The origins of my wine appreciation are firmly rooted in France, from the first glass I ever remember drinking (a Pierre Sparr Riesling Schoenbourg Grand Cru) while I was a student in Strasbourg, to the countless wines I was “forced” to consume as a cycling tour guide, riding through the country’s storied wine regions.
As a relatively young adult, I moved to the Bay Area, and became immersed in all wines Napa. After a few years, though, the allure of Sonoma, with its more laid-back (and less pretentious) approach, captured my attention. Over the next decade and a half, despite frequent visits to Northern California, I rarely spent any time in Napa, unless it was a futile attempt to skirt traffic heading back from Sonoma to my in-laws’ house in the East Bay.
This past spring I was once again lured to Napa, this time by the wonderful people at Charles Communications Associates, who arranged three visits for me. The first was at Hourglass Vineyard, and later that day, I ventured to Crocker & Starr in St. Helena.
While the current partnership between Charlie Crocker and Pam Starr is a “mere” twenty years old, the history of the vineyard and winery spans a century and a half. The Dowdell family established Dowdell & Sons Winery by James Dowdell in 1870 on what would become Dowdell Lane. There, Dowdell an Irish immigrant who had a penchant for stone masonry, built several stone buildings, including the main structure in 1886.
James Dowdell died in 1902, but the winery produced wine until the 1920’s when the winery shut down due to Prohibition. The property continued to grow grapes (primarily Zinfandel), however, up until Charlie Crocker, a San Francisco business person, purchased the estate in 1971, and renamed it Crocker Estate.
Gradually, Charlie continued to purchase adjoining property and today, the estate is 100 total acres, of which 85 acres are planted to vines. Early on, he replanted the vineyards to Cabernet Sauvignon and, due to his family’s Loire Valley roots, Cabernet Franc, which up to that point was virtually unheard of in Napa Valley.
Although Crocker did make some wine for family and friends, he was primarily a grape grower when in the mid-90’s when Charlie was approached by a young, relatively unknown, but talented winemaker who wanted to make his Cabernet Franc. Soon that winemaker, Pam Starr, and Charlie Crocker teamed up and in 1997 established the winery Crocker & Starr. The two equal partners produce roughly 3,000 cases annually (of which about 90% is sold direct to consumer), selling about 60-70% of the fruit grown on the estate to other winemakers.
Although technically not organic, Pam almost immediately started transforming the vineyards from traditional to sustainable farming, and convinced Charlie to plant Sauvignon Blanc in the warm Crocker Vineyard, which she now blends with fruit from the cooler Las Trancas Vineyard, further down the Valley.
2015 Crocker & Starr Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley: Retail $34 (750 ml). You do not see a ton of Sauvignon Blanc in Napa Valley any more for the simple fact that most has been replaced by its much more financially appealing offspring, Cabernet Sauvignon. Luckily, a few wineries like Crocker & Starr remain committed to the white variety and their wines do not require a second mortgage to purchase. Perhaps in “typical” Napa Sauvignon style, this wine oozes tropical notes of mango and guava with plenty of melon on the side. On the palate, luscious and rich which is cut by the tart acidity. There is also a roundness and vanilla aspect that no doubt comes from its fermentation which is 20% neutral barrel and 12% concrete egg (the rest in stainless). This is more of a throwback to “old-school” American Sauv Blanc, and it works. Well. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
As we walked through the winery and then out to the vineyards, I asked Pam about her relationship with Charlie, which has already encompassed two decades, certainly a rarity in the Valley. In her laid-back but also focussed style, she intimated that Charlie lets her do her thing and she has virtually free-reign in the winery. As we passed the vineyard, she stopped and pointed to the rows of vines, just coming to life after their winter slumber:
“That’s my boss, right there.”
After the brief tour, we retired to the tasting room, where we went through several reds.
2014 Crocker & Starr Cabernet Franc, St. Helena: Retail $80. As I mentioned, Charlie Crocker was among the first to plant Cabernet Franc in Napa and Pam’s CF is a benchmark for the increasingly popular variety. Spicy with dark berry fruit, this is a fabulous New World expression of what can be a rather austere wine when produced in the Old World. Big and full–this is pretty powerful for a CF. Certainly a big boy. But I like it. Outstanding. 90-91 Points.
2014 Crocker & Starr Casali 7 Saint Helena, Napa Valley: Retail $80. 92% Malbec, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Petit Verdot. Pam took a trip to Argentina and wanted to make an American Malbec blend. The wine is shy initially but hints of anise with bramble berry (is that a thing?), cassis, and tobacco, eventually poke out. Subtle fruit on the palate with a bit of earth and plenty of heft, I would pair this with some skirt steak fresh off the grill, a sharp cheese, or a humiliating Little League Baseball loss. You really can’t go wrong here. Inky dark in the glass this is a delight to drink now, but could use some more time in the bottle. Outstanding. 91-93 Points.
Next, we moved on to perhaps Crocker & Starr’s best known wine, the Stone Place Cabernet Sauvignon, named for the old Stone winery, which is made entirely of stone. This is the legacy block of this property, which Charlie fortunately planted with phylloxera resistant rootstock, thus enabling it to age undisturbed for forty years.
2004 Crocker and Starr Stone Place Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa Valley: 90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot. Reserved with some tight red and black fruit. Amazingly, this is still a baby, with evident (although mellow) tannins on the back-end. Wonderful and Outstanding. 92-94 Points.
2008 Crocker and Starr Stone Place Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa Valley: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Dark, yet alluring in the glass, there is much more fruit here (blackberry and a touch of anise) on both the nose and the palate. Rich and baroque, it is tough to choose between this more opulent style and the more reserved 2004, but today, I am opting for opulent. Slightly. Outstanding (Plus?). 93-95 Points.
2014 Crocker & Starr Cabernet Sauvignon Stone Place St. Helena, Napa Valley: Retail $120. Dark, inky, and viscous in the glass with black currant, campfire smoke, and violets mostly coming through. Past the lips, this is incredible: voluptuous, silky, fruity, elegant, I could go on, but I won’t because the finish is even better. Just the right amounts of tannin and acid with earth and fruit that last for minutes. OK. Whoa. Outstanding. 93-95 Points.
The last wine we tried that day was one that few have had the opportunity to buy, much less taste. Information about the wine is scant on the inter webs, but it is made from the vines from in front of the winery that were planted only ten years ago. It is not made every year, and is intended as both an homage to Napa Valley’s history and Crocker & Starr’s legacy.
2013 Crocker & Starr 1 Post Cabernet Sauvignon: Retail $200. Whoa. Dark and inky, with tangible viscosity, the wine clings to the side of the glass, suggesting that I had just woken it from a slumber that it desperately wanted to continue. Intense fruit—not in an overwhelming sense, but rather deep, layered, and nuanced. Liquid velvet on the tongue where the fruit dominates, but is girded by earth and spice. Whoa. This is but a pup, and needs some more time, but Whoa. Outstanding Plus. 95-97 Points.
Leaving the winery, already late for my dinner appointment, I paused , watching a group of Crocker & Starr club members gather in the vineyard, each with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc in hand. I wondered, briefly, about their opinions on Napa Valley and why they decided to become members at the winery. Was it the quality of the wines? The relative bargain (at least for Napa Valley) that they represent? The history that goes back to almost the Civil War? Or the unmistakable beauty of Pam Starr’s “boss”?
In the end, it really did not matter why they ended up at Crocker & Starr, it is just good to know that such places still exist in Napa Valley.