The appellation of Saint Helena – the heart of Napa Valley’s wine tradition

From Spottswoode looking west to the Mayacamas mountains

Saint Helena is the cradle of winemaking in the Napa Valley. The first commercial winery in the Napa Valley was founded in Saint Helena by Charles Krug, a German immigrant, in 1861. By 1877, Saint Helena was making the majority of the 1,500,000 gallons of wine produced in the Napa Valley.  In fact, it was such an important industry for Saint Helena back then that there were about five times more acres of vineyards planted to grapevines in 1887 than there are today.  After all, the soil was “admirably adapted for the perfection of the grape….Every plain and nook in the mountainside is dotted with green leaves and purple clusters of the grape” (History of Napa County).  Back in those days, the vineyards reflected the heritage wines of the Europeans immigrants who made their homes there, with zinfandel the leading grape planted, followed by riesling, chasselas and burger.  Bordeaux varieties made up only 5% of plantings in 1887 vs. two-thirds today.  

Saint Helena appellation extends from Zinfandel Lane to the south to Bale Lane to the north. The mountain ranges close in as one moves north, narrowing the valley floor to less than a 1/2 mile near Lodi Lane. The climate in the summer is warm to hot during the day, but as the heat rises in the late afternoon, the cool breezes and fog from the Bay funnel through the narrow “pinch” of the valley, creating a wide diurnal temperature difference of about 40 degrees F.  This slows down ripening and helps create naturally balanced grapes.  

The soil composition reflects the movement of water down the mountains and through the valley over the millenia, with larger, gravelly and sedimentary soils deposited near the foothills of the Mayacamas mountains to the west and south of the appellation, mixing in with the finer clay and loamy soils settling towards the valley floor to the east and north.  The well-draining gravel soils fanning out from the base of the mountains were a desireable location for the 19th century pioneers to grow grapes of concentration.  In 1882, George Schonewald planted vines on the rocky alluvial fan of Sulphur Creek, current home to Spottswoode. In 1877, Mrs. R.W. Heath had 50,000 vines at the base of Sulphur Spring canyon in southwest St. Helena on soils of granite, quartz and slate from the mountain. It was called Edge Hill and the original winery, vineyard land and name have since been restored by Leslie Rudd.  J.W. Sayward acquired a vineyard in 1867 on a rocky hillside north of town “that was considered useless for other purposes.” Today it is called Tychson Hill, the source of Colgin Cellars single vineyard wine.  Jacob Beringer discovered rocky slopes similar to those of his native Rhine Valley in Germany and established Beringer Winery with his brother in 1876, which remains the oldest continuously operating winery in Napa Valley.  Today, these lands are ideal for growing world-class cabernet sauvignon.  On the richer clay loams to the west and north, merlot finds it’s greatest expression for example, at the estate vineyards of Charles Krug.   

There are many wineries to visit in Saint Helena, some with comprehensive visitor programs, many by appointment only.  They range from the large and historic wineries to small, family-run estates like Corison and Salvestrin, to the cults.  Just a few of the great wineries to visit for public tours or tasting include: Charles Krug and Beringer for historic significance, both are on the National Register of Historic Places; Duckhorn, which made merlot famous; Heitz Wine Cellars, Raymond Vineyard & Cellar and Spottswoode as 20th century pioneers; Joseph Phelps for icon wine and biodynamics; heart-worthy Ehler Estates, and many more.  

For a list of Saint Helena wineries, their hours, locations and links to their websites, visit the Appellation Saint Helena website.