St. Helena Viticultural Area – historical development and physical characteristics
The valley in the St. Helena area is narrow and is almost entirely the product of river erosion, unlike any other stretch of the Napa Valley floor.
July 19, 2006
The St. Helena appellation, approved as an AVA in 1995, is roughly defined by the following boundaries: to the south by Zinfandel Lane (south of the town of St. Helena); to the north by Bale Lane (south of Calistoga); to the east by the intersection of Howell Mountain and Conn Valley roads; and to the west by the 400-foot elevation line at the foot of the Mayacamas range.
The 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.
The St. Helena Viticultural Club
Seneca Ewer joined Krug and Pellet in the final weeks of 1875 to develop a strategy to face their problems – problems of perception and of historical paucity. The St. Helena Star reported in the Dec. 23, 1875 issue that a wine growers meeting called by Pellet, Krug and Ewer took place (the previous day) with a second meeting planned for the next day. At these meetings the growers formed an organization and named it the St. Helena Viticultural Club. The first officers were Charles Krug, President; H. W. Crabb, Connely Conn and Seneca Ewer, Vice-Presidents; H. A. Pellet, Secretary; and J. C. Weinberger, Treasurer. Others in attendance were Charles Wheeler, R. A. Hasken, C. Heymann, J. H. McCord, Dr. G. B. Crane, John Thomann, John Lewelling, Oscar Schultz, John York, and D. O. Hunt. The list of names in attendance was literally a "Who's Who" among Napa Valley vintners, businessmen and pioneers of the time.
The organization meet twice a month, eventually expanding to a membership of over 100. Within two months of inception, the St. Helena Viticultural Club began to take on significant projects well beyond that of simply sharing information. Grigsby proposed that the organization consider building a large wine cellar in or around St. Helena for the disposition of grape crops for this and future years. The group was beginning to understand that local vintners were falling under the mercy of San Francisco warehousemen and ever increasing costs for storage. Finally, discussions turned to Krug's pet topic -- the value of planting foreign varieties over that of the then popular Mission grape.
Climate & Soil Profiles
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.
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. As the wi