The Pulse of Napa Valley’s Crocker & Starr

Pam Starr is game. For anything. While a moody, wintry sky looms above the Crocker & Starr estate, Starr is in a positively sunny mood, wearing a bright yellow jacket that mirrors the color of the wild mustard cropping up between vineyard rows. From the start, it’s tough to keep up with Starr. She meets me in the cellar, but is soon rushing off to meet with an ailing neighbor who’s made his way to the winery to say hello and receive an encouraging hug. While his wife stands by observing him with Starr, the older neighbor shares his health woes while she tells him repeatedly how great he looks. She won’t rush him along, and gives him her full attention. Later she apologizes for the delay as we head to her car for a tour of the estate. She speaks so quickly, she often has to pause to catch her breath. Her hands also do a fair amount of talking, and when she’s not talking, she’s throwing her head back in deep laughter or waving here and there to employees. In other words, Starr is a force of nature. 

When speaking about the estate vineyards, Starr frequently anthropomorphizes them. “I met these vines in 1996,” she says of a gnarly block of vines that are 45 years old. She places her hand on a vine, as if taking its pulse, and pauses in silence for quite a few seconds. A confident woman, she is unapologetic about her spiritual connection to these vines, and doesn’t seem to care that this practice might seem eccentric. “We need to have a lot of respect for these vines because they have to endure tractors driving past occasionally. I think the vines appreciate that we use sustainability as our form of viticulture, and I think sustainability also encompasses organic farming. You can be certified organic, but you don’t have to be sustainable. You can be sustainable, but not be certified organic. We’re not certified anything but “green.” We don’t use any herbicides or pesticides here. We tolerate high weeds so that we don’t have to drive tractors much. Ladybugs…butterflies…birds…they all love it here.” And in fact, as she’s talking, the wildlife surrounding us proves her right. I see numerous butterflies flutter by and, as an avid bird watcher, I can’t help but be amazed by the chorus of birdsongs accompanying our visit. Bluebirds, finches, mourning doves, sparrows, acorn woodpeckers, tree swallows, blue jays, raptors and crows alight on vineyard posts all around us. 

“I’m on a journey of terroir,” Starr tells me. “That’s been my journey. I’m very fortunate to be on a path where I produce wines from a pinpoint on a map. I try to express the traits of this place, and get myself out of the way. I’m a classicist because I think classicists were meant to be guides. To be an effective guide, I have to be where the fruit is grown. I’m in the vineyard bringing wines from a pinpoint on a map into the bottle.” The pinpoint Starr alludes to is “the narrowest part of the Napa Valley. We’re in St. Helena, 21 miles north of Napa. These soils were made by the lower slopes of the nook made by Spring Mountain and the Mayacamas mountain range.” She continues, “It’s all about choosing a path and then following it where it leads. I never thought I’d be a business woman for myself. Never thought I’d co-own a winery because I knew the financials didn’t make sense, but when there’s passion involved, a decision doesn’t have to make sense.”
"These soils were made by the lower slopes of the nook made by Spring Mountain and the Mayacamas mountain range," Starr says.

Crocker & Starr was established in 1997 by Pam Starr and Charlie Crocker. At the time, Crocker, now in his 80s, was working out of One Post, an iconic San Francisco office building dubbed McKesson Plaza. Crocker descends from one of California’s oldest and most influential families. His great-grandfather, also Charlie Crocker, spearheaded construction of the Central Pacific Railroad, completed in 1868, which began the extraordinary growth that transformed California into an economic dynamo. Crocker and his wife Lucinda acquired the historic Dowdell property, located at the end of Dowdell Lane in St. Helena, in 1971. Crocker enjoyed slowly restoring the historic property while running BEI Technologies, which specialized in electronic sensors developed to provide electronic stability control in automobiles, and BEI Medical Systems, which developed medical devices for women’s health care. He sold both companies a few years ago, and now enjoys woodworking at the estate, as well as driving his old ’66 Ford truck around the property or occasionally hopping on a tractor. 

Starr met Crocker at One Post ostensibly to discuss potentially purchasing fruit. When she got off the elevator at the 25th floor in her best “winemaker jeans” she assumed their meeting would be a very brief one. Three hours later, they had shaken hands and decided to start a winery together. Crocker admired the wines Starr was making at Spottswoode at the time, and Starr immediately took to Crocker’s plainspoken and straight-forward manner. It didn’t hurt that she coveted the fruit coming off Crocker’s estate. 

