In a small village in Nepal at the world’s highest elevation bakery—a regular stop for intrepid hikers inching their way through the Himalayas toward Everest—an unexpected encounter changed Napa Valley history.
A young, fresh-faced woman looked across the room and saw a bottle of Grace Family Cabernet Sauvignon staring back at her. She ran over, and was greeted by proprietor Dick Grace himself. Little did either know, that years later the same woman would interview at Grace Family, and bring the estate—one of Napa’s original cult wineries—to new heights.
Helen Keplinger has a way of doing the unexpected, in a thoroughly unique and delicious manner. From that serendipitous Himalayan meeting to becoming the Grace Family winemaker, she has charted a one-of-a-kind path through wine country, landing on the cover of Wine Spectator and being named Winemaker of the Year by Food & Wine magazine along the way. In between, she’s set a new standard for Napa Cabernet, and for Rhône varieties grown in the rugged extremes of California’s Sierra Nevada. Today, I’m overjoyed to share a selection of my personal favorites made from Helen’s grape-stained hands.
Her time as winemaker at Bryant Family Vineyard yielded a 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon that won 98 points from Robert Parker and now retails for upwards of $500. Under her stewardship, Bryant came “to represent some of the most singular and prodigious” wines of Napa Valley, said Parker, while her consulting skills have been in high demand with places like Grace Family Vineyards and Kenzo Estate.
In Wine Spectator’s 2014 cover story on Helen Keplinger, James Laube wrote that Keplinger’s eponymous label is “one of the most exciting and innovative wineries to emerge in California in years.” In a region that largely hangs it hat on high-end Cabernet—a grape that Keplinger has had soaring success with—she’s gone out of her way to seek out the most unique sites planted with Rhône varieties.
Today, Helen’s single-vineyard Rhône expressions under her namesake label are some of the best in the United States, if not the world. The 2016 Lithic is a classically styled Rhône blend that leans heavily on Grenache from the outstanding Shake Ridge Vineyard in Amador County. Bright ruby in color, it is lifted and aromatic with incredible density, but also delicacy.
The 2016 Sumo is from the same site, where massive quartz and iron deposits give the terroir a unique edge. An inky, aromatic a twist on the Northern Rhône standard, Sumo blends floral, full-bodied Petit Sirah with Viognier in a lifted, yet powerful combination that has always made me wonder why the French didn’t switch to Petit Sirah. Blasphemy, I know—but this wine is just that good.
“Every wine I drink makes me think about something. What did I find compelling? How can I get that out of grapes?” Helen said me recently. “The ones I think are mindblowing have complexity, balance, and texture, and I’m trying to create that, with every bottling.”
Even after two decades of winemaking, Helen’s tenacious spirit is palpable whether she’s intently smelling a Champagne outside Hog Island Oyster Bar, in Napa or getting dirt stuck beneath her fingernails in one of a dozen vineyards she utilizes.
“People now always want to see what’s new,” she told me, before admitting she isn’t cutting down on the number of wines she makes or vineyards she uses every season. “If you’re a winemaker you get one shot every year—not like a chef who can make the same dish 1000 times. There’s value in having wine from the same place.”
From those vineyards, the 2016 Vermillion Red blend was born. An easygoing red, which I find myself reaching for weekly, It’s truly remarkable how Helen’s 100-point skills still translate into bottles with an everyday price, which Robert Parker protégé and critic Jeb Dunnuck called, “about as charming and delicious as it gets.”
Luckily for our tastebuds, the only thing predictable about her wines is their status: delicious. That’s perhaps the best way to describe her 2015 Kerr Sauvignon Blanc, a crisp yet creamy take on the Bordeaux’s classic white. This leaps from the glass with tons of tree fruit, herbs, and crushed stone in a trifecta that makes it perfect for summertime.
In her quest to understand her sources, Helen presents drinkers with an outstanding array of wines that cross the flavor spectrum beautifully, offering something for every drinker. Amazingly, she manages to channel her signature precision and elegance into each and every bottle.
“You can learn so much from a vineyard in year,” she told me. “But you can learn even more in five or ten years.” Helen’s long-term perspective, and experience everywhere from Bryant to Grace Family, Carte Blanche and Mumm, is what makes her wines so exciting, no matter whose name is on the label.
Today, I hope you’ll take advantage of these exquisite releases which I am thrilled to share thanks to our personal relationship with Helen.