Sunday, February 10, 2013

Heitz Cellar – The Beginning of Mustard Season in St. Helena, California

This is one of my favorite times of the year to visit the Napa Valley as it uniquely blossoms with an abundance of mustard flower, California poppies and a sprinkling of purple lupines. This bright yellow weed is particularly beautiful when it surrounds old vines that, without their canopies, look like miniature gnarled trees. The 2012-2013 winter season has provided an unusually high amount of rain so I anticipate the Napa Valley will be particularly golden this year. We had some cold rain showers on Thursday and Friday, but with crystal clear blue skies in the forecast on Saturday I headed up to the valley with camera in hand.

After driving around a bit in the valley from Carneros to Calistoga to scope out the most flower-laden vineyards, my first stop was at Heitz Wine Cellar’s tasting room in St. Helena. I had first visited this winery about ten years ago, and though they didn’t have a lot of flowers in their vineyards I wanted to revisit this historic winery.

The winery was established in 1961 by Joseph (Joe) and Alice Heitz. Joe was born in Princeton, Illinois, but then moved to California while enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. In 1951 he earned a B.A and M.A degree in viticulture and enology at U.C. Davis in 1951. His wine making career began at Gallo and then in he further honed his craft at Beaulieu Vineyard working under André Tchelistcheff as an assistant winemaker for ten years. 

Then, after teaching for four years in the enology program at California State University, Fresno Joe and his wife Alice bought a small 8.5-acre vineyard from Leon Brendel named “The One & Only” for $5,000. It was originally planted with Grignolino, a red Italian wine grape variety commonly grown in the Piedmont region.

Then in 1964, they acquired 1898 stone winery with its 160-acre vineyard property in Spring Valley, in the eastern hills of St. Helena. It then became the winery and their home, with the original winery retained as a visitor’s center. The pictures shown here and in the video are from the vineyards and tasting room in St. Helena, not the original winery.

In 1965 they established an exclusive agreement with Tom and Martha May, owners of the 34-acre Martha’s Vineyard in the Oakville AVA. This wine is blended with other Cabernet grapes in their Napa Valley Cabernet and it is also bottled as a single-vineyard wine. In 1976, a similar exclusivity agreement was established with Barney and Belle Rhodes, owners of the 18-acre Bella Oaks Vineyard in the Rutherford AVA. Then in 1984 the estate purchased the Trailside Vineyard in Rutherford, having previously purchased fruit from the site, and introduced it as a single vineyard bottling in 1989.

Joe Heitz suffered a stroke in 1996 and later died on December 16, 2000, at the age of 81. Joe was succeeded by his son David Heitz who was born in 1950 and became a winemaker in the late 1970s, having worked at the estate for many years. 

Today Heitz Cellar’s portfolio of wines includes not only their signature Cabernets, but also a Chardonnay, Zinfandel, their inherited specialty Grignolino and a traditional Port.

While visiting I sample the following wines:

The first pour was the 2009 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. On the nose I picked up aromas of red and black currant, a hint of anise and vanilla. On the palate it has refined medium tannins that have a little grip on the gums, it has medium (+) acidity with well balanced alcohol and a long finish. A nice wine for $45 a bottle.

The second sample was my favorite in the line-up which was the 2007 Trailside Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. The vineyard is located in Rutherford and it shows on the nose the trademark characteristics of this AVA. In comparison to the previous Cab, this wine is darker, richer and earthier with notes of plums, black cherries, black currants, and a hint of black licorice. On the palate it is full bodied with a soft, opulent round mouth-feel and silky tannins. It is well balanced and is a great expression of this phenomenal vintage. I was very tempted to buy a bottle, but I already have a fairly large collection of Cabs and the $75 price tag was about $25 more than I was willing to pay.

The third pour was the 2008 Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is radically distinct from the previous wines with intense aromas of cassis and black licorice dominating the nose and palate. After the initial impact, I then picked up subtle underlying notes of eucalyptus, mint, dark earth and dark chocolate. The wine has a shocking $200 price tag and while it was a great wine, I’d much rather have two of the ’07 Trailside Vineyard Cabs and save $50.

The final wine was a real treat, the Heitz Cellars “In Grade” Napa Valley Port. There are a lot of “ports” produced in California that are made from Zinfandel, Petit Sirah, and other non-traditional grapes (especially in the central valley) and I find them to be simple, sweet and at times a bit syruppy. So, I am thrilled when I can find a Port produced from classic Portuguese varietals as they tend to have more complexity and layers of flavor. This wine is made from Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Sauzao, Tinta Cao, Tinta Bairrada, Tinta Madeira, Tinta Amarela and Bastardo and it is a blend of the 2005, 2006 and 2007 vintages. On the nose I picked up aromas of dried fruits, dates, raisins and brown sugar. On the palate it is silky with good acidity and an extremely long finish. Although it has 18.5% alcohol it has no heat on the nose or palate. However, although I was spitting most of my wine samples, I found that this one will warm your tummy when it is swallowed. This wine sells for $20 for a 350 ML bottle and $35 for a 750 ML bottle which I think is a great value, so I brought one home.

To visit or for more information:

Heitz Cellar
436 St. Helena Highway
St. Helena, CA 94574
Phone: (707) 963-3542