While visiting the Napa Valley, I had the pleasure and opportunity to stop by and share insights into,-perhaps, an undiscovered gem of a winery of the region, although located in one of the most prestigious parts: St. Helena.
I found out that one thing is certain at Crocker & Starr: passion, skill, and quality of wines aren’t lacking in this idyllic spot of Northern California.
There is a reason I stopped by C&S, well… several in fact.
The winery is celebrating this year (2017) the 20th anniversary of its foundation whose cornerstone is the partnership between San Francisco businessman Charlie Crocker and celebrated winemaker Pam Starr. 2016 was therefore their 20th vintage together!
By now, the producer has acquired a solid reputation for producing elegant St. Helena wines with a genuine sense of place and finesse. The second reason I wanted to check it out.
So why aren’t the wines more broadly known and celebrated?
Perhaps because about 95% of them are sold directly via the Crocker & Starr wine club and mailing list. This may make the wines less visible on shelves and wine lists, and less widely distributed around the country, therefore perhaps less well-known. But it is also proof of customers’ and wine connoisseurs’ satisfaction!
Check Out the Video of my Visit to C&S:
So, what is Crocker & Starr all about?
A Successful Partnership
The vineyard sites on C&S estate date back to the 19th century, when Dowdell & Sons Winery was established in St. Helena by the Dowdell family.
It was in 1971 that noted San Franciscan Charlie Crocker purchased the stone Dowdell & Sons Winery and vineyard from Bruce Dohrmann, renaming it the Crocker Estate.
Charlie Crocker descends from an old California family, as his great grandfather, also Charlie Crocker, spearheaded construction of the Central Pacific railroad completed in 1868.
A San Francisco businessman managing public technology companies, Charlie had already had a life-long love affair with the Napa Valley when, with his wife Lucinda, he acquired the historic Dowdell property in St. Helena. They began replanting vines and selling grapes to local wineries, including Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
Serendipity seems to have made Charlie’s and Pam’s paths to cross. Charlie, the business man, asked Pam, the winemaker, to write a business plan for turning some of the estate’s grapes into wine in a viable manner. The new pair agreed, and the Crocker & Starr partnership was born in 1997.
Pam is not at all new to wine and winemaking. She has in fact, as I write this article, been making wine for 34 years! Daughter of an orthopedic surgeon who was planning to go to dental school, she changed direction after falling in love with winemaking. She began as a harvest intern for Sonoma Cutrer in Sonoma after graduating from the University of California at Davis in 1984 with a degree in Fermentation Science. From there, Starr worked for Edna Valley Vineyard in San Luis Obispo, mainly stacking and stirring barrels for a whole season. She then moved back to Sonoma to spend six years as an enologist and assistant winemaker at Carmenet Winery. In 1991, she became the winemaker for Spottswoode Vineyard & Winery in Napa Valley, producing acclaimed Bordeaux-style wines, until the Crocker & Starr partnership came about in 1997.
Over the past two decades, Crocker and Starr have grown about 85 acres of vines, restructuring the vineyard to improve the quality and authenticity of their wine’s expression, and achieving to build their own winery facility last year in 2016.
Restructuring a Vineyard
While the old Dowdell Estate was mainly planted with Zinfandel, Riesling and other grapes not so suited to producing fine Napa Valley wines, Charlie Crocker started planting Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon between 1978 and 1980.
When Starr joined the property in 1997, she already had relatively mature Cabernet vines to make wine with. Crocker & Starr was therefore able to release a quality Cabernet Franc wine that year, C&S’ first-ever vintage.
The following year in 1998, they planted Sauvignon Blanc in some more clay-dominated areas of the estate.
Beautiful Sunset at Crocker & Starr
Other grapes varieties such as Malbec or Petit Verdot were also later introduced, in a search for diversification and further improvement of the wines’ quality.
In a notable addition, all vineyards were converted to sustainable farming, probably greatly contributing to Crocker & Starr wines’ distinctive finesse and authenticity.
During my visit, I could witness Pam Starr’s care and attention to detail in the vineyards. While some winemakers don’t seem to get out of their winery’s doorstep, she knows and observes cautiously every block all year long.
Together, we trimmed a row of too-vigorous Malbec vines, removing shoots filled with newly-formed fruit to tame these energetic young plants and eventually obtain better fruit quality at harvest.
