Channeling the Rhône in California

Helen Keplinger is making impressive Syrah- and Grenache-based wines in Napa
Sep 5, 2012

After taking a week off to recharge after my recent Rhône tasting and writing marathon (look for my annual report in the upcoming Nov. 30 issue), I headed off to Napa early on Tuesday morning. The trip is ostensibly to visit with a couple of biodynamic growers as I do some research ahead of my presentation at the New World Wine Experience in October … but of course, I wanted to see what a top California Rhône variety producer was up to as well. I need some sort of transition before getting into Napa Cabernet!

Helen Keplinger

Helen Keplinger came highly recommended to me, so I was anxious to see what this boutique producer was up to. Keplinger, 39, bounced around California as a consultant before spending some time in Spain. She fostered a love for Grenache and other Rhône varieties while there, thanks to some time in Priorat, and eventually headed back to California. After meeting her eventual husband, DJ Warner, while shopping in a wine store in Los Angeles, the couple started their own label in 2006, making just 250 cases. In the 2010 vintage Keplinger will make 810 cases.

"I think maybe 1,000 or 1,500 cases would be the maximum, where we could still do everything ourselves," she said of growing any larger. And while Keplinger works on her own lineup of single-vineyard Rhône varietal bottlings, she's also now the winemaker at Bryant Family, one of California's top Cabernet producers.

So, flight on time, drive on time and a quick shrimp taco at Bistro Sabor in Napa, and suddenly I was bouncing along with Keplinger and Warner in their truck as we headed up to Stagecoach Vineyard, set amidst a high plateau between Oakville and Atlas Peak. The vineyard, a massive 700 acres of vines, is a stunning piece of property, developed by Jan Krupp. Known for its Cabernets, Keplinger has contracted for a 2.4-acre parcel of Grenache in the 2012 harvest (she sources all her fruit and does not own any vineyards herself).

"It was difficult for a while," said Keplinger, about getting the market to accept California Syrah and Grenache. "But it's changing. There's lots of growing producer interest in Northern California now. There was a boom time, as there is right now for Pinot, and so there was a lot of junk. Then it settled down and now it's getting serious again. I think Syrah is really the most underappreciated variety in California."

"When I started looking for fruit for my own label, there were really two producers—Alban and Sine Qua Non. I was trying to figure out why there weren't more. Was it a plant material issue, or vineyard sites? There isn't a lot of Syrah and Grenache planted in Northern California. But now that's changed. Spotteswoode has a Grenache now, for example, and lots of people are getting into it. And I'm really excited for this new parcel in Stagecoach."

As we wound through the vineyard, the site's red volcanic soils set a stark contrast with the verdant vines, now carrying full crop loads as they near the end of the growing season. A few massive rock piles dot the landscape too, the remnants of blasting done to make way for new plantings.

Keplinger prefers mountain fruit. In fact, she sources nothing from the valley floor.

"There's a better diurnal swing [the difference between day and night temperatures] so there's no sugar spike when you get a hot spell, and with a longer growing season you get better tannin maturity."

Keplinger has also learned quickly that a key for Grenache is getting the vine into balance, with lower yields. The Stagecoach site, along with others she sources fruit from, is naturally devigorous—the vines produce little canopy naturally. But Grenache has a penchant for setting a large crop of fruit despite its canopy. Yet with a minimal canopy, a large crop would not ripen fully and so Keplinger has to tighten the screws on the vines in the parcel she's using, thinning not only bunches, but the shoulders off the tops of bunches to get loose, aerated clusters.

"I like these mountain sites because you also tend to get smaller berries and thicker skins, which is ideal for the tannin and structure. But the key is to have loose clusters with air flow, and a canopy in balance so that they ripen fully," she said.

Just next to her parcel of Grenache is a Syrah parcel (not being used by Keplinger). The crop load is noticeably larger. Much larger. The berries are watery when you press them, as opposed to the more pulpy feel of the Grenache in Keplinger's rows. And the grapes show still-astringent green seeds, where as Keplinger's Grenache is starting to show hints of brown seeds (ripening) as well as some lignifying of the stems. It's a striking example of how yield control has an impact on ripening and quality.

