A Long Journey for Saint Helena Road Vineyards
Napa Valley Regional Correspondent, Alan Goldfarb, takes the road less traveled as he journeys to Saint Helena Vineyards - ironically located across the Sonoma County border. The question arises: will the quality of the wine in the bottle be enough to get the winery recognized?
August 22, 2006
These are reasonable queries and one is tempted to answer by simply saying: you’ve gotta have it in the bottle. But many an unknown artist has starved to death while creating beautiful art.
Not to worry, the Maiers, along with their strapping 24-year-old son Ryan, seem to have the goods and moxie it will take to put Saint Helena Road on a bigger map. First, they have to make sure they’re capable of making good wine from a parcel of land that may have some people confused.
Saint Helena Road is not in St. Helena. In fact, it’s not even in the Napa Valley – although it’s oh, so close. As the crow flies, the Maier’s 18½ acres of vineyard, planted to the five red Bordeaux varieties, is merely two miles from the Napa line. But one doesn’t usually fly like a bird. Instead, you must traverse narrow, steep, and partially gravel roads to the western side – the Sonoma side – of Spring Mountain.
Proximity isn’t necessarily a formula for success. But Saint Helena Road has had some promising personnel, including Cécile Derbès – a talented winemaker who has since gone on to create her own critically acclaimed winery that specializes in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Derbès made the Maier’s first wine, the 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon and was partially involved in making the ’04. Since then, they have acquired Mike Hirby, who has come from consulting for several Spring Mountain wineries including Sherwin and Behrens & Hitchcock.
Beyond personnel, the key to Saint Helena Road’s success will be its almost singular devotion to the plot of land on which it grows its grapes, a piece of land where llamas and angora goats once roamed. Richard Maier (pronounced MAY’er) is a longtime farmer, having worked the land in Alexander Valley in Sonoma County in the 1980s. But his crop was the farthest thing one can imagine from wine grapes, although his land sat in one of the greatest wine producing regions of the world.
Maier was a farmer of reed cane. That is, he grew river bamboo on 40 acres not far from the Russian River. It was used for the reeds that are inserted into the mouthpieces of woodwind musical instruments.
Richard’s grandfather, Roy J. Maier was a talented musician, who played 10 reed instruments for the Paul Whitman band in the 1920s. Roy Maier later opened the Rico Reed Company, a factory that became one of the largest producers of musical reeds in the world. His grandson Richard headed up the agricultural arm of the factory.
What made him think that he could transform himself into a viticulturist?
“I traveled the world with cane experts and we would visit various wine regions,” says Richard, sitting around the oak dining room table with his son and wife, “and I was in the Alexander Valley. Besides, I drank a lot of wine.”
His parcel in the Alexander Valley, however, sat at the bottom of the region and had too much clay. Not suitable he thought, for growing world-class grapes.
So, the Maiers sold the river bamboo farm and in 1999, he and Patty bought the piece a couple of miles east of Fisher Vineyards – the only other wine producing neighbor on Saint Helena Road – where they threw in their lot producing grapes for wine.
In the last six years, both Richard Maier and his son Ryan have become quick studies in the business of grape growing. Because his parents can’t yet pay him, Ryan is beginning his career also working for others as a vineyard manager. Richard is fully immersed in his terroir, an aspect of farming that he didn’t used to think about. River bamboo farming ain’t vinifera grape growing.
“I’m planting the right varietals in the right sources with the right rootstocks and making sure they have optimal facings (direction in order to thrive),” he says.
Patty chimes in proudly, “We dug 75 test holes 100 meters apart to see what types of soils we had.”
The results indicated the Maier vineyard had plenty of water with moisture down to 5-feet, and those conditions existed year-round. Exciting information which meant that “we had a chance to grow without irrigation,” says Richard.
It also meant that Saint Helena Road’s grapes had a good chance to show the best expression of their land and place of origin, much as it is done in France. Save for the use three times a year of liquid compost – during bud break, bloom and veraison (coloring) – no water is used.
The vineyard is at 1,800 feet and partially sits on a slope that is 15 degrees. Tests have shown that the soil is comprised of sandy loam, volcanic mountain rock, and clay. There are 10 different “soil terroirs,” as Richard explains. This results in 13½ acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, two of Merlot and one-acre each of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec planted to 110R and 4453 rootstocks on clone 337.
As is the case with Spring Mountain, Meier’s vineyard is above the fog line. He uses a vertical shoot positioned (VSP) trellis system with moveable wires that raises the canes high enough to catch the sun’s rays coming over the top of the mountain. Since the vineyard is situated in a pass, there’s also a constant, gentle breeze all day long to cool them down.
The first crop was in the third year of growth in 2003 and produced just a half-ton per acre, resulting in about only 500 cases of Cabernet-based wine. The next vintage (which is in bottle and not yet released) grew to less than a ton per acre and made a little less than 1,000 cases. The ’05 saw just over a ton per acre and 1,200 cases and the ’06 the Maiers figure will grow to almost two tons per and maybe 1,600 cases.
Patty Maier heads the marketing department and she has so far placed her wines in Southern California, San Francisco, Toronto,