Stags Leap: Craggy Home of Heroic Cabernets

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Stags Leap is haunted by waters. Its palisades and terraces speak eloquently of the land's long, slow rise from the sea, and of cataclysmic flooding deep in the past.

The first time I visited that convoluted southeast corner of the Napa Valley, I had the distinct impression of being an ant in a dried-up creek bed. The slopes looked like gravel bars shimmering in the dry heat of a Napa Valley morning. The rippled rock formations above them have been high and dry for thousands of years, yet still suggest the hydrological forces which sculpted them.

And just in the last hundred years or so, that craggy old landscape has gone from being shaped by water to expressing itself in wine. I thought about that last week, as I sat tasting a dozen 1998 Stags Leap District Cabernets deep inside one of those rock formations--that is, in the cool twilight of the barrel cave at Robert Sinskey Winery.

The wines comprised the 2001 Appellation Collection assembled by the 12 member wineries of the Stags Leap District Winegrowers: Chimney Rock, Clos du Val, Hartwell, Pine Ridge, Regusci, Robert Mondavi, Robert Sinskey, S. Anderson, Shafer, Silverado, Stags' Leap and Steltzner. Like previous vintages, this Appellation Collection offers a striking sensual impression of one growing season in a distinctive viticultural area within the Napa Valley. Virtually all the significant Cabernet vineyards in the Stags Leap American Viticultural Area (and blocks of Merlot and Cabernet Franc too) are represented in the case.

It also demonstrates that '98 doesn't necessarily deserve the poor reputation it acquired shortly after the harvest, when the new wines struck most observers as hard and mean. Certainly the growing season was hard and mean, a roller-coaster ride for Napa Valley growers. But time shapes wines as it does landscapes, and after a few years in barrel and bottle the top level of '98 Napa Valley Cabernets have coalesced into charming, elegant wines that are generally more moderate, high-toned and structured than the opulent '97s and the powerful '99s, which are still coming to grips with themselves in barrel.

It's an appealing style. There's plenty of warm, chewy Cabernet fruit, of course, but it's expressed in a trim, tailored sensibility that shows off balance and structure as much as ripeness. The Hartwell is a good example in its interplay of velvety texture and firm structure that move through the palate as if on rails. The Silverado, too, has the effortless momentum of an engine pulling carloads of pure, concentrated fruit. I also liked the combination of exuberant juiciness and impeccable balance in the Stags' Leap and the thoroughbred-like raciness of the Sinskey.

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Although the Napa Valley was not formed by water (it's a feature of plate tectonics), it has been profoundly shaped by it--not just in topography but in the nature of soil deposits in different locations. Stags Leap, in particular, has soil profiles not found anywhere else in the valley. That's one of two primary factors contributing to the distinctive character of the Stags Leap District's wines.

The other is a distinct local climate, warm yet tempered by nearby San Francisco Bay. In a sense the climate, too, is also a function of the district's geology.

The Stags Leap District appellation embraces a relatively small area about 3 miles long and 1 mile wide, east of Yountville between the Napa River and the Vaca Mountains which define the valley's east side. Unlike the AVAs on the west side of the valley, such as Yountville, Oakville and Rutherford, which are defined more by climate than landscape features, Stags Leap has a clear physical identity. There's a sense of entering it and leaving it, and, when inside it, of looking out at the rest of the valley.

At its southern end, the vineyards bask on open slopes inclined toward the afternoon sun. Farther north, this open benchland rises and narrows into a broken, convoluted terrain. Corridors through the hills tend to accelerate air movements, extending the southern valley's natural air-conditioning further up the valley than it would otherwise reach and thereby tempering the hot days.

Those two factors, the heat and the marine influence, come into extraordinary balance in the heart of the district, a kind of craggy amphitheater in the bay of the Stags Leap palisade itself--a valley-within-the-valley where vineyards owned by Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Joseph Phelps, Shafer Vineyards and Stags' Leap Winery, among others, are set off from the main valley by broken ridges in which Steltzner Vineyards and Pine Ridge Winery also have their own little vine-filled enclaves.

