A couple of years ago, a friend of Good Vitis organized a shipment of wines from the St. Helena appellation in Napa Valley that we shared with a few friends. St. Helena is in southern-most tip of what might be considered the upper third of Napa Valley, bordered by Rutherford to the south, Spring Mountain to the west, Diamond Creek and Calistoga to the north, and Howell Mountain to the east. It’s always been my base of operations when I’ve visited Napa, offering proximity to a number of my favorite restaurants in the area and great views no matter which direction one looks. It is where my mind goes when it imagines “Napa.”
I haven’t written about the wines that we tasted, nor posted the tasting notes to Cellartracker, as I never got around to interviews with the various winemakers. However, a subsequent visit to one of the producers and additional samples from them have motivated me to put something together and get it out because the wines and the appellation are more than deserving of it.
The entire sample line up included wines of quality, a number of them quite tasty, and one winery in particular of notability: Corison Winery. Founded by Cathy Corison, one of the most widely respected winemakers in America, Corison produced its first vintage in 1987. Corison is among the southern most wineries in St. Helena and uses both estate and non-estate vineyards. The entire Corison line up includes three cabernet sauvignons, a cabernet franc, a rosé of cabernet sauvignon, and a gewürztraminer with grapes sourced from Anderson Valley. There’s not a winemaker in Napa who I’ve spoken to about Cathy and Corison who haven’t had anything but the upmost respect for her and the wines.
On a trip to Napa last year, my wife Kayce and I spent an hour touring and tasting with Cathy. It was an hour masterclass in the complexity that cabernet sauvignon can achieve when grown appropriately and produced by a scion of winemaking. The notes from that experience are unfortunately long gone, but the sense of wonder and respect that both of us experience remain vivid.
The most ingrained memory of the September visit was the brief walk into the estate Kronos vineyard with Cathy and the size of the clusters hanging from the original 1971 vine plantings that were the size you’d expect to see in early-middle summer. A single bottle of the current Kronos release will set you back around $200, which makes a lot more sense when you hold one of its tiny clusters in your hand and appreciate how a production of 1.25 tones of fruit per acre of vines translates into the bottle. I don’t think I’ll ever forget how big my hand looked while holding a Kronos cabernet cluster.
I also remember us talking about what it was like for Cathy to arrive at Freemark Abbey in 1978 for a harvest internship. She also spent time at Yverdon, Chappellet, and Staglin. Beginning in 1987, she began buying fruit and making her own wine under the Corison label on the side. In 1995 she bought Kronos and in 1999 built an adjacent winery, allowing her to focus for on her own project. Twenty years after the Kronos purchase, she and her long-time partner William Martin bought the esteemed Sunbasket vineyard after purchasing its fruit for the prior two-and-a-half decades. These two vineyards represent the estate portfolio.
One item that came through clearly in our conversation about these experiences was just how much of a force she is – a force of winemaking, force of business acumen, and force of creative vision. I understood then, as we tasted a good half dozen of her wines, why everyone who I know that has commented about her or Corison in my presence has professed their utmost respect and admiration.
The wine that stands out most clearly from that tasting is the Helios cabernet franc. While I’m fond of the variety, I’ve never been drawn to it as I’ve yet to find my personal sweet spot between the uber-funky Chinon-style and the so-ripe-it-might-as-well-be-cabernet-sauvignon New World style. The Helios is probably the varietal example I’ve most liked.
As we were leaving, Kayce and I signed up for the wine club and looked over the library wines available, seeing my wife’s birth year on the list. As we were in Napa for her birthday, it was an easy purchase that we drank later that evening. I didn’t want to disrupt from the celebration by taking tasting notes, but I remember it being pure, infinitely layered with complexity, and regal.
The cabernets are challenging to review when young because they reveal a small fraction of their eventual quality, intrigue, and appeal. To be frank, it seems impossible to me to spend this kind of money on a bottle of Corison if I were to drink it before its tenth birthday because there are less expensive Napa cabs that are more enjoyable in their youth. The experience with a 2006 we tasted with Cathy and the birth year wine, which I would guess was at its best around age twenty, really cemented this sentiment. Please take this into account when digesting the reviews below; the reflect where the wines were when I tasted them as well as some amount of aspirational hope about what they will become when adequately aged.
We’ve since received a few club releases of the Kronos and Napa Valley cabernets, which have stowed in the deepest depths of the cellar where they will remain for at least ten years, as well as the rosé and gewürztraminer that we opted into when signing up after really enjoying both during the tasting. Friends of ours have subsequently visited at our behest and decided to splurge on a few bottles because it was just too damn good to ignore. Try Corison’s wines for their quality, history, reverence, and humility.
