Helena View Johnston. We always enjoy visiting the northern part of the Napa Valley; as one drives beyond the cozy confines of tiny Calistoga the wineries become more spread out, the hills begin to pinch into the valley, the population drops and it feels less touristy. Helena View Johnston is one of the most northerly located wineries in Napa Valley and a visit here does not disappoint. A tasting at the winery is for serious wine enthusiasts; because of its northerly location it is an ideal winery to either start or end your day.
Weekend visits are recommended for tasting with the owner and winemaker Charles Johnston. Charles is involved in a number of various wine projects (including in China) and at times maintains a rigorous travel schedule. The property is quiet and a visit is very personalized. Expect to arrive as strangers and leave as friends. Charles often spends several hours with visitors – a visit here is certainly educational. Charles also has a very strong international perspective on wine and various wine regions around the world – in particular he spends significant time consulting in China for several wineries.
Margarit Mondavi (Robert Mondavi’s wife) provided her input for the name of the winery. Helena View is named for the great views of nearby Mt. St. Helena and Johnston is Charles’ last name.
The winery was built into the edge of a forested hill in 1988; their first vintages were released in the early 1990’s. A small tasting room is on site – although you will probably be tasting in their barrel aging room at some point during your visit.
Helena View has very forward thinking philosophy on farming and conservation. Their estate vineyards are entirely dry farmed and are 100% certified organic both CCOF (federally), as well as being internationally certified. Not many Napa Valley based wineries are certified organic and to be certified internationally shows a true dedication to environmentally conscious farming and awareness. In addition they purchase re-sterilized wine bottles for use as the cost is not that much different from buying new bottles; it would be great if more wineries would do this.
In the past, Helena View Johnston produced three labels: Helena View Estate, Helena View sourced fruit from local vineyards and an affordable priced Moon Mountain Bordeaux style blend. The estate vineyards are planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
During our first visit with Charles, we tasted a large variety of early and mid 1990 vintages starting off with a 1992 Cabernet Franc. Helena View’s wines age considerably well especially the wines that undergo extended maceration in which the skins are allowed to remain in contact with the post fermentation wine for up to several months. This elegant Cabernet Franc had lost a bit of its color but this characteristic is less important 15 years post vintage date – when a richness of flavor is still present.
Another wine we thoroughly enjoyed was their estate 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a very full bodied yet well balanced wine that has still retained its excellent fruit characteristics. Helena View tries to make their wine in such a way that they reflect the location in which they were grown. Charles often experiments with different types of yeasts and varieties. Their unique labels are created by hand by artist Edward Rooks.
The Tubbs Fire, 2017
Unfortunately the winery, cellar and various surrounding buildings on the property completely burned to the ground in the 2017 Tubbs Fire (one of 4 Napa based wineries to suffer total winery building loss) and tastings are no longer conducted at the winery.
Of the four Napa based wineries that suffered total winery building loss (Helena View Johnston, Signorello Estate, Sill Family Estate, and Wing Canyon), Helena View Johnston probably got hit the hardest because his vineyard was also completely burned. Many vineyards acted as fire breaks during these particular fires, but this fire was so devastating combined with the organic approach to maintaining this particular vineyard – that about 30% of the vines were severely damaged or destroyed.
Tragically Charles’ significant wine collection including rare bottles from Europe also burned included in the 30,000 bottles of red wine and 12,000 gallons of wine in barrels all lost. Plus multiple vintages of Helena View Johnston were also completely lost.
Due to the loss of both product and vineyard damage in the 2017 Tubbs Fire, Helena View Johnston sourced wine from other parts of the Napa Valley for several subsequent years. 2021 should be the first harvest from the estate property since the fires. The last estate produced wine that was bottled was in 2013.
The 2016 Helena View Johnston Chardonnay is golden in the glass with aromas of tangerine, dried hay, a minerality nuance and as the wine opens, lemon curd/meringue aromas. The texture is a hallmark aspect of this wine – almost oily, creamy with memorable viscosity. Flavors of red delicious apple on the palate along with some citrus nuances and hazelnut. Both a richness and slight perceived sweetness of fruit linger on the finish.
The 2015 Helena View Johnston Stagecoach Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon is medium ruby in color; shows a nice spicy note on the bouquet (think Santa Rosa plum skin) – the aromatics are elegant showing both red and darker fruits. Hints of dried tobacco leaf, dust and parchment paper. Plenty of fruit across the palate including cherry and currant. Very nicely balanced across the palate with well-integrated tannins. Pleasing texture on the finish with just a little red fruit tartness that lingers. Very approachable (we tasted about 6 years post vintage date).
