Napa winemaker Helen Keplinger comes to Aspen
The Hotel Jerome celebrates women in wine
I can’t confirm it but I confidently contend that in the history of Aspen no venue has seen more raising of beer glasses, sipping of whiskey, or toasting of wine than the venerable Hotel Jerome. Since its founding in 1889 it has been a haven for locals and a welcoming waterhole for visitors who come to Aspen to revel and celebrate life in the elevated altitude of our mountain home.
So it was, when offered a seat at the table for a special winemaker’s dinner hosted by Helen Keplinger at the Jerome this past week, I jumped at the chance. One of the most acclaimed and prolific winemakers in America, Keplinger came to pour the wines she and her husband, DJ Warner, make and market in Napa under the eponymous Keplinger Wines moniker. The evening, thanks to the setting, the cuisine, the company, and most of all the wines, was a total delight. I fell in love with the Hotel Jerome all over again.
In 2016 this column chose the Carte Blanche 2012 Napa Valley Proprietary Red Wine as the WineInk Wine of the Year. I had opened the bottle with a grilled ribeye for dinner and finished it over a breakfast of bacon and eggs. Both meals, thanks to the wine, were sublime. That wine had been made by Helen Keplinger. At the time she was touted as a rising star in the wine world and been a cover subject of Wine Spectator magazine.
Today her star continues to ascend, and she is a winemaker in demand. In addition to her and DJ’s passion project with Keplinger Wines and her continuing role as winemaker for Nicholas Allen’s Carte Blanche in Napa, Helen also is winemaker for Grace Family Vineyards and LPGA professional Cristie Kerr’s Kerr Cellars.
I had interviewed Keplinger four years ago and became totally enamored with her energy and her story.
Raised in Canton, Ohio, the young Keplinger collected rocks and old wine bottles from her father’s cellar, obvious presaging her profession to come. After graduating Smith College, her plan was to attend medical school. But wine called. The enology program at UC Davis introduced her to her destiny and she soon found herself working for some of the brightest names in the wine business, including star winemakers Heidi Barrett in Napa and Kathy Joseph (Fiddlehead Cellars) in Santa Barbara, uber consultant Michel Rolland and grower David Abreu.
Helen and DJ met wine-cute when she went to the Spanish wine shop where he was working in Los Angeles. She was seeking wines from the Priorat region of Spain where she was working on opening a winery for a group of partners at the time. While DJ did not have the wine she was looking for, the pair made a connection. Both a professional partnership and a romantic relationship were born. They traveled extensively throughout Spain and the South of France, including the Languedoc, and the Rhône regions, where grapes like Syrah and Grenache are popular, and made an impression. DJ eventually moved to Napa, where the couple live today and where he also is the general manager of the aforementioned Carte Blanche. In 2006 they founded Keplinger Wines and this week they brought five of those wines to pour alongside a menu created by the Jerome’s newly hired executive chef Ross Kilkenny.
Hosted in the private Wheeler Room, just behind the appropriately packed Jerome Living Room lounge, the dinner began with passed hors d’oeuvres and Champagne (see Under The Influence) as the 30-plus guests began to arrive. There was a comfortable collection of locals, a few writers, members of the Keplinger team (including a pair of sharp-dressed men from Chicago sporting Kemo Sabe cowboy hats) and Keplinger fans. I spoke with a Denver-based farming executive and wine collector who was studying for his WSET exams (an intensive UK wine certification program) who said, “When I heard Helen was going to be here I told my wife we had to go. How often do you get a chance to meet your favorite winemaker and drink her wines?”
High praise indeed. And he was not disappointed.
Each of the wines poured reflected the focus and commitment of Keplinger to producing wines of style and substance. She noted in her introduction just how important the site, the vineyards she sources, and authenticity are to her in the winemaking process.
