Dean Sylvester was working at a wine shop in upstate New York when his palate experienced an attitude adjustment. It was 1971, and within one year he went from drinking Boone's Farm Apple wine to first-growth Bordeaux.

Sylvester is the winemaker behind our wine-of-the-week winner — the Whitehall Lane, 2010 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc at $18.

He credits Mother Nature and strategic planting for making this wine a standout.

"I would say 2010 was a relatively cool growing season by our standards, so I was able to get pretty good hang time and retain the wine's acidity because of the cool weather," Sylvester said. "So it shows well because of the weather and growing the grapes in the right spot and the right way in that spot."

Sylvester said he knows the leaner style of sauvignon blanc and the acid-driven wines are all the rage because they match so well with food. But he said he's striving for a riper style while maintaining the wine's acidity, so it can complement food and fly solo.

"It makes the wine good with dinner, one to buy for dinner or one just to sip on the patio while cooking dinner."

Sylvester said making a wine that achieves both goals takes perseverance. "Getting the wine in final form, balanced so it works with food and without food when making the final blend, well it's a challenge to get that right."

What don't the uninitiated know about sauvignon blanc?

"A lot of people don't realize that it works better with food than chardonnay," Sylvester said. "I like chardonnay, but I find the aromas and flavors of sauvignon blanc more fun to match with the aromas and flavors of food."

Sylvester studied at UC Davis in the early 1980s and has worked at Whitehall Lane in St. Helena for 14 years. Before that, he worked at Newton Vineyard in St. Helena and Chimney Rock Winery in the Stag's Leap District.

"One of the things I like most about winemaking is that at the end of the year you have something tangible to show for it," Sylvester said. "I equate it to raising kids, finally going off to college and out of your control. When you put a cork in the wines, you get to sit back and see them evolve and grow."<NO1>


You can reach wine writer Peg Melnik at 707-521-5310 or