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Napa Winery, but No Napa Grapes

Helen Keplinger's wines come from Sonoma to Sierra
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jan 13, 2011 3:10pm ET

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.

Chris A Elerick
Orlando, FL —  January 13, 2011 7:25pm ET

You steered me in the right direction with Jeff Ames' Rudius wines. So I'm in for a mixed case of the Lithic and Caldera with a request for an allocation of the Red Slope. I'm looking forward to seeing what the hype is about!
Elyse J Ward
Buffalo Grove, IL —  January 13, 2011 9:14pm ET
Chris - Ditto. I'm sitting here drinking a 2006 Rudius Syrah and placing my Keplinger order. Newcomers tend to make some of the best wine...Rudius, John Anthony and others. Thankfully the "label-chasers" don't like trying the new stuff. Thanks Jim!
Louis Robichaux
Highland Village, Texas —  January 13, 2011 11:07pm ET
Jim -

I met Helen at a private wine tasting this summer in Dallas. In addition to being a talented wine maker (as you describe above), she is absolutely charming. Last weekend, I enjoyed a bottle of SUMO and Kingpin Syrah. Awesome. Thanks for covering the up and coming Cali winemakers.

Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  January 14, 2011 12:28pm ET
^%%*&^%&* James....now it will be even harder to get her wines! These wines are another example of the potential for rhones in California...esp the foothills and Paso
Russell Bevan
Sonoma Mountain —  January 16, 2011 9:19am ET
My favorite thing about DJ and Helen is that they are even better people than winemakers, which is no small accomplishment.

Tom Keith
Sonoma, CA —  January 17, 2011 4:03pm ET
Tallulah also makes a wonderful Shake Ridge Syrah.
Robert Busch
Charlotte, NC —  January 17, 2011 7:17pm ET
Great write up on Helen's wines. I found Keplinger about 2 years ago, and have been a fan ever since. I taste the Rhone with every sip.. These are the types of operations that get my full support!
Gregg Lamer
Plymouth, CA USA —  January 19, 2011 5:03pm ET
Anne Kraemer also uses grapes from her Shake Ridge Vineyard in Amador County to produce her own label, Yorba Wines. These wines are equally outstanding, made by winemaker Ken Bernards.

Joe Dekeyser
Waukesha, WI —  January 23, 2011 12:31pm ET
The Keplinger Caldera was just too compelling to pass up. I had to decide between that and the Lithic - tough choice.

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