The first pairing of the evening featured a 2018 Vermillion Red Blend poured alongside a scallop and pork belly dish. Vermillion is Keplinger’s recently inaugurated second label. The wine was an eclectic blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from vineyards in both Sonoma County and the Sierra Foothills. Bright, fresh and plush, the wine worked perfectly with the fat of the pork and the rich scallop. We were off and running.
The next two wines were products of one of the most interesting vineyards in all of California, as well as one of Keplinger’s favorites. Shake Ridge Vineyard is located in the Sierra Foothills of Amador County and is farmed organically (though not certified) by Ann Kraemer. It is well known for its extensive mix of grape varieties and the quality of the crops. The 2019 Keplinger “Lithic” Red Wine and the 2019 Keplinger “Sumo” Red Wine are both sourced from Shake Ridge and this was an exceptional opportunity to sample some of Amador’s best.
The “Lithic” (the word means “relating to stone”), made of near equal parts Grenache, 38% Mourvedre, 36% and Syrah, 26%, is a Rhône style wine for the ages. The wine was soft and silky on the palate with spice and rustic earth, a product of the rocky hillsides from which it was sourced. The “Sumo” was something else entirely, a Petite Sirah dominate wine that was co-fermented with a touch of Viognier and then peppered with a hit of Syrah. Who does that?
Helen Keplinger that’s who. So few Petite Sirahs are on the market that I had few options to compare the wine to, but as I looked into the glass and took a sip of the deep, dark, rich, velvety wine and tasted the fruits of the California summer I was hooked.
Two more wines, both from Napa, completed the evening’s fivesome. The first was a cool climate 2019 Keplinger “Hangman’s” Syrah from the Hudson Vineyard in the Carneros AVA and the grand finale was a superb 2018 Keplinger Oakville Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon from one of the mythic places for California Cabs.
The Syrah, as was the case with the Petite Sirah, was co-fermented with a bit of whole cluster Viognier, a technique that is utilized to help soften bigger red wines. The resulting wine was, again, smooth as silk and full of cherries, berries, and a hint of smoke. A delicious food wine, it was poured with a duck breast dish. But I found the wine to be perfect on its own and could be very happy with it, with or without anything else. It’s a stand-alone.
It is Aspen, so just about every dinner out these days is highlighted by a heathy slice of wagyu beef and an equally healthy pour of Cabernet. It gets no richer than that. Chef Kilkenny’s wagyu rib cap, topped with celeriac, charred onion jus, and spring onions was a creatively prepared version and stood well with the Oakville Ranch Cabernet. Only guessing, but I bet Keplinger has likely made more Cabernet Sauvignon than any other variety, as she is a master of coaxing the most from the grape. A worthy skill.
This 2018 release of the Oakville Ranch (or ORV) is a huge wine that will need years of aging before it mellows to perfection. But already one could taste the beauty of the wine sourced from the fruits of Pritchard Hill, a holy grail site for afficionados of collectable California Cab. With fewer than 300 cases produced, I felt a little guilty about the size of my pour. This one can wait.
While the wines were grand and the dinner a treat, the real joy of the evening was the chance to spend time with Helen and DJ. Wine is a product of the earth, yes, but it takes the courage and passion of people to make it special. The Keplingers do just that.
Thanks for dinner.
CHAMPAGNE PAUL LAUNOIS COMPOSITION
Bubbles are the best way to start an evening like the one at the Jerome and Master Sommelier Desmond “Des” Echavarrie, whose consulting company Scale Wines works with Keplinger Wines, brought along another beautiful wine he represents to begin the festivities. This “growers” Champagne, a Blanc de Blanc, produced from Chardonnay vineyards in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, perhaps the most revered village in the Champagne region, was bone dry and simply elegant. Poured to pair with a creative appetizer that featured fried chicken topped with caviar atop a buckwheat blini, the creaminess of the Champagne and the crispy, salty, single-bite app was a splendid combo.
Like DJ and Helen, this wine was produced by a husband-and-wife team and was the perfect introduction for the red wines to come.
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