Napa Winery, but No Napa Grapes

Helen Keplinger's wines come from Sonoma to Sierra
Jan 13, 2011

Keplinger is one of the most exciting new labels to pass through our tasting room in the past couple of years.

This is the wife and husband team of Helen Keplinger and Douglas Warner (who goes by DJ). They are making fascinatingly complex and stylish Rhône-inspired reds in Napa, but not using Napa grapes. For the past two vintages, Keplinger has bought grapes in Amador, El Dorado and Sonoma counties, the latter from the Knights Valley appellation. These are areas that are coming into their own, and it's evident from the purity of flavors in all of Keplinger's wines that the sites are ideal and well-managed and the wines exceptionally well-made.

Keplinger, 38, is the winemaker, while Warner, 40, oversees sales and marketing.

Keplinger comes from a wine-drinking family in Ohio, where her mother cooked gourmet meals and her father kept a cellar. She began collecting bottles and rocks at an early age. Warner has worked in wine shops in Los Angeles and marketing in Napa.

She set out to be a physician, but changed directions and pursued winemaking at U.C. Davis. From there she worked with Heidi Peterson Barrett, and later with David Abreu in Napa and Kathy Joseph in Sta. Rita Hills,. That was followed by a three-year stint in Spain's Priorat region, making wine for Melis, where she came to appreciate Grenache and Syrah. When she returned to California, she began working for Kenzo Estate, a $100 million, star-studded startup owned by Japanese video game mogul Kenzo Tsujimoto.

Keplinger is a small operation, with only a few hundred cases, but the quality and style of the wines—rich, layered, deep and polished—shows the excellence of the vineyards as well as the talents of the winemaker. The couple makes its wines at Cuvaison's Carneros facility.

The most recently released wines, from 2007 and 2008, show the progress from two great vintages.

Earlier this week, Keplinger poured barrel samples of her 2009 and 2010 Grenache and Syrah from Knights Valley. This slender appellation north of Napa Valley is beginning to gain notoriety as more wines showcase the quality of grapes grown there. The star winery there—and the lone one at that—is Peter Michael, which makes extraordinary wines from its rolling hillside estate. Beringer also makes excellent Bordeaux-inspired reds and whites from there.

The two Keplinger reds from Knights Valley come from Pelkin Vineyard, a 1,000-foot elevation site in the southwest corner of the appellation. The Red Slope is made with what Keplinger calls "incredible" Grenache, notable for its supple texture and intensity and range of red and dark fruits. The Kingpin Rows Syrah shows the denser, more muscular profile of that grape.

Just as impressive are the Amador County wines. Favia (the Quarzo and Rompecabezas bottlings) and Keplinger (Lithic and Sumo) are making the best wines I've tasted from this 1,700-foot elevation Sierra appellation. Both wineries source their grapes from Ann Kraemer's Shake Ridge Ranch, a site that provides the best evidence yet that this area's potential in merely being tapped.

Keplinger's Lithic is a blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. The 2008 Lithic (94, $40, reviewed last year in the weekly Insider newsletter) is refreshingly rich, layered and complex, with vivid dark berry fruit, touches of red and black licorice and ending with a savory mix of dried and roasted herb.

The 2008 Sumo (92, $50) is an intriguing mix of Petite Sirah, Syrah and Viognier. It exhibits a wide range of flavors, taking in gingerbread, dark chocolate, blackberry, floral, mahogany, tobacco and black cherry flavors.

Then there's the 2008 Caldera El Dorado County (93, $50), which reminds me of a Châteauneuf-du-Pape with its exotic blend of Mourvèdre, Grenache and Counoise, offers scents of scorched earth, hot brick wall, juicy plum and cherry fruit. For all its size, it is a wine of delicacy and finesse.

This spring Keplinger is releasing its 2008 Kingpin Rows Syrah and 2007 N=1 Grenache. The latter is 100 percent Grenache, "so delicious in barrel," said Keplinger, that "I decided to keep it in barrel for another year, so it's had 30 months of barrel age and a year in bottle."

The 2009 vintage will be released in the fall. Keplinger has two new wines. Basilisk is a Grenache from a super steep and rocky vineyard hillside in the Russian River. The Holdout is a Banyuls-style dessert wine made from Mourvèdre and Grenache (around 50-50) from the Caldera vineyard in El Dorado County. "The weather was right in 2009 and the opportunity to make this wine presented itself, and I couldn't resist," said Keplinger. "The fortification grappa was made from the pomace of the 2009 Caldera, so it's still single-vineyard." Both of these wines are tiny in their production, around 40 cases each. The Holdout will only be made in years when it's possible—2010 was too cool.

Keplinger is also making wines for clients. Arrow & Branch is a Cabernet Franc-based red wine blend made predominately from 20-year-old Cabernet Franc in the northern Coombsville region. The horrendous frost in 2008 means only 60 cases the first vintage, Keplinger said. Sarocka, a Spring Mountain red, comes from a 2.5-acre south-facing vineyard planted and farmed by David Abreu. The Scully label has two wines, a Cabernet from Mount Veeder, and a Spring Mountain Franc-Merlot blend, also due in 2011.

Helen Keplinger is one to keep an eye on.

United States California Napa Sonoma

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