Otherwise Napa Valley would have been deprived of one of its greatest young, dynamic (and did I say attractive?) new winemakers.
Keplinger – with a hard ‘G’, not like the soft ‘G’ in Beringer – and her husband of three years, DJ Warner, just treated me to a tasting of their first three vintages of Grenache and Syrah blended wines.
The Good News:
Keplinger wines are sublime, majestic, ambrosial, unforgettable.
The Bad News:
I don’t have enough exclamations in my computer to express how I really feel about them.
The tasting was arranged at 750 Wines, in St. Helena, one of the only Napa Valley wine merchants who regularly reaches out to napaman when they’ve discovered a new winemaker whom they think napaman.com readers would, in turn, like to discover.
Helen Keplinger pours while husband DJ Warner reflects on the wine he’s going to have to sell. Fortunately for him, selling Helen’s wines shouldn’t take a lot of work – production is limited and they will sell themselves by word of mouth.
Talk about discovery. At the tasting, not only did I score every one of Helen’s glorious wines 95 points or higher, I even placed a standing order to purchase a pair of every wine that she produces going forward; they’re just too good, too glorious, and too fairly priced to let an opportunity like this pass me by.
Helen has been making wine for 10 years. She has a wine degree from UC Davis, has assisted Heidi Barrett at Paradigm, has worked at Fiddlehead and Kenzo Estate and worked a vintage in the Priorat, Spain, which changed her life.
Returning to America, after working in Spain and traveling in France’s Rhone Valley, where some of the most wonderful Grenache-based and Syrah-based wines in the world are made, Helen started to look for terrain, soil, altitude, and weather conditions that would enable her to make outstanding Grenache and Syrah wines here.
With a short pit stop to marry DJ, who had a career in technology and organic gourmet foods, Helen got back on the fast track to find “the perfect soil for Grenache and Syrah in California.” She found several sites, she says, which appeared promising.
The first success came from a block Helen found in Knights Valley, which Helen says has volcanic soils, an ideal balance of slate and clay, 1,000-foot elevation, ideal southwestern exposure and good protection from direct sunlight.
She is so into this subject, by the way, that slowing her down, or changing the subject, is out of the question. Even if you put your hand up in the air, like a grade school student asking a question, you are not going to get Helen’s attention; her eyes are focused far off in the distance, picturing the very vines of which she speaks.
I scored this first effort, the 2006 Keplinger Red Slope (80% Grenache, 20% Syrah), 95 points. The fruit is from 14-year-old vines in Knights Valley. The wine is lovely, lively, supple, has rich ripe fruit flavors and there is no hint that this is actually a 15.5% alcohol wine.
I don’t think I’ve ever put the words together “pretty wine” to describe a 15.5% wine, but this beaut merits the pairing. Upon release, this was a $40 wine, as is each premiere vintage for Keplinger labels. At the second vintage, the different wines each jump to $50, where they perch.
The 2006 Keplinger Kingpin Rows is a 100 percent Syrah offering from a 5-acre parcel in Knights Valley. There is a huge scent of Syrah here; new leather, saddle leather, a hint of soy sauce and then the thing rolls over your tongue like an elixir of velvet. Easily a 97-point wine.
Then we taste the 2007 Keplinger Red Slope and like the previous vintage, this wine has a kingly robe, exhibits perfect balance, is filled with juicy top notes and a proper tannic structure for ageing.
The 2007 Keplinger Kingpin Rows, again 100 percent Syrah, is ethereal, a majestic new world wine made in the tradition of old world Syrah. Easily 95 points.
Speaking of new world wines, the group around the tasting table got into a discussion, noting that there are really only a few American producers of Grenache whom we admire, among them Alban Vineyards and Sine Qua Non.
Syrah has had better success – and a better reception - in California; one of my favorites is Lagier-Meredith Syrah, made here in Napa Valley, which I have bought and cellared for years. (Just now am drinking their 2001 and 2002 Syrahs and am loving them.)
The fact that there are so few local producers who have made beautiful, balanced Grenache wines incited Helen to take action: “I decided to make Grenache-based wines here as good as the ones made in France,” she vowed.
In 2007, trying to expand her horizon, as well as her portfolio, Helen made two additional reds:
The grapes for 2007 Keplinger Caldera grew on vines planted in Aiken soil at 2450 feet elevation in – are you ready for this? – El Dorado, California.
Not familiar with what Aiken soil (very fine particle’d, volcanic soil) can do for a wine? Then your homework is to get some ethereal Grace Family Cabernet or Rudd Winery Cabernet and taste; now THAT is what Aiken soil can produce.
The overwhelming flavor release from the 2007 Caldera (66% Mourvedre, 26% Grenache, 8% Counoise) is that of a slice of warm toast, heavily smeared with very fresh raspberry jam. There is a l-o-n-g raspberry finish that goes on for a minute, making me think that this is like drinking Framboise liqueur sans any hint of sweetness. Easily 97 points. Maybe more.
The 2007 Keplinger Sumo will wrestle your taste buds to the ground. The fruit, from Amador, grows at 1700 feet elevation on extremely old volcanic soil. This wine is big, brawny, yet like all Helen’s wines, remarkably balanced. Who ever heard of Petite Sirah with finesse? A hint of tobacco lingers 30 seconds on the finish. 96 points.
From Helen’s quiver, she pulls a few more vinous-tipped arrows, her 2008 offerings, and fires away, the wines piercing my defense with a purity of flavor and a sensuality of texture. How do you make such ethereal UNfined wines? They have the texture of brilliant young DRC Burgundies, but taste new worldly as they are filled with ripe, juicy fruit.
2008 Keplinger Lithic is named after a geological term, which refers to the size of soil grains, the ones in which these vines are planted. There are hints of gunmetal, lavender and iodine, and lots of blue fruit in this Amador wine. 97 points.
2008 Keplinger Caldera. There is a hint of just-poured asphalt, a whiff of tar, then a fabulous crescendo of ripe fruit notes. Oooh, 96 delicious points.
Helen’s 2008 Keplinger Sumo, a brilliant blend of Petite Sirah, Syrah and a touch of Viognier could be called a “Ka-Doing!” wine, the cartoonish sound made when someone slaps his forehead, suggesting a total, overwhelming, knockout of pleasure over this wine.
This is 5-star-salute material, a rocket sled of flavors and power and yet this wine has – who’d a thunk it? -- poise. This could easily be called a 100-point wine, because you can’t put more wine into a wine and make it taste any better than what Helen has achieved.
Whatever you do, Helen, don’t give up your day job and don’t give a second thought about going to medical school; if you did, you’d sadden a lot of wine lovers who anticipate the many years of pleasure, which lie ahead, imagining the thrills of tasting successive future vintages of your stunning wines.
Keplinger current release wines are available at 750 Wines, on Adams St., in St. Helena. Tel. 707-963-0750.The premiere vintage of each new Keplinger label is $40/bottle and in subsequent years, the wines are $50/bottle. “That’s the marketing plan for now,” anyway, says DJ.