We headed back down to the Napa office of Wine Spectator to taste through the lineup of 2010 reds. The portfolio expands to six offerings. All the wines are cold soaked for three to five days generally, and are done in small lots with indigenous yeasts. The cap is punched down three times per day and lots will spend up to 30 days on their skins. Wines are aged in 600 liter or 320 liter barrels (larger than usual size) and most of the oak used is second or third fill. Only two bottlings see 50 percent new oak, the rest less.

The 2010 Caldera El Dorado is sourced from head-pruned and dry-farmed vines on deep red Aiken soils (red volcanic). The 65/29/6 Mourvèdre, Grenache and Counoise blend has the smooth leathery feel of old-school Bandol, but with even more flesh through the finish, spiked with pepper, tobacco, gun metal and melted licorice snap notes. It's dense, but not chewy, with a remarkably silky feel despite its heft and a mouthwatering dark bitter cherry echo on the finish. The 2010 Red Slope Knights Valley is also sourced from vines on red volcanic soils, but rockier and with more slate and clay/loam content as well. The vines were planted in 1996 and the 96/4 Grenache and Syrah blend is brighter, with kirsch and red licorice notes, a flash of sweet vermouth and a long cherry pit and steeped damson plum-filled finish. It's pure and fresh, with nice, sappy drive.

The 2010 Basilisk Russian River is 100 percent Grenache, sourced from a steep hillside vineyard located next door to Gary Farrell. This is beautifully fruit-driven, with dark plum and raspberry pâte de fruit notes, lots of dark toasted spice and a long, polished finish that drips with licorice. There's lots of latent grip in reserve, though, and this could put on more weight with some  cellaring. The 2010 Lithic Amador is sourced from Ann Kraemer's vineyard, situated at 1,750 feet elevation, on volcanic soils filled with basalt, quartz and soapstone. The 44/31/25 Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah blend is the only bottling here that is partially destemmed (all others are fully destemmed). It's sappy and dense, with lots of kirsch, melted red licorice, plum paste and linzer notes all wound sleekly together, with dense, cocoa powder-coated structure that stays very well-integrated through the long, Turkish coffee-infused finish. It's very impressive but will need to stretch out a bit in the cellar.

The 2010 Kingpin Rows Knights Valley is sourced from vines planted in 1996. This 5-acre block has shallow soils up top, deeper at the bottom, but Keplinger sources her fruit from a few rows in the middle of the slope, where the ripening is more uniform (not too much sun up top, not too much shade down below).

"It's still rocky and not too heavy, but not too devigorated, so the balance is there. It's the sweet spot of the vineyard for me," she said. The 100 percent Syrah bottling sees 50 percent new oak and it almost gushes with dark berry and plum fruit, but there's silky, refined structure and echoes of black tea, spice and incense that keep it restrained and focused through the finish. Dense, but very supple, this shows remarkable grace overall, and at 15.4 alcohol it doesn't show any heat. "I could put 14.4 and be legal on the label, but why?" said Keplinger. "There are wines at over 15 that are balanced and there are wines under 15 that aren't. It's just a number."

The 2010 Sumo Amador is 88/10/2 Petite Sirah, Syrah and Viognier, sourced from the same vineyard as the Lithic. As with the Kingpin Rows, this sees 50 percent new oak, the most in the portfolio. It's very dark, with deep purple and blue fruit notes that are caressing and flattering, laced with hints of anise, cardamom and roasted tobacco leaf notes. Long and creamy through the finish, this is the flashiest of the set, with the most California-like density through the finish. It flirts with being a bit too heady for me, but it's an undeniably impressive expression of Petite Sirah.

We also tasted two older bottlings, both of which were showing exceptionally well. The 2007 Red Slope Knights Valley (90/10 Grenache and Syrah) is nicely mature with a mix of melted licorice and cassis notes melding into smoldering tobacco and a flash of tapenade. There's a bright iron edge that has emerged nicely on the the finish, with a black tea note lingering as well. An echo of plum skin holds the finish wonderfully. In contrast, the 2008 Lithic Amador (46/40/14 Mourvèdre, Grenache and Syrah) shows a darker, still-muscular profile, with bitter cocoa, tobacco and tar notes, nicely layered flesh and lots of integrated grip. It's smoky and broad, but focused at the same time, with licorice root, steeped black cherry and plum eau de vie hints all gliding through the finish. It still has lots of muscle, but excellent range and definition.

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