Robert Keenan Winery
Since I live less than 30 minutes away from the wine country, and love going up there, you would think maybe I've seen them all. Not so. Yes, I am a frequent visitor, but each time I go up, I discover a new winery, a new canyon, a new ridge, a new mountain, a new vineyard, a new terroir.
On our last trip to Napa in September 2005, we decided to try Spring Mountain near St. Helena. We had just read about the area in a magazine and were intrigued because it is truly off the beaten path. After driving on a long and winding road, we finally made it to Robert Keenan Winery, a producer of an excellent chardonnay, but even better known for its cabernet sauvignons. The location is idyllic -- so quiet and beautiful. But then that is only because harvest hasn't started yet. Give this place another week or so, and it will be a hub of activity. We got to do some barrell tasting (tasting of the wine before it is bottled), and even the stuff in the barrell was excellent.
Spring Mountain road is just west of the main part of St. Helena, and winds up a narrow forested canyon.
Fashionable Upscale Center of Napa Valley
"The Boutique Wine Industry is Centered Here"
I lived in St Helena (pronounced with long e as in Heleeena) working as a winery guide, winery worker, and waiter for several years. I also taught California Wine Appreciation at Solano Community College for some 5 years. So, although I live in Stockton now, I'm still able to get the gossip of the valley from time to time. St. Helena is a great little town that has plenty of homestyle bed & breakfast places to stay, but there are no big hotels and few chain establishments here. The city is very picky about development and tends to keep out the big projects. Very often, some big money concern will try to pour money into some new project--winery, hotel, etc.--but the well established community of big money that is resident here is very good at modifying or discouraging unwanted development. Clos Pegas was a good example of this, a winery that I have added under my Calistoga pages for the wine country. Please also visit my Oakville, Angwin, and Napa pages for a complete overview of the Napa Valley Wine Country. For those that are new to the Wine Country region though, a good professional tour through Beringer or Martini provide a good foundation for understanding the region in general. Novices probably shouldn't bother with the fancy boutique visits until either invited or knowledgeable enough to appreciate the production. I'm actually a big fan of both Beringer and Martini, who both produce excellent wines for the price, and I will frequently stop by the Beringer Founder's Room because it has tasting of older vintages dating back to time when many of the boutique wineries were simply a dream in the minds of their future owners.
"St. Helena is also a Culinary Capitol"
The town and surrounding area has many truely great restaurants. In fact, the restaurants around this area will rival any of the world's tourist destinations that focus on culinary extremes, as the mixture of wine and food is truely a competitive affair here. Established corporate style restaurants are often not the most exciting, and the best often run on a shoe string budget, seeking exotic ingredients, and so don't last for too many years. So, expect to take your chances. In any case though, you aren't likely to be disappointed with bad food and wine. The view and atmosphere of the hilltop places are relatively few in number, and not necessarily all that great. I'd get out of the car, walk along the main street, which is also Hwy 29, and see what new inspiration has been created by local money. Local parties are my favorite wine country passion. I particularly look for opportunities to become invited to parties during 4th of July and Halloween, when the fireworks and costumery of the valley locals tend to peak. Make friends with and check with your bed and breakfast desk clerk about special events.
"Collectible Bottles are Here"
The family owned and operated winery that produces collectible bottles is legendary in St. Helena. Spottswoode, Frog's Leap, Folie-a-Deux, Duckhorn, Diamond Creek, Heitz Cellars, and many other small producers have produced wines that were sold before they were bottled, and some of these wineries create futures lists allowing limited annual case and sometimes even bottle purchase limitations. What makes St. Helena a great location for any winery, big or small is it's central valley location. During the fall crush, visitors will see gondolas of grapes being transported up and down the valley. Winemakers contract with growers, and wineries purchase vineyards in a variety of locals to vinify separate lots of wine for later blending. So, for example softer tannin grapes from deep soils and sunny benchlands of the valley floor will be produced in one tank, while naturally acidic, tannic and deep fruit type grapes from the hillsides vineyards will be vinified in another tank. Later, everything is put into a larger blender tank prior to barrel aging and bottling. In any case, the ability to have close access to all types of vineyards is a plus for winemakers.