A New Winery Building
The Crocker & Starr project has only had its own winery since last year.
The new building was delivered in 2016, allowing Pam to process the first fruit at the winery for the 2016 vintage. The building was designed by San Francisco architect Taylor Lombardo to harmonize the property’s history with Pam Starr’s innovative approach to winemaking.
Undoubtedly, this new tool will allow Pam Starr to make wines that are even more precise. The 2016 wines I could taste in barrel are powerful and fruity yet very elegant. The new winemaking facility allows Pam to keep each wine from each vineyard location separate, which will provide exceptional blending options.
See Inside C&S Winery:
— Julien Miquel #Wine (@JMiquelWine) May 10, 2017
Undoubtedly as well, having the winery next to the cellar door is a nice addition to the vineyard touring experience offered called “Touch the Vines, Taste the Wines” that has been offered to visitors since 2010.
— Julien Miquel #Wine (@JMiquelWine) May 10, 2017
Views Around C&S Cellar Door
The Crocker & Starr Wines
Find below reviews & Tasting Notes of C&S Wines.
— Julien Miquel #Wine (@JMiquelWine) May 11, 2017
2016 Crocker & Starr Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley
Score: 91+/100. Read Tasting Notes at Wine Review of 2016 C&S Sauv Blanc
2014 Crocker & Starr Casali 7th Edition
Score: 92/100. 92% Malbec, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon and 4% Petit Verdot. After a trip to Mendoza, Argentina, Winemaker Starr wanted to experiment with Argentina’s iconic Malbec grape, but in Napa. A few years after planting it, the Casali wine was born. The 2014 vintage has a dark purple-red color, looking youthful. It tastes so too, with a nose filled with bright dark red fruit characters with elegant oak tones. Rich body with dense but extremely smooth tannins leaving a silky feel in your mouth. The flavors are bursting on the palate, like they would in a very juicy ripe dark cherry, augmented with clove and other sweet spices, dark cocoa and vanilla. A big red but displaying juicy elegance, restraint, and finesse for a Malbec.
2010 Crocker & Starr Stone Place Cabernet Sauvignon
Score: 93/100. Intense bright red color with hints of purple to the rim. The nose is deep, intense, and predominantly fruity with bursting aromas of purple plum and cassis. A remarkable floral element of violets to the aromatic profile. The palate is dense and concentrated with granulous but very smooth tannins, velvety they are. Round and soft texture. Vibrant and juicy red berry flavors, plenty of peppery spices, almost chili-like lifting the liveliness up enjoyably. Some saltiness to the finish brings a savory element and makes you salivate, and want to go for more. A Napa Cabernet with genuine character and great vibrancy.
2001 Crocker & Starr Cabernet Franc
Score: 92/100. A brilliantly vibrant red color for a 15-year-old wine. The nose is powerful, spicy and peppery together with cherry liqueur fruit characters. Earthiness comes through the aromatic profile bringing a unique savory edge. Dry savory palate sensation develops truffle and grilled meat flavors, complex and deep with savory umami accompanying a still fresh plum and cherry fruit character.
2009 Crocker & Starr Cab Franc
Score: 94/100. With a rather dark red color, hints of orange hues make it look even more intense. The nose is powerful and pungent, with strong intense spices and herbal characters. The blackberry fruit is discreet but there, shored up by an earthy savory edge to the smell. Great tension from a great acidity driving the palate. Peppery spices and cardamom literally burst into the mouth but it retains elegance. A stunning deep and complex Cabernet Franc combining pungent berry fruit characters with heaps of spices, truffle, earth, and chili-like peppery spiciness.
2013 Post 1 Cabernet Sauvignon
299 cases produced, will be sold around $200 exclusively to club members.
Score: 95/100. Very dark, and with an intense deep red color deepened by purple hues. Intensely deep and intriguing nose too, youthful with balance between complex ripe fruit characters, ripe plum and dark cherry, varied spices, and a distinctive black olive aroma. Dense tannins with opulent body provide palate richness and a smooth silky texture. But a great acidity keeps this powerful wine in line in your mouth with solid tension that supports fresh dark cherry flavors. The oaky characters are there, augmenting and softening the wine, but they are perfectly integrated already respecting the quality of the fruit characters. A powerful, dense, and concentrated Napa Cab with elegance and authenticity.