Ten-year old Napa Valley red blends were just one of the surprises that unfolded at the most recent gathering of the St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintner Tasting Panel this past week. The other involves Congress, and a long-ago conceived idea to bring the community inside the hearts and minds of its local winemakers.

First, let’s back up to 2007, and set the scene of the vintage. Winegrowers needed to keep nimble that year. If you wrote the story of the 2007 harvest early on, you would have a script filled with more red lines and edits than original ink come autumn.

The year began dry and cold – as in single digit cold – although warmth into spring caused early bud break. This led to predictions of an early and big harvest; two of many things to get corrected later on. While there was lots of fruit, the dry conditions caused lower cluster weights and smaller berries, ultimately bringing the crop down 5 to 15 percent from an average year.

A heat spike in August pushed the harvesting of white grapes forward, and vintners anticipated a compact harvest – where all the fruit (red or white) comes in at the same time. But Mother Nature had other plans. Cooler conditions followed, slowing the pace and giving winemakers a break between the next round of harvesting, causing jokes of time off for bocce playing, naps and short vacations.

Why are vintners so obsessed with the weather? While wine, our star local product, is prestigious, it is still agricultural, and the weather directly influences not only the amount of fruit we harvest but also the flavors and other characteristics of the wines each year.

In 2007, the smaller berries caused a lower ratio of juice to skin in each berry. Since the skins hold the tannins and color that are transferred from the grapes to the wines, the 2007 vintage showed deeper color and generous tannins. The latter forebodes good aging of the wines. Did this turn out to be true of the 2007 vintage? The Tasting Panel prepared to find out.

Congressional proclamation

It was these older wines that were chosen for the Dec. 7 tasting, an occasion that also marked the tasting panel’s tenth anniversary. In addition to tasting these special library wines, the session included a special visitor.

Maria Ayelo-Calderon from Representative Mike Thompson’s office bestowed a Congressional proclamation onto the panel to celebrate its collaborative, community-building spirit. The panel was conceived, from its earliest inception, as a way to share the wines and thoughts of the people making those wines with everyone in the community. Dave Stoneberg, editor of the St. Helena Star, accepted the gift on behalf of the newspaper. He is also one of the key founders of the tasting panel and the energizing force behind its continued success. Also noted on the proclamation were the Napa Valley Vintners trade association and the original wine manager, Stefan Blicker.

10-year-old wines

So how did the panel find these 10-year old wines?

Tom Dinkel of Dos Lagos Vineyards, exclaimed, “It was hard picking the best – they were wonderful.” David Stevens of St. Helena’s 750 Wines agreed, noting, “I was surprised how fresh many of them were.” Alan Viader of Viader Vineyards & Winery concurred, stating, “The noses on many of the wines were tight, young – they still have time,” a testament to continued ageability of the 2007 wines.

Winemaker Chris Phelps found a few “raisiny and Port-like,” a statement mirrored by Christie Dufault of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, but Dufault also found “stellar, tremendous, elegant wines that were very balanced” among the group.

Winemaker Tom Rinaldi called the wines “well-developed,” saying “I personally liked the way the oak was integrated into the wine, and there was not a hint of brett,” referring to a controversial set of aromas (some love it, some hate it) that was more prevalent in Napa Valley in years past.

John Skupny of Lang & Reed winery, ever the philosopher, discussed ageability of wines, when asked his opinion. “All red wines will age,” he commented, “but the question is, will they do something dynamic (in the bottle as they age)?” Other panelists answered, finding fresh dark earth, menthol, leather and savory nuances in the wines.

Personally, I felt the first flight of wines, including 2007s from Miner Family Winery, Merryvale, V. Sattui, and Viader -- along with the Tournesol and Chimney Rock – all deserved first place. This was a killer flight: each wine had vibrant black fruits with layers of complexity and plenty of years ahead to evolve. Bottles of some of these wines can still be found in limited library selections at wineries, or a rare bottle or two can be found for sale online, but in any event, let’s continue to celebrate the good things in life, like deliciously mature wines and a tight-knit, collaborative community.

2007 favorites

Following a tasting of three flights of red blends from the 2007 vintage, the panelists’ favorites were:

Blackbird Vineyards 2007 Illustration Napa Valley ($90) has generous oak spice flavors leading to dense, rich blackberry fruit with tobacco-smoke-black pepper complexity.

Chimney Rock Winery 2007 Elevage Stags Leap District ($76) opens with intense aromas of dark fruits and dollops of sweet oak spice woven intricately with a hint of smoky bacon deliciousness.

Monticello Vineyards 2007 CORLEY Proprietary Red Blend Napa Valley ($55) layers sweet vanilla, black fruits and oak spice with undertones of charred wood and sweet tobacco.

Schweiger Vineyards 2007 Dedication Spring Mountain District ($85) provides dark, dusty black fruits with dried herbs and smoky complexity.

Tournesol 2007 Proprietors Blend Napa Valley ($90) provides a wave of intense blackberry and vanilla flavors, layered with sensual, savory complexity; all made vibrant by the wine’s bright acidity.

Volker Eisele Family Estate 2007 Terzetto Chiles Valley District ($75) is still vibrantly young showing dark, ripe fruit and sweet vanilla spice with a hint of savory hedonism.

Catherine Bugue, the Star's tasting panel columnist, loves writing about -- and drinking -- wine. You can contact Catherine at catbugue@gmail.com. Only wines from Napa Valley Vintner member wineries are accepted and tasted. Many wineries offer local residents discounts on their wines through the Napa Neighbor program, visit napavintners.com/programs and click on Napa Neighbor to learn more.