Twenty-five years after it became an AVA in 1989, this narrow strip of eastern Napa continues to enjoy a near-mythical status. While its elegant yet powerful Cabernet-based wines command elevated prices, there’s never any shortage of demand, as Adam Lechmere reports

Stags Leap at a glance

Area under vine 526ha

Number of wineries 25 approx

Grapes planted 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petite Sirah, 1% other

Soils Diverse, predominantly volcanic. The higher reaches of the Palisades have well-drained gravel over volcanic rock. The lower, western reaches of the district, down the Napa river, are alluvial – a blend of gravelly loams with clay-based substructure. Generally poor water-holding capacity resulting in low-vigour vines.

Total production Average 64,000 cases. The average production per winery varies between 210 and 15,000 cases, depending on size

In a way, it all started with a prune orchard. Prunes were once big business in California’s Napa Valley, and in the late 1960s Nathan Fay’s Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards, just off the Silverado Trail under the craggy escarpment known as Stags Leap Palisades, were surrounded by them. Fay sold grapes but also crushed a few tonnes himself and shared his homemade wine with people like John Shafer and Warren Winiarski, career-changers who had arrived in Napa with young families and were thinking about buying vineland.

‘I tasted Nathan’s 1968 Cabernet Sauvignon and it inspired me to establish a Cabernet vineyard as close as possible to his,’ Winiarski remembers. So he bought about 12 hectares of prunes next to Fay and in 1970 planted a portion of it to Cabernet Sauvignon, calling it SLV – Stag’s Leap Vineyard. a few years later he sent the 1973 vintage to Steven Spurrier’s now-legendary Judgment of Paris tasting, and straight into the history books.

Stags Leap District – which celebrating its 25th anniversary as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) this year – is an odd mix of the corporate and the cosily domestic. while 95% of napa’s 500 wineries are family-owned, the figure is somewhat lower in Stags Leap, where Constellation (Mondavi), Treasury Wine Estates (Stags’ Leap winery), Antinori- Ste Michelle (Stag’s Leap wine Cellars, bought from Winiarski in 2007), Terlato Wine Group (Chimney Rock) and other corporations hold sway. Then there are big family-run producers such as Baldacci and Regusci, producing solid, high-end wine almost entirely for a domestic market. The formidable Silverado Vineyards is also a family affair, owned by the Millers, descendants of Walt Disney.

Then there are smaller, 300-case producers – Greg Lindstrom, Robinson Family, Taylor Family Vineyards, Ilsley – which are hardly known outside america. They are comfortable, friendly affairs. Tom Jinks of Robinson Family (his wife’s name – they thought it sounded better than ‘Jinks Vineyards’) showed me the cellar he’d dug by hand, while his numerous daughters and their children handed round pizza to guests visiting for Vineyard to Vintner, the district’s annual open day. Many, like Sandy Taylor and her family, started out as growers and made the decision to start producing wine relatively recently.

Cabernet is king

The district is bounded to the north by the Yountville Cross Road and to the west by the Napa River, and its eastern borders – the Palisades – are vertically delimited: no vines may be grown above 120m altitude. The district measures 5km by 1.5km and supports the 25 or so producers. There are no restrictions on varieties or on yields. ‘This is America and you can plant anything you want,’ John Shafer’s son Doug reminds me.

In reality the appellation is self-regulating: with Cabernet Sauvignon fetching US$7,500 (£4,500) a tonne here, compared with the Napa average of US$5,500 (£3,250), it would ‘make no financial sense to plant anything else’, according to Christian Ogenfuss, marketing director at Odette, the district’s newest winery. Stags Leap may not have any bona fide cults – although former Screaming Eagle owner Jean Phillips has just bought 46ha next door to Odette – but it has its own aristocracy in the form of Shafer, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Clos du Val. While their wines put them into the luxury goods bracket (Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ Cask 23 can be more than £200 a bottle) prices are generally hefty. You’d be hard pressed to find an entry-level wine at less than US$60 (£36), and the average for a mid-level estate Cabernet Sauvignon is around the US$125 (£75) mark. ‘It is the financial appellation,’ Ogenfuss says – quite a claim, in Napa.

Apart from a handful of anomalies, Stags Leap District is a Cabernet appellation. One notable exception is Stags’ Leap Winery, whose Ne Cede Malis Petite Sirah – a field blend which includes Tannat, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat – is celebrated. Petite Sirah, though, makes up only 2% of the 256ha planted in the AVA. Most of that is at Stags’ Leap Winery, and Quixote, the winery set up by Stags’ Leap’s former owner Carl Doumani, who has just sold to a Chinese- backed company for more than US$20m (£12m).

About 80% of the grapes in Stags Leap District are Cabernet Sauvignon, and with good reason, the district’s veteran growers maintain. Dick Steltzner, who started his winery in 1972 and, with John Shafer, was one of the key architects of the AVA, considers its climate uniquely suited to Cabernet. First, the peculiar inward curve of the Palisades funnels and circulates the cooling breezes from San Pablo Bay. ‘Because of that air movement we have smaller leaves, so we have more sunlight on the fruit,’ Steltzner says. The light alluvial soils of the benchland give more stress to the vines, so berries are small and intensely flavoured. Steltzner believes they have more hang-time than the rest of the valley, resulting in more phenolic ripeness, which coupled with cool nights allows acid retention.

Finesse and power

At Cliff Lede Vineyards, winemaker Remi Cohen points out another well-recognised feature of the Palisades (which at this northernmost tip of the appellation – the narrow apex of the funnel – loom over the vineyards): they reflect the sun. ‘By day we can be as hot as Calistoga, by night we’re far cooler,’ bringing that sought-after combination of ripeness and acidity. ‘The wines are ripe, but with tension and vibrancy.’

Cohen says it’s almost impossible to make a bad wine in such promising terroir. Her wines combine finesse and power, the bold tannic heft and concentrated fruit tempered by a nervy precision. Across the appellation, there are wines from either end of the spectrum. There are the international stars – Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Shafer – producing wines of numinous elegance and longevity. Of the many decades-old Napa wines I have tasted, Winiarski’s Cask 23 1977, with its scent of old book leather and cherry compote, is an example of how the wines can age. At a 30th anniversary re-run of the Paris Tasting in 2006, with the same wines, Winiarski’s 1973 took first place again.

The winemaker, of course, sets the style. Many Stags Leap District wineries cater largely or exclusively for a domestic market, which often demands wines showing that classic Napa profile of the past decade: oak, bombastic fruit and alcoholic heat. But – and this bears out Cohen’s belief – it is never difficult to find an edge of elegance, whether it be a hint of herb or a rush of brisk acidity that mitigates jamminess. Jim Regusci’s wines are a case in point. While I found his Patriarch 2010 too hot on the finish, the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon was perfumed and exotic, with a lovely nettley greenness at the end.

Kristy Melton at Clos du Val uses a phrase beloved of all Stags Leap winemakers: ‘The iron fist in the velvet glove: silky tannins, bright acid, a backbone of black fruit, elegance.’ John Shafer and his fellow pioneers recognised it all those years ago, as he said: ‘We saw the common thread running through these wines, and we thought, this deserves to be a separate AVA.’

Written by Adam Lechmere

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. Stags Leap: Six producers to watch
  3. 3. A taste of Stags Leap: 10 to try
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