Though all of Starr’s wines are intentional, vibrant and very balanced, I favor the Crocker & Starr Cabernet Francs. They are glorious representations of this underrated variety, and are the very definition of tension, precision of flavors, great structure and a texture that begs for a wide host of foods. This could be because there’s a note of cardamom in these Cabernet Francs, which may be their hallmark. Cardamom is a mysterious spice, often recalling bark, stones, flowers and fruit all at once. So it’s no wonder these wines are welcome at most any table. 

Starr’s wines are all remarkably restrained, yet offer the very essence of the fruit that is their provenance. “The reason our estate fruit doesn’t translate into these very intensely sweet, massive wines is that there is such amazing natural acidity at play here. The electrolyte balance of the grape translates directly into the wine, and the wine cannot be pushed past itself that way. To do so would require manipulating chemistry. In the early days I did try to push some wines over the top. And, I have to say, I just didn’t like those wines. They didn’t hold. They didn’t survive. I had to reject them. Wines fall apart when you try and push them in that direction.” Indeed, the wines off this estate seem only to know elegance and fresh flesh. The older wines we try later in the day still possess a lilting moxie and unabashed youthfulness.

“Cabernet Franc has a pulse. The grape itself has a pulse. When it’s is on the vine, it has a pulse. One of the most under-appreciated fruits out there is the blueberry, and the blueberry floats; it has this wonderful waxy quality to it, and that’s how they harvest them. Cab Franc, in a way, almost floats. And it’s the spiciest of the classic Bordeaux varieties. The Cabernet Franc vine itself—the wood—has a sheen to it. It’s a bit silvery compared to the wood on Cabernet Sauvignon vines, which is a darker brownish-black. It does not like to line up like a soldier. It doesn’t like to grow in a straight line.” We’re standing in a block of Cab Franc she has named the “Goddess Block” as she tells me this. 

We hop back in her car, and Starr continues to tour me around the estate. We pass an old vineyard shed, inoperable trucks, an old chapel that was built by Charlie’s great-aunt around 1910; it is considered part of the Grace Cathedral (and was originally located there) in San Francisco and is registered as an historical landmark. The Crocker family donated a block of Nob Hill so that Grace Cathedral could be built. Starr and her husband Norm were married outside the vineyard chapel. We pass Charlie’s woodworking shop, a cluster of chickens pecking at weeds and wild flowers, and an old gravity-flow winery which Crocker converted into the family residence. There’s also a beautiful old brandy distillery, later converted by Crocker into the “Casali,” or party room, which wine club members currently enjoy during private events. 

Starr stops outside an 1870s Sears & Roebuck kit home not far from a block of Sauvignon Blanc. It is charmingly rendered in a Victorian style. “Charlie was so happy to get this,” Starr says. “It could have come from Chicago or Wisconsin, because the railway went through here, from Chicago all the way to San Francisco.” Olive, oak and walnut trees that have “passed away” on the property have gradually been repurposed. “Charlie and I have similar minds that way; we like to give things new life. So if a tree passes away, it’s repurposed into a table or door.” 

As we pass several blocks of Sauvignon Blanc, Starr says, “We’ve created a ‘Napa-style’ Sauvignon Blanc. I was getting tired of hearing people chasing a New Zealand- or Bordeaux-style in the Napa Valley. I kept saying to colleagues ‘we’ve got this on our own.’ I think you’ll find the wine has tension and flesh. A lot of red wine drinkers won’t pick up a glass of Sauvignon Blanc; they’ll probably go for a Chardonnay first. It’s easy for them to taste the flesh in Chardonnay. I think here we’ve captured the flesh of Sauvignon Blanc. We’ll see.” When later in the day we sit down to taste the Sauvignon Blanc, Starr’s comments turn out to be on the money. The fruit is front and center, fleshy and mouth-filling, while the acidity keeps the wine itself laser-focused, and seems to cleanse the palate as one consumes it. 

Visitors touring the Napa Valley will find the Crocker & Starr experience unique. An appointment in advance is required, and no more than six guests at a time are invited to visit. Beginning inside a 1918 restored farmhouse, guests receive a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, and then head off for a walk through the vineyards and property. Later they arrive at the Garden Arbor & Stone House, where they participate in a tasting of the estates red wines. The table at which guests are seated is made from those self-same trees they passed on the property. 

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