The 2016 Helena View Johnston Red Blend is composed of 7 varieties including Grenache. Fruit forward on the bouquet and on the palate – one could describe this wine in technical terms as a ‘crowd pleaser’. Between medium and deep ruby in color, the aromatics show a nice play between barrel influence and ripe fruit. Offers maraschino cherry, cassis, boysenberry and some sweeter desert spices along with notes of Graham Cracker as the wine opens further. Not overly complex on the palate but it is very flavorful with notes of red cherry and raspberry. Juicy. Lingers with a darker spice note, pepper, cedar, dried tobacco leaf and a hint of mocha sweetness on the finish. Ripe, yes, but one doesn’t immediately notice the high alcohol until later after multiple glass. This wine is nearly 16% alcohol.
In fall 2020 Charles with the help of Mario Tedeschi Vineyard Management Company prepared the soil in a small section of the property to be planted in part to Marselan. The vineyard layout was conducted in May 2021 and the first 400 vines went into the ground in late May that same year as bench grafts from Sunridge Nursery in Bakersfield. This variety perhaps is among the first ever plantings in the Napa Valley; John Caldwell of Caldwell Winery may be the first one to plant Marselan in the Napa Valley – a tiny experimental block of only about 40 vines at his vineyard in Coombsville. Marselan is a 1960’s cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache. We first discovered and tasted this variety at Bodega Garzon in Uruguay – we mentioned this variety to Charles and later helped organize a Marselan tasting with select 100% varietal wines from the domestic market as well as several from France and Israel.
Regardless of their origin, we noticed savory earthy notes throughout almost all the wines – the ones that had more oak were definitely more complex and these wines showed off a bit nicer then the wines without any oak. The wines from France – to varying degrees offered earthy, dark, somewhat tar-like notes on the palate. The wines ranged the gamut from not very interesting to more complex.
The one wine from Israel in the tasting (2017 Binyamina Reserve) was the crowd favorite, balanced, bigger, with more oak. The one from Paso Robles – there was no mistaking it against all the others. That and the Israeli wine were probably the most marketable of all the wines to the American palate. Noticed a bitter finish, not pleasing finish on a number of the cheaper wines. Possibly look at blending some Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot eventually to increase complexity and interest. None of the wines showed harsh tannins. Some of the cheaper French wines lacked acidity. For more information about this variety, visit: www.worldmarselanday.com
Florida Family Restaurants
Charles’ daughter Sarah Marie and her husband, two-time James Beard nominee chef Chef Tom Gray (who grew up in Jacksonville) own and operate two restaurants in Jacksonville, Town Hall in the San Marco neighborhood less then 10 minutes from downtown and Prati Italia Restaurant in the St. Johns Shopping Center. Chef also oversees his own product line with a number of sauces, pantry items (pastas) and pizza kits. And if running two premium restaurants wasn’t enough to keep one busy – they also own and operate CuliVino, a local hospitality management and consulting company.
Located in the hip and happening San Marco neighborhood (and a short walk to St. John’s River – a popular sunset watching spot), Town Hall opened in 2017. Parking is curbside (if available) or during most other times in the parking lot of the nearby Southside Baptist Church. The restaurant offers limited outdoor seating but with plenty of indoor seating – the feeling of the interior is welcoming and casual yet simultaneously upscale. Open daily for dinner but also for brunch and lunch on Sundays. Happy hour runs daily from 430 to 6pm.
The menu offers a nice diversity of both sea and land based products from both local farms and other artisan businesses. During a recent visit one of the culinary highlights was the seared octopus as an appetizer and the seared scallops as the main course. They offer a number of in-house specialty cocktails – we opted for a traditional mule. Also a decent selection of local craft beers. The Wednesday and Thursday wine tastings offered from 5-7pm are especially popular. Each tasting offers a special theme – usually centered around a variety or region.
This sizeable restaurant in a major upscale shopping area (St. Johns Town Center) opened in January 2020 in place of Tom and Sarah Marie’s former restaurant, Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails. Services both clients of the shopping center but also plenty of nearby offices. Prati means ‘meadows’ in Italian and is also a neighborhood within Rome. Plenty of parking; both indoor and outdoor dining offered – the outdoor space offers some nice views of a nearby waterway. The culinary focus is on Italian cuisine including handmade pastas, pizzas and like at Town Hall, some unique and specialty cocktails.