The Leap's human history is an eye-wink in geological time, and viticulture is the least of it. For thousands of years the area's indigenous tribes lived alongside abundant wildlife, including grizzly bears, cougars and large herds of elk. Settlers arrived from the east during the 1840s. The valley was settled rapidly during the next decade or so, but Stags Leap retained an insular identity.

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As you drive the long, smooth curves of the Silverado Trail, the Leap flows by in striking images of vineyards among wooded knolls surmounted by high granite crags. Bicyclists see it more as horseback riders and wagoners would have seen it back in the late 19th century, when mule-team drivers on their way to the Calistoga quicksilver mines cursed the cruelly deceptive incline called Parker Hill. Subsistence farms proliferated during the early 20th century, and there was a schoolhouse and a post office (at Stags' Leap Manor). In those days, the area must have resembled the kind of Appalachian foothill community that many of the original settlers came from.

Most of the farms had vineyards for household wine, but some sites were recognized early on as having commercial potential. Two of Napa Valley's oldest wineries are there: the Occidental Winery, established by Terrill L. Grigsby in 1878 (and owned by the Regusci family since 1932) and Stags' Leap Winery, established by Horace and Minnie Mizner Chase in 1893 (and now owned by Beringer Wine Estates).

Cabernet Sauvignon is the grape that's synonymous with the Stags Leap District throughout the world. A grower named Nathan Fay planted the area's first Cabernet in 1961. He sold most of his grapes to Joseph Heitz, and it was the Heitz Wine Cellars "Fay Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the valley's first vineyard-designated wines (after Heitz "Martha's Vineyard"), that first signaled wine connoisseurs that there was something special about wines from the Stags Leap area.

Most of Fay's vineyard was eventually purchased by his neighbor, Warren Winiarski, who continues to bottle a Stag's Leap Wine Cellars "Fay Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon. A philosophy professor before moving to the Napa Valley in 1966, Winiarski continues to see wine through a classical lens. In his office is a replica of the famous ancient Greek statue known variously as Poseidon, Zeus, or simply the Spear Thrower: a godlike hero standing poised in the act of balancing a long spear in his right hand, with his left extended as if to mark the trajectory. His muscles are tensed in anticipation, but not yet in effort.

The statue represents Winiarski's ideal of great wine, he says: "The weight is directly under the body, split between the two legs, although the forward foot being lifted puts a certain amount of weight forward. A great wine has that kind of balance between the richness and the structure, the soft and the hard."

Winiarski's Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon consistently typifies the ideal. Within the nature-given framework of a given vintage it is heroic in scale, poised in anticipation with its power balanced by a lean muscularity, and it moves back through the palate on a fine trajectory, with the same unerring accuracy sip after sip.

The same can be said of other Stags Leap District wines. Each has its own personality, yet that distinctive combination of power and grace can be found in wines from Shafer Vineyards, Chimney Rock Winery, Regusci, Pine Ridge, Steltzner and other producers.

Local vintners have always known that. The Chases' neighbors reportedly used the name Stags Leap on their own labels earlier. Pine Ridge founder Gary Andrus, who purchased the pre-Prohibition Luigi Demanoconi winery in 1968, labeled his 1979 Chardonnay and '81 Cabernet Sauvignon as Stag's Leap wines (which drew litigation from the two wineries already doing business under the Stag's Leap name).

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Throughout the '70s, aficionados of Napa Valley wine became increasingly aware of the Stags Leap character, labeled or not, as well-known growers such as Dick Steltzner and John Shafer began producing their own wines. When Winiarski's '73 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon (the second vintage from the vineyard he planted next to Fay's) was ranked above several top Bordeaux by French judges in Paris in 1976, savvy connoisseurs recognized in the winner not just a Napa Valley wine, but one from a distinctive Napa Valley subregion. When a '72 Clos du Val Cabernet (founder Bernard Portet's first vintage) dominated a replay of that tasting in 1986, the triumph was accepted almost as a matter of course.

The Clos du Val bottling in this collection is a worthy successor. In its soaring fragrance, pure Cabernet flavors, fine weight and texture and soaring structure, it's a beautiful expression of rock, water, sun and time.

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The 2001 Appellation Collection assembled by the 12 member wineries of the Stags Leap District Winegrowers is the fifth consecutive vintage offered by the nonprofit group. There are 300 cases available; call (707) 255-1720.

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

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