The Man Who Made Stags Leap

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When California wine exploded on the world scene in the mid-'70s, Cabernet Sauvignon took center stage immediately. I was a waiter at the time. Almost overnight, it seemed, the wine-drinking habits of the clientele veered from carafes of generic "burgundy" and "chablis" to cork-finished bottles of branded varietals--and I found myself in the new and novel position of wine buyer.

Some of the most impressive wines then were a handful of single-vineyard bottlings from around the state, including Ridge "Montebello," Rodney Strong "Alexander's Crown" and several from the upper Napa Valley. They were exciting because they hinted that California had a diversity of well-defined terroirs comparable to the more evolved Old World wine regions such as Bordeaux and Burgundy.

One bottling that I purchased as often as possible (admittedly more for myself than for the restaurant) was Heitz "Fay Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon. I loved the wine's elegant richness and soft, almost chewy tannins, but there was more to it than that.

The Stags Leap area of southeastern Napa, where the vineyard was situated, seemed to be emerging as a new viticultural entity in a valley that had long been dominated by Rutherford and Oakville. Its distinctive character was as clear on the palate as that of a Bordeaux commune such as St. Julien or Paulliac.

Heitz Cellar produced only five vintages (1975-79) from grower Nathan Fay's vines, but the timing was perfect. In retrospect, that sequence of vintages can be seen as a kind of birth announcement for the Stags Leap District, which in 1989 became the first subordinate American Viticultural Area lying wholly within the Napa Valley AVA.

To call Nathan Fay a grape grower is accurate but hardly adequate. He is one of those rare individuals who inspire the people around them to pursue lofty goals while teaching by example.

Fay, now 85, moved to the Napa Valley from his native Visalia in 1951. Two years later he bought 205 acres in a sheltered declivity beneath the towering Stags Leap palisade. In 1961 he planted Cabernet Sauvignon vines, the first significant planting of Cabernet in the valley south of Oakville. In 1967 Fay and his good friend Father Tom Turnbull (another legendary Napa Valley figure) planted 30 more acres together.

The first vines were planted on deep alluvial soil, but Fay soon began extending the vineyard onto leaner volcanic ground. An accomplished home winemaker, he gauged the vineyard's evolution vintage by vintage through his own wines--effectively using the Cabernet vine to chart the Stags Leap geology in terms of subtle differences in fragrance, body, structure and tannin.

Meanwhile, for three decades he sold most of the fruit to vintners, including Peter and Robert Mondavi (Charles Krug), Joseph Heitz, George Vierra (Vichon) and Frances Mahoney (Carneros Creek). Some of the young winemakers who learned from Fay and cut their winemaking teeth on his grapes include Dick Ward and David Graves (Saintsbury), John Kongsgaard (Newton, Livingston, Luna), Charles Meyers (Harbor Winery), Doug Fletcher (Chimney Rock) and Jack Stuart (Silverado). The valley's renowned vine-budding specialist, Jose Navarro, says he learned his basic budding technique from Nathan Fay.

Last week scores of Fay's friends and admirers gathered at the historic Stags Leap Estate (owned by Beringer Vineyards) to pay tribute to an extraordinarily effective life. They raided their cellars to assemble a remarkable tasting of Fay Vineyard wines, many homemade, going back to 1968. And during a leisurely spring luncheon on the lawn beside the majestic stone manor (built in 1891), they rose one by one to praise the gentle white-haired guest of honor, who for nearly half a century has been a pillar of the Napa Valley wine community.

A high point of the afternoon was the presentation of the Nathan Fay Graduate Fellowship Fund for graduate studies in viticulture research. The $10,000 endowment check from the Stags Leap District Winegrowers was accepted by James A. Wolpert, head of the UC Davis Viticulture and Enology Department. Wolpert also introduced the first Nathan Fay Fellow, graduate student Solomon Dobrowski, whose work in aerial imaging is expected to help improve vineyard management.

The keynote speaker was Winiarski, who founded Stag's Leap Wine Cellars in 1972 and purchased most of Fay's vineyard when the grower retired in 1986 (vintner Joseph Phelps bought a portion, as well).

Winiarski became prominent after the famous Paris Tasting of 1976, when a panel of French judges, tasting blind, declared several California wines to be superior to their French counterparts. Chief among the winners was the '73 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon; Winiarski's young vineyard was next door to Fay's and propagated from Fay's best vines.

In 1969, Winiarski (a former political theory professor who went back to the land with a vision of producing great California wine) had tasted Nathan Fay's homemade Cabernet from the previous vintage. That taste, Winiarski told the crowd, was an epiphany.

"At that time," he said, "it was not common for vintners to keep vineyard-designated lots of wine separate. However, with the help of many friends who were engaged in production, I was able to taste Cabernet from a variety of areas and sites before they were blended together. I developed a sense of the valley's Cabernet geography.

"However, I was unprepared for the experience of tasting Nathan's wine. Starting when the perfume of it spread through the small room where we stood together, it was the best expression of Napa Valley Cabernet I had encountered."

Tasting that homemade 1968 Fay Vineyard Cabernet convinced Winiarski to establish his own vineyards and winery in Stags Leap, adjacent to Fay's property. In a real sense, he said, that pivotal tasting was the first step on the road to Paris '76. He added, "Nathan might be said to represent the culmination of the varietal phase of modern Californian winemaking and grape growing."

At a pre-luncheon tasting of rare Fay Vineyard wines, the famous '68 was the subject of several anecdotes. One in particular evoked the intensely social and open-minded ferment in those early days of the California wine boom.

There were actually two '68s in the tasting: one made by Nathan Fay and another by Sacramento retailer Darrel Corti, one of the world's most knowledgeable wine merchants and a key figure in California's modern wine renaissance. The wines were astonishingly different, especially in the nose.

At first, nobody could figure out why. Then Darrel Corti rose to explain. Corti recalled picking the grapes with his family, getting a bucket of frothing yeast from Andre Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyards and making one barrel of wine in his garage with advice from a young Bordelais named Christian Moueix, who was studying enology at UC Davis in preparation for taking over his family's recently acquired Pomerol property, Chateau Petrus.

"The wine doesn't have any perfume!" complained Corti when he and Moueix tasted the young wine together several months later.

"Why don't you do what Madame Loubat used to do at Chateau Petrus?" suggested Moueix. "She added a bottle of framboise [raspberry liqueur] to each barrel."

Corti had only one barrel of wine (a new French cha^teau barrel obtained from Dick Graf at Chalone Vineyards), so he popped a bottle of Trimbach framboise and gurgled it in.

"I prefer Nathan's wine," Corti said dryly at the tribute luncheon. Indeed, Nathan Fay's own '68 Fay was a beautiful statement of Cabernet Sauvignon, even without that lilting raspberry note.

The wine of the tasting, however, was another Nathan Fay Cabernet. The '74 is still marvelous after all these years, sleek and powerful with heroic depth and structure.

It was paired with the more commercial (read: less concentrated but still gorgeous) '74 Charles Krug made by Peter Mondavi. That, too, was a lovely wine, but once again, Fay's wine was the best expression of his vineyard: beautifully expansive, reflecting the vintner in its youthful vigor, wisdom and grace.

Smith is writer-at-large for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

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