2016 Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – Very purple for a Napa cab, and a wine that takes on weight and depth the longer it is exposed to air. The nose is big and savory with tomato leaf, cigar tobacco, well-seasoned leather, blackberry, stewed blueberry, and plum. Medium plus in body with really sooth and fine tannin. The acid is well-tuned and integrated. Quite dense, but laser focused and silky. Mulled cherry/blackberry pie and a bit savory, it offers mountain strawberry, saline, tomato vine, and dried basil. Super tasty right now, but the layers need time to unravel. Incredibly only 13.1 ABV. I’d sit on this for five to seven years and then drink over the following ten. 94 points. Value: B+.
2018 Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – Decanted for three hours. The young nose wafts cherry, blackberry, boysenberry, black currant, sweet leather, and black plum. Boarding on full bodied, the black tea tannins are broad and thick while the acid is formidable but integrated. The fruit flavors are dark and have a dehydrated quality to them, while the earthy notes include tobacco, baking spice, and black pepper. The depth is evident in the mouthfeel, suggesting a good five to seven years will usher in some unveiling of complexity. Give it ten to fifteen years to enjoy it at its best. 94 points. Value: B+.
2018 Corison Sunbasket Vineyard – Decanted for about three hours. The elegant nose emits dark cherry compote, black plum, delicate sweet chocolate, violet, rose hip, cassis, and modest sweet and toasty oak. Seemingly medium bodied, it adds weight as it sits in the palate, while the sweet, slightly dense tannins fill out and surround a core of dense and juicy acid. Precious little cabernet from anywhere in the world hits this combination of elegance and depth, especially considering the complimentary lifespan it achieves. The flavor profile includes semi-tart cherry, raspberry, mountain strawberry, cigar tobacco leaf, tanned leather, lavender, graphite, and moist soil. This is an impressive wine right now in its built, but if you can sit on it for at least a decade there likely won’t be anything about it that won’t blow you away. 96 points. Value: B+.
2019 Corison Corazón Gewürztraimer – The boisterous nose wafts guava, banana peel, orange blossom, daisy, and white pepper. Medium bodied with bright, tincil acid that keeps the structure sharp. The flavor profile includes guava, Opal apples, starfruit, slate minerality, and lychee. This is a technically sharp, vibrant wine with great depth and shine that I’d be happy to drink several times a week. 93 points. Value: A-.
More from St. Helena
The other samples that we tasted from the St. Helena sample shipment are listed below. The stylistic range is impressive. One on end, the Calafia is a big wine that is tasting well from sip one and probably won’t improve much with time (but will certainly evolve a bit). On the other end is Corison. The range shows what this tiny area is capable of producing, and signals that there’s something for all but the snobby Bordeaux-only cab lover in the appellation. Writing this up and revisiting these tasting notes makes me want to hop a plan there tomorrow.
2016 Calafia La Reina red wine (70% cabernet sauvignon, 20% malbec, 10% petit verdot) – The slightly salty nose reveals stewed blackberry, savory-smoke, and loads of plum. Full bodied, big, dense, sweet, and very ripe. The acid is barely enough to balance the size, but it gets the job done. The chewy mouthfeel and flavor profile demonstrates the significant oak that’s put on this: coconut, condensed milk, cherry and blueberry pies, and toasted oak. Finishes with big pepper, menthol and alcohol. A Hedonistic wine, I’d drink over the next 5-7 years. 91 points. Value: C-.
2018 Ehlers Estate sauvignon blanc – Aromatically true to type: lime zest, slate, flint, banana peel, juniper, and tangerine waft from the glass. Medium plus in body with integrated and smooth acid. Nice smooth profile and structure. There’s a driving saline note that delivers seaweed, Meyer lemon, clementine, white pepper, slate minerality, under ripe banana peel, and bitter greens. 90 points. Value: B-.
2016 MC4 Martin and Croshaw Vineyard cabernet sauvignon. The nose offers dark cherry, strawberry, dark plum, and cassis. Full-ish body, the substantial tannins are elegant. It is very round and smooth with a pleasing structure. The fruit is saturated and semi-sweet, very professionally done: cherry, blackberry, strawberry, clove. Pure and clean, this is very tasty. I would love this in a decade. 93 points. Value: B+.
2017 Pellet Estate Henry’s Reserve Pellet Vineyard Napa Valley – The nose is monolithically cherry-forward with big plum and mocha. This seems to need time. Big bodied, but bright with juicy acid and refined, fine-grained and dense tannin. Beautiful structure, but very oaky. Very purple in flavor profile: blueberry, plum, violet to go with coconut and vanilla pudding. Give this at least five years. 91 points. Value: C-.
2014 Pellet Estate Napa Pellet Vineyard Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon – The nose balances fruit and savory aromas, offering blackberry, cherry juice, dark roast coffee, blood orange, and scorched earth. Full bodied, it is ripe with small-grained grippy tannin, mid-line acid and sharp, but integrated alcohol. Very elegant profile with a structure built for 10+ years. Flavors include plum, blackberry, cassis, blueberry, Chinese 5 spice, mocha, violet with a dried seaweed and Thai basil finish. Keep this ten years and then drink over the following ten years. 93 points. Value: B+.