Discovery Program
  Sign In
Subscribe to our newsletter
Bookmark and Share  

Discovery Program

St. Helena - Napa Valley

St. Helena’s valley floor vineyards yield Cabernet Sauvignons
with earthiness and minerality.

St. Helena Cabernet: the “dust” settles here too!

by Alan Goldfarb, Napa Regional Correspondent

“It’s less a liquid (feeling). It’s more refined. It’s an earthiness, a smell from the earth.”
~ Mark Beringer,
Duckhorn Vineyards winemaker

Signature of the Appellation:

St. Helena Cabernets, like Rutherford, have been described as having “dust,” which is less a liquid characteristic, but a more refined earthiness, or minerality such as slate or wet concrete. St. Helena Cabs can also be marked by dried herb and unsweetened, baking chocolate. They also have a ripeness and are “feminine” with fine tannins. The wines are high-toned, with strawberry and cherry fruit, with no black fruit aromas or flavors.

see Alan Goldfarb’s supplementing article:
St. Helena Viticultural Area – historical development and physical characteristics


On June 22, 2006, on what was the hottest day of the year to date, with temperatures hovering around 100 degrees, AppellationAmerica’s St. Helena Discovery Panel met at Vineyard 29 winery, north of St. Helena, to taste a selection of the appellation’s Cabernets and Zinfandels from the 2003 vintage.
(note: to see the results of the Zinfandel portion of this tasting, click here)

A total of 13 Cabernet-based wines and seven Zinfandels were on hand for the exercise. In an attempt to identify some common regional characteristics, the wines were tasted blind and scrutinized in three stages as outlined here:

1.) An independent organoleptic assessment to determine the overall quality and characteristics of each wine;
2.) Group discussion to coalesce and synthesize an appellation identity based on the dominant terroir and stylistic patterns found in the wines;
3.) Identify the “Signature” wines of the appellation by voting (blind) for the wines, if any, that best represent what St. Helena Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel should taste like when measured against the findings from Stage 2.

Overview of the 2003 vintage
The unpredictable nature of the 2003 growing season began with a series of early heat spikes in March, followed by the wettest April on record.

A long cool summer allowed the fruit flavors to evolve beautifully ahead of the sugar accumulation. Because of the cooler-than-normal weather into the third week of August, which saw temperatures fall to 49 degrees at night, the Cabernet in St. Helena managed to finish veraison (coloring) by August 20.

The end of the month brought ideal fruit-ripening temperatures that spiked at about 99 degrees but hovered in the high 80s, enabling growers to begin sampling their Cab fruit. The Zin on the other hand, started coming in during the second week of September, while the sugar levels in the Cabs began to creep into the 22-24 Brix range. Heat spikes in September helped move the harvest forward after many felt it would be a late year.

By September 24, after 11 days of temperatures that climbed into the 100s, the Cabs began reaching their optimum levels and the crush was on.

But by the beginning of October, only about half the tonnage was in due to a cool front that had moved in, and by the middle of the month, temperatures were dropping to 36 degrees, never getting higher than 80. The result was that the vines shut down, the sugars slowed and the pH counts moved into normal range. In this uneven year, the harvest stretched into early November – a late year in St. Helena, the warmest AVA in the Napa Valley.

In the final analysis, this roller coaster vintage produced some uneven wines but if one cherry picks from top producers, one can find wines of elegance with silky extraction and luscious forward fruit.

Technical Analysis of the 2003 St. Helena Cabernets
(According to the technical data submitted with each entry.)
  • Eight of the 13 wines were comprised of 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from St. Helena, with clones ranging from Martha’s, 7, and 337. Of the remaining five wines, the grape blend included Merlot and Cabernet Franc while one, in addition to the aforementioned three varieties, also included trace amounts of Sangiovese, Petit Verdot and Petite Sirah.
  • The age of the vines ranged from 6 to 35-plus years.
  • Brix or sugar levels at harvest ranged from 24.2 to 26.7 percent.
  • All wines went through malolactic, or secondary fermentation.
  • All wines used French oak barrels with varying percentages of new and used wood.
  • The final listed alcohol percentage ranged from 13.4 to 15.6 percent.
  • The wines ranged in suggested retail price from $25 to $165.
  • (It should be noted that one wine – the Flora Springs – has not yet been released.)

We have come to hear with regularity, Cabernet Sauvignon from Rutherford – the appellation to the immediately south of the St. Helena AVA – described as having some sort of “dust.” The patriarch of the California wine industry, André Tchelistcheff, is most often credited with coining this phrase, but only as it pertains to Rutherford Cabernets; and it was so long ago that the diminutive white Russian – the longtime winemaker at Beaulieu – apparently used the term, that its meaning through the years has become amorphous.

Could it be that now the Cabernets from St. Helena can also be best identified with possessing some sort of “dust?” During our Appellation Discovery Tasting of the aforementioned 13 Cabernets, the word “dust” arose numerous times. Better yet, the panel seems to have described, in concrete terms at last, what the characteristic “dust” actually might mean.

Four of the five Discovery panelists and one member of the Confirmation Panel uttered the word “dust” to describe six of the 13 Cabernets. The characteristic was alluded to on several other occasions, which went directly toward the meaning of the word – when the group was pressed to try and describe more definitively, the meaning of “dust” as it pertains to wine.

Duckhorn winemaker, Mark Beringer, who served as a member of the Confirmation Panel, offered this description: “It’s less a liquid (feeling). It’s more refined. It’s an earthiness, a smell from the earth.”

“It’s an earthiness on the side of minerality,” someone else offered.

“It’s slate, wet concrete.”

“It’s dried herb and unsweetened, baking chocolate, too,” said Mark Porembski, winemaker at Anomaly Vineyards.

St. Helena ~ Napa Valley Discovery Panel

Confirmation Panel:

Alan Goldfarb (Moderator/Recorder): Regional Correspondent, AppellationAmerica
Mark Beringer: Winemaker, Duckhorn Wine Co.
Bob Dye: President, Vintagefactor
Chuck McMinn: Owner, Vineyard 29
Scotti Stark: Direct Sales Manager, Revana Family Vineyard