineyard sub-blocks that will be planted with ideally matched rootstocks and clones in an effort to grow grapes with optimum complexity and flavor, each with its own irrigation system. Row orientation and trellis systems were then matched to suit growth and sun exposure. The remainder of the vineyard that is under redevelopment will begin producing fruit in 2011. Overall, I’d say this wine is probably way too young to be truly appreciated now. The nose is extremely tight and closed, it has immense tannins with a huge drying grip and the fruit profile seems very dense, concentrated and yet also reserved. Perhaps the wine needed to be decanted more but I suspect that it needs to be revisited in a few more years. Having said that, it is very difficult to determine the quality of the wine at this point. To do so might be like critiquing a new-born infant for its lack of mobility. This wine sells for $85 a bottle.

My final wine was the 2008 Leonardini Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. The Leonardini Vineyard consists of approximately 10 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and a little more than two and one-half acres of Merlot. The land was first put under vine in the late 1800’s when the Lewelling Family settled on a large tract of land on the southern outskirts of St. Helena. A century later, the Leonardini Family bought the vineyard in 1993 and had two separate wells drilled and irrigation added to feed the vines during the growing season. Rootstocks and grape clones were then matched to the climate and soil to insure quality fruit. The rootstock that was chosen works well in Cortina Gravely Loam and clones were picked because of their excellent track record in the Rutherford and St. Helena climates. The canopy and pruning system in place allows maximum sun exposure without over-cropping. The result of these efforts is that the wine from this land has been so successful that The Wine Spectator selected the Leonardini Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon as the finest representation of the St. Helena appellation. In comparison to the previous wine, the Leonardini Cab is BIG and yet more relaxed, expressive with well-rounded fruit, well structured tannins and is immediately drinkable NOW and yet undoubtedly could be well-cellared for another decade. On the nose and palate I picked up cassis, blackberries, dark chocolate, followed by anise on the tail end. On the palate it has slight drying tannins that have a firm but not over-whelming grip that is followed by a very long finish. While I preferred this wine to the Millennium Cab this wine sells for $85 a bottle, so for the price point the Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was my favorite in the line-up.

To visit or for more information:

Whitehall Lane Winery
1663 St. Helena Highway
St. Helena, CA 94574
Telephone: 1-707-963-7035

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