I remember being a small child, spending a lot of time in my backyard staring at all the little insects flying around…wondering to myself what it would be like to lightly bounce about, seemingly giving such wonderment to observers like myself. One day, I was taken aback by a beautiful butterfly that landed on my t-shirt. It was remarkable with intricate black laced shaped trim on the edges of its wings that contrasted with a light purple color dominating the inside. It was delicate and fragile, and I wanted to keep it in my room, thinking that it would be safe there, protected from the harshness of the outside world, so I brought it to some fake flowers on the windowsill in my bedroom. The next day, I woke up to find it dead…
I was horrified and distraught because I thought I had killed it, not knowing at such a young age (around 8 years old) that butterflies don’t live very long. But a lesson stuck with me that I would learn over and over again… a lesson that was recently reinforced by another magical creature, a dragonfly of sorts, in the form of a superstar winemaker, Pam Starr.
A few weeks ago, I met Pam Starr, owner and winemaker for Crocker & Starr in Saint Helena, Napa Valley, for the opportunity to taste her wines and to learn more about her story. Our lunch was held in midtown Manhattan at an upscale Greek restaurant called Avra Madison Estiatorio; the room was filled with professionals looking polished in their well-tailored suits. As I approached our table, there was Pam beaming with excitement, and we wound up talking about everything under the sun, with 4 ½ hours passing too quickly and finding myself outside hugging her and not wanting to say goodbye.
Pam Starr has an impressive resume, while entering the wine world without any connections. She worked a part time job while finishing a degree in Fermentation Science from the prestigious UC Davis and followed with an internship at a winery where she stacked barrels. Some questioned her decision in starting a career that seemed to be a one-way ticket to a life confined to manual labor. But she was hooked on winemaking and explained it by saying, “I was simply smitten – the way one is when falling madly in love. Winemaking is mysterious, it’s sexy, and it’s magical.”
Crocker & Starr Winery
Eventually Pam ended up becoming the winemaker for Spottswoode Vineyard & Winery in Napa Valley, where she started to conceptualize her ideal expression of Sauvignon Blanc way before it became an accepted variety in Napa. Then, in 1997, a meeting with a San Francisco businessman, Charlie Crocker, who owned a 100-acre estate (40 hectares) in Saint Helena, Napa Valley, would introduce the idea of them partnering to start a winery. Without Pam knowing that this opportunity would present itself, she knew exactly the way she wanted to tend the land and the vision for her wine: to find natural balance and harmony. Pam left Spottswoode to start Crocker & Starr with Charlie, who liked the picture she painted for their future winery and he certainly knew she had the skills and experience to back it up.
But Pam did not want to be just a winemaker, she wanted to be part owner while never compromising on any aspect of Crocker & Starr, so she needed to first find income from other avenues and juggled consulting jobs for many years. In Napa, it is easy to assume that people just have money thrown at them and all they have to do is show up and play, but that is not the case with Pam. She was not going to take the safe and measured path. She was going to place all her sweat, blood and tears into creating something that transcended our mundane lives; to not only create magic for herself but to share it with others.
One of Pam’s wines, Casali (Italian for Farmhouse, or as they have adapted it to mean House of Celebration) has a label with a court jester and a dragonfly. By the time we tasted this wine we had already talked for a few hours and gotten a sense of each other, so she brought up the symbolism of the dragonfly. She said that, typically, she doesn’t like to bring it up but she thought I would appreciate it. Pam talked about the power of dragonflies. They carry the wisdom of transformation and adaptability in life. They represent joy, lightness of being and invite us to dive deeper into our feelings. They are magical creatures that are part of the fairy realm.
Pam was aware of how odd it must seem for someone who has spent her life grounded in science, who could happily talk in detail about soil analysis and fermentation techniques, to have not lost that connection with seeing the magic in everyday life. Pam is like a dragonfly… she lives gently on the earth spreading joy to all, yet she is powerful and agile, capable of migrating across oceans, moving in any direction, and changing direction suddenly if needed.
Joy and Lightness of Being
As a child, I wanted to keep that butterfly safe from the world… so it would stay beautiful and gentle… I could find some solace from the rest of the big, scary world outside with this tiny, gentle creature. But trying to keep anything joyous from the world only diminishes its light – whether it is our self or others. It is only through the testing of our strength do we know real beauty, real joy and a real sense of living in this life with a lightness that uplifts and never overwhelms.
When I left my lunch with Pam, I felt as if I was walking on a cloud. That is what dragonflies do with their presence, and in this case, it was Pam’s very being, coupled with her wines. Dragonflies take you on a magical journey that finishes with the revelation that the magic was within you all along.
Crocker & Starr Winery Tasting with Pam Starr on March 30th 2017
–2015 Sauvignon Blanc, 87% from Saint Helena & 13% from Oak Knoll, Napa Valley: 100% Sauvignon Blanc. 12% of this wine was concrete egg fermented, which adds an incredible texture to the wine. Pam’s eyes lit up when she talked about her concrete egg and she said that she felt like a kid when it arrived. Fresh, zingy flavors of lime blossom and Guava with a sexy viscosity (who knew Sauvignon Blanc could be sexy?) finishing with a hint of minerality. It will even win over red wine drinkers. The Wine Director of the restaurant came over and said she had to meet Pam because this was one of her favorite wines. 1200 cases made.
–2014 Cabernet Franc, Saint Helena, Napa Valley: 99% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot. I have said this before and I will say it again, you do not know the full potential of Cabernet Franc until you have it from Napa. Charming aromas of violets and spice with juicy raspberries and a bright finish… this could bring some of those devoted Cabernet Sauvignon lovers to the Franc Side. Only 548 cases made.
–2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Stone Place, Saint Helena, Napa Valley: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the oldest plantings on their property, 40 year old vines, called Block 3. This plot produces grapes with small, concentrated clusters. Black cherry, truffles and crumbled rocks gives this surprisingly accessible wine layers of complexity with great vitality that carries through the superb length. Only 572 cases made.
–2014 ‘Casali 7’, Saint Helena, Crocker Estate, Napa Valley: 92% Malbec, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon and 4% Petit Verdot. This wine is inspired by Pam’s desire to bring great friends together to celebrate exceptional wine experiences. The 7 represents their 7th edition of making this wine. A full body with silky tannins, exciting layers of flavors that slowly unraveled with exotic spice, espresso bean and star anise. To me, this wine really represented an extraordinary quality that Pam possessed: an authentic transparency that takes one on a journey of beauty, elegant generosity and pure magic that allows one to fly. Only 553 cases made.