Obscure Varietals - Saint-Laurent

When Napa Valley winemaker Jon Engelskirger visited India 10 years ago, he had no idea that the trip would influence the trajectory of his winemaking.

“I had taken a trip to India to visit wineries in the Nasik Valley near Mumbai,” Engelskirger said. “It was quite an amazing trip, and I came away with a new respect for the people of India, and of course for Indian cuisine. One problem though — many of the wines they were making seemed to try and emulate New World wine styles, but red wines with high alcohol and tannin levels were a train wreck with the beautiful spices.”

Back in California, Engelskirger continued to make the usual varietals — cabernet, chardonnay and merlot — but he was on the lookout for alternatives.

“My trip to India lingered in the back of my mind for years,” he said. “I wanted to make a red wine that really excited me and would go with the foods that I love: spicy, briny, acidic. When I tasted the grapes off Dale’s vineyard, I knew I’d found it.”

The grapes Engelskirger tasted were Saint-Laurent from Dale Ricci’s vineyard in Los Carneros. Ricci had planted 5 acres of the obscure varietal with cuttings from Germany.

“Saint-Laurent — or ‘Larry,’ as I like to call it — is found mostly in Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic,” Engelskirger said. “As far as I know, there are currently only 5 acres of this varietal in the U.S.”

Saint-Laurent (sometimes called Svatovavrinetske or Vavrinecke) has long been thought to be related to pinot noir, but its exact ancestry remains unclear.

As to why making such an obscure red wine is important, Engelskirger was circumspect.

“For a long time, many in the valley have been making wine to get high scores,” he said. “And because the press has wanted riper styles, that’s where the wine styles tended to go. But these types of wines are not necessarily the best with food.

“For me, I felt like what had been interesting early in my career as a winemaker — pursuing the craft instead of the bottom line — had become more and more difficult, and quite frankly it was a bit of a bummer. So seeing some of the natural winemakers out there making wines from obscure varietals and not worrying about hitting a certain score has been enthralling and is also part of the motivation for this project.

“When I think about it, there have also been some winemakers, such as Cathy Corison, that while the rest of us were tempted by and sort of coerced a little bit by ownership to go in a style direction, Cathy continued to do what she was doing — making excellent, food-friendly wines.”

Besides making a statement, Engelskirger believes his St. Laurent makes an excellent accompaniment to foods that are normally considered more white-wine friendly.

“The wine made from these grapes is beautifully aromatic and is a great match for all things spicy,” Engelskirger said. “And there’s another great match, too — oysters. With a bit of a chill, the wine becomes soft with oysters on the half-shell, even with lemon and mignonette sauce. It’s also great with baked oysters and grilled oysters with some pepper heat.”

Those curious to taste Engelskirger’s wine can do so at Napa’s Hog Island Oyster Bar on May 19.

“We are thrilled to be showcasing Jon’s first vintage of his St. Laurent,” said Jenn Anderson, general manager of Hog Island Oyster Bar, located in the Oxbow Public Market in Napa. “We’ll be holding what we are calling ‘Meet Larry’ during one of our Guest Shucker events, this one held on Thursday, May 19, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Guests can come enjoy oysters and try Jon’s wonderful wine while they watch him shuck oysters. Besides great food and wine, 10 percent of all the proceeds go to the local Napa County Literacy Project.”

“There are more than 14,753 residents in Napa County who are functionally illiterate,” wrote Robin Rafael, literacy and volunteer services supervisor at the Napa County Library. “The California Library Literacy Services’ mission is to enable all ages to reach their literacy goals and use library services successfully. Our program has two full-time and one part-time staff member and 76 volunteers that tutor at the Napa, American Canyon, Yountville and Calistoga libraries. We are fortunate that Napa is a generous community with many that want to give back.”

Besides supporting the community and eating fresh oysters, Engelskirger also hopes that people coming to the Hog Island Oyster Bar event will find the wine exciting, too.

“Because this varietal has a first plateau for flavor ripeness at a lower sugar level than most, he said, “the result is a wine that is low in alcohol and tannin but high in anthocyanins (color and broad palate feel) and resveratrol (a phenol in red wine that is often associated with its potential health benefits). I am hoping people will find the wine, oysters and our links with the literacy project to be something they can get excited about.”

I tasted the new release, 2014 St. Laurent ($30 a bottle), and found it initially challenging to get my head around. The wine had a purple-tinged garnet hue and was moderately bright in the glass. The aromatics were a complex mix of mineral chalk and wet seastone, just-ripe dried cherries, slightly under-ripe brambly blackberries, smoky sandalwood and dried rose petals — sort of a French-styled pinot noir mixed with a mineral-rich California sauvignon blanc.

In the mouth, what Engelskirger had been saying became clear. Although this wine had a lot of moving pieces, it was bright and the pieces smoothed out, becoming a wine that I could imagine joyfully accompanying oysters or spicy food. However, the food that came to mind for me was neither Indian nor oysters but spicy barbecue or grilled game that had been marinated in juniper berries and black peppercorns and cooked over a fire of hard-oak wood. Only 400 cases were made.

“I hope we can find room in this valley for more expressions of this place through different varietals and styles,” Engelskirger said. “I think we all like chocolate, strawberry and vanilla, but there are lots of different other options that are pretty good out there, too.”

The wine will be available for sale at the “Meet Larry” event on May 19 at the Hog Island Oyster Bar, located in the Oxbow Public Market in Napa, or through contacting Engelskirger directly at jon@jonevino.com or calling him at 707-337-4387.

Anyone interested in learning more about the Napa County Library Literacy Center can contact them at 707-253-4283, or visit the county library at 580 Coombs St. The next training session for tutors will be held May 24 and May 26 from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

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Originally published in the Napa Register, May 2016