I’ve a real soft spot for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. An eye-opening spell there in the late 80s as a cellar rat was inspirational. The denim-clad, cool-as-hell winemakers swaggered about the stainless steel and the French barriques in their freshly minted wine cellars with an insouciant Californian air that belied their competitive ambition. The place was run with steely determination by founder Warren Winiarski, a political theorist at the University of Chicago, who moved west to become a winemaker in the mid 1960s, establishing the property in 1970. The small boutique winery became synonymous with the seismic Paris tasting of 1976, an event fictionalized in Bottle Shock [starring the late, great Alan Rickman]. The Stag’s Leap 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon, from a vines just three years old, was voted best red by a panel of French judges. In a blind tasting, the wine felled mighty Bordeaux châteaux Haut-Brion, Mouton-Rothschild, Léoville-Las-Cases and Montrose, not to mention domestic competitors Ridge and Heitz. The tasting put Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and the Napa Valley on the map.
You could be forgiven for feeling something of an underachiever following a trip to HALL, the ambitious state-of-the-art boutique winery on the outskirts of St Helena in California’s Napa Valley. Created in 2002 by serial entrepreneur Craig Hall and his wife Kathryn Walt Hall, the property is founded on the site of the old Napa Valley Co-Op. The centerpiece is a stunning new winery and tasting room, given an almost transparent air with floor to ceiling glass. In contrast, set beside it, is the renovated stone Bergfeld Winery established in 1885. Works of art are dotted about the gardens, including a giant silver rabbit that jumps Watership Down-like, out of the vineyard, as if making a bid for the St Helena Highway out in front.
Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon was one of Napa’s foremost wines in the 1970s, as much a product of the effort and genius of Robert Mondavi himself as the famous To Kalon vineyard in Oakville that, by and large, provided the wine’s core of great Cabernet fruit since its inception. Fast-forward forty years since the first Reserve Cab was first released and much, seemingly, has changed.
There are a number of unusual things about Silver Oak Cellars. Firstly they make only Cabernet Sauvignon, strange here given that even if the Cab’s the main event there’s usually plenty of serious tinkering with other varietals. Secondly the wines are aged exclusively in American oak. Also they produce two versions, one Cabernet from Napa Valley fruit and the other from fruit grown in the Alexander Valley. It was three vintages of the Napa Valley blend – 2008, 2005 and 2002 – that were shown by Vivien Gay at the Napa Valley Vintners’ tasting this summer. In addition identical vintages of single vineyard Merlot from Twomey Cellars were also shown, Silver Oak’s distinctly francophone sister property.
Shafer Vineyards in Stag’s Leap District
Out of all the Napa Valley’s individual viticultural areas, Stag’s Leap District, off the magical Silverado Trail, is surely the best known. The area, pioneered in the 1960s by Nathan Fay, the first to plant Cabernet in the district, shot to fame in the now legendary Paris blind tasting in 1976. The quality of fruit from Fay’s vineyard attracted Warren Winiarski to establish Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars on adjacent land beneath the rocky promontories known as Stag’s Leap in 1970. It was his 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon that French judges placed ahead of Mouton, Haut-Brion, Montrose and Léoville-Las-Cases et al in that tasting. Not bad for wine from vines then less than four years old, only in their second harvest. The importance of the Paris tasting can’t be overstated. It was an immediate statement that France didn’t have an exclusive right to the best terroir and emphasized that there were exciting vineyard sites the world over yet to be discovered. Clearly the district around Stag’s Leap was one of them.
The Napa Valley is a surprisingly small wine region, just one eighth of the size of Bordeaux, but it is extremely well-endowed in the terroir department. Its varied soils and topography are vital to the valley’s greatness, whether it be the famous Rutherford dust, its red rock terraces or the deep, volcanic hillside soils of Stag’s Leap. Yet the most important influence on the place isn’t the land at all. It’s not even Stephen Spurrier, though his 1976 Paris tasting did put Napa on the map. It’s actually the sea.