For me, visiting and tasting wines is more about the people behind the wines than the sensory experience itself. So I was delighted to spend an afternoon with Pam Starr of Crocker & Starr, a boutique winery in St. Helena in Napa Valley.
We gathered at the AOC Wine Bar for an amazing day of eating and sampling wines. Pam describes herself as a guide, a translator, between the vines and the wine. “The roots and soil are bound to the grapes and varietals,” she says. “Creativity lives in your head and you bring it to the table.”
Pam joined Charlie Crocker in 1997 – this year will be their 20th harvest together – to help resurrect the vineyards on the Crocker Estate in St. Helena. She had established a reputation for herself in the wine industry as a passionate and innovative winemaker, known for her distinctive Bordeaux-style blends. Today, the winery’s success can be attributed to Pam’s passion to blend Old World philosophy with new world fruit.
This 85-acre estate at Crocker & Starr grows the five Bordeaux varietals – Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Blanc Petit Verdot and Malbec – as well as Sauvignon Blanc. The Cab Franc is one of the most popular blends. “Cab Francs have to be more complicated, super pure blends,” Pam says. She translates the Malbecs and Petit Bordeaux to reflect the grittiness she experienced when visiting Mendoza, working in the heat, getting scratches on her arms… During our tasting, she describes the 2013 Cabernet as the piece de resistance. The depth of the wines can be attributed to the unique qualities of the soil, which gently slopes down toward the Napa River providing excellent drainage that forces vines to root themselves deep into the earth producing strong yet balanced grapes.
It’s Pam’s commitment to sustainable farming techniques combined with cutting edge winemaking tools that have led to the success of the wines. The health of the vineyard is a top priority as they use organic plants and flowers to attract good bugs and honeybees, and often release ladybugs. The vines are hand tended during the growing season and hand-picked at harvest. Harvest is always at night so grapes arrive cool for crushing. The depth of the wines can be attributed to the unique qualities of the soil, which gently slopes down toward the Napa River providing excellent drainage that forces vines to root themselves deep into the earth producing strong yet balanced grapes.
5 Questions with Pam:
Beth: As the daughter of an orthopedic surgeon, you were going to be a dentist. What part of your background prepared you to be a winemaker?
Pam: Going on ‘rounds’ with dad was fantastic prep for being a winemaker. Fermentations change everyday and sometimes every hour, so doing ‘ferm check’ rounds is instinctive! Also, doctors always run through a check list – “Is the patient breathing?, what will happen if we put in a sling instead of a cast?” I do the same thing in my head, “Are the yeast still active and happy? What will happen if we combine these two lots, will the yeast be happier?”
Beth: At what age did you start drinking wine and what age did you really start to appreciate wine?
Pam: At 10 years old, my mom had one of those shopping aisle wines with the fancy ceramic bottle – Lancers maybe? Anyway, my older sister and I thought it would be a good idea to check out the contents of the fancy ceramic bottle – yuck! I really started to enjoy wine at 20 years old after enjoying a 1966 Lafite Rothchild with some “fancy wine collectors” I met.
Beth: Are your instincts natural or learned? What about your palette?
Pam: Both. My palette is genetic but my vocabulary is highly developed from my days as a spice technician in a spice company.
Beth: You often talk about translating the soil – Are you a farmer first?
Pam: I’m a scientist and a winemaker first, soil was given to me over time which lead to my “winegrower abilities’
Beth: What do you drink on vacation?
Pam: Old wines and regional wines of my travels. We bring wine with us to Mexico every February as a group of 20 winos rally for annual birthday celebrations. We bring my Sauvignon Blanc and Cab Franc for sure. They’re great with fresh Mexican fish with avocados and camerones!
On any given day, you’ll find Pam wandering through the vines with her loyal vineyard companion, Griffin, a Wirehaired Pointing Griffon.