Tag Archives: Stags Leap District

Hunting Unicorns in the Stags Leap District

Even if it’s was just a marketing farce of Horace Chase, I still like the story of how Stags’ Leap Winery (and the area) got its name. Jancis Robinson recounts it in her book, American Wine, with the legend of Wappo tribal hunters chasing a stag. The hunt was close until the cunning beast secured its freedom by leaping across a vast chasm among the craggy palisades.

Stags Leap Palisades

The “Leap” of the Stags Leap District behind Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

Kirk Grace, director of vineyard operations for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, pointed those fabled peaks out to me when I visited the district on a recent press tour. I thought about those hunters often while tasting through a stellar line-up of Stags Leap District wines.

There’s a lot of great wine here, no doubt. Trophies and treasures abound with a close-knit community of growers and producers. It’s hard to find a bad bottle because they all hold each other accountable for maintaining the area’s reputation.

But even with the bounty of treasures, there is still the urge to hunt.

As I noted in my post, Napa Valley — Boomer or Bust?, there’s a dichotomy brewing in the valley. It’s between what the Boomers (and, to some degree, Gen Xers) want to buy against the boredom that Millennials have with seeing the same ole, same ole everywhere. It’s this boredom that pushes us away from Napa in a hunt for something different.

However, from a business point of view, the current Napa recipe is working spectacularly well right now. Folks are making outstanding Cabs and Chardonnays which Boomers and Gen Xers are gobbling up. Of course, the fact that Cabernet Sauvignon grows really well in Napa Valley helps a lot.

Shafer Cabernets.

You can’t discount how delicious these Cabs can be. They are, indeed, “dialed in.”

As Doug Shafer of Shafer Vineyards noted, the valley has spent the last 40 years or so dialing things in. They have virtually perfected the art of making exquisite Cabernet. I can’t argue against that. The proof was loud and clear in the many sinfully delicious wines that I had on that trip. It has also been solidified over the years by several bottles that I’ve purchased and enjoyed on my own.

But even with all that velvet-glove gluttony, my Millennial heart was still tempted by another sin.

Lust

A craving for something different. Something exciting. Something worth stringing a bow and sharpening arrows for.

While the stag has gotten fat and easy to cull, I was excited to discover other beasts in the Stags Leap District that would have given the Wappos a good fight. These wines are often made in meager quantities and rarely see the light of retail or restaurant wine lists. Instead, these are the gems hidden in the tasting rooms and wine club offerings. But they are absolutely worth hunting down.

Steltzner Sangiovese

The Steltzner Stags Leap District Sangiovese was so good that a member of our tasting party bought another vintage (2015) to take to dinner.

What was even more remarkable–beyond their existence–is that each of these wines was quintessentially Stags Leap. The family resemblance you see in SLD Cabs of bright, juicy fruit with powerful, yet ripe and forgiving tannins echoes fiercely throughout these wines. Likewise, you can see the same care and “dialed in” attention that Stags Leap producers are known for in each bottle.

Of course, with all that care and the SLD banner comes a hefty price tag. With the average price of land in Napa over $300,000 an acre (and hitting over $400,000 an acre in the Stags Leap District), nothing here is going to be cheap.

Undoubtedly, this is always going to be an area where the Millennial Math is a struggle. However, one of the things that enhances value is excitement and uniqueness.

And you can’t get much more exciting and unique than hunting unicorns.

So let me share with you some of the unicorns I discovered in the Stags Leap District.

Again, I’m not trying to downplay the region’s flagship Cabernets. But trumpets have been heralding their triumphs for decades. If you’re like me, sometimes your ears get enchanted by a different tune. I think each of these wines offers notes worth singing about.

Note: the wines tasted below were samples provided on the press tour.

Steltzner Sangiovese ($55)

I’m going to be writing a dedicated piece on Dick Steltzner in the not too distant future. It’s fascinating how someone who is so ingrained into Stags Leap District history would step out of the parade so many times to do his own thing.

Even though Steltzner’s Cabernet Sauvignon has been prominently featured in iconic bottlings like the inaugural vintage of Joseph Phelps’ Insignia and the 1972 Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon (of Judgement of Paris fame), he’s never been afraid to try new things.

Steltzner Sangio

The 2016 Steltzner Sangio. Probably my favorite of the two vintages but they were both excellent.

The initial plantings of Steltzner Vineyards in the mid-1960s included Riesling which had been a favorite of Dick Steltzner since he tried Stony Hill’s version. The Riesling didn’t work out, but that didn’t discourage him from experimenting again in the 1980s with adding Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Pinotage and Sangiovese.

Over the years, Dick Steltzner has gradually parcelled and sold off his vineyard–first in 1990 and most recently in 2012 to the PlumpJack Group. However, he’s kept many of his oldest and favorite plantings including the absolutely delicious Sangiovese as well as some Malbec vines which will occasionally be made as a varietal ($55).

Today, the vineyards are managed by Jim Barbour with the wines made by Mike Smith and Robert Pepi.

The Wine and Verdict

Medium-plus intensity nose. A mix of black cherries and plums. Not as herbal as an Italian example. Instead, there is an intense blue floral component.

On the palate, those dark fruits carry through and are quite juicy with medium-plus acidity. Full-Bodied but not overbearing with ripe medium-plus tannins. As with the Stags Leap District Cabs, the texture and mouthfeel are outstanding. The fruit wraps around your tongue, having a tug of war with the mouthwatering acidity. It makes you want to both hold the wine in your mouth to savor and swallow so you can enjoy another sip. Long finish brings back the floral notes and adds a little oak spice.

Like Villa Ragazzi’s Pope Valley/Oakville Sangioveses, you’re not going to mistake this for a Tuscan wine. But this wine has more than enough character to stand on its own compared to similarly priced Brunellos.

Ilsley Seis Primas ($79)

Not long after Nathan Fay pioneered Cabernet Sauvignon in the Stags Leap District, Robert Mondavi suggested to Ernest Ilsley in 1964 that he try his hand at the variety. The Ilsley Vineyard was already selling their Carignan and Zinfandel to Charles Krug winery. When Robert Mondavi opened his winery a couple of years later, a good chunk of the fruit for his very first Cab came from the young Ilsley vines.

The Ilsleys continue to sell fruit to wineries even after starting their own label in 2000–most notably to Shafer Vineyards where David Ilsley is the vineyard manager. David also manages the family vineyard with brother Ernie running operations and sister Janice handling hospitality and sales. Since 2009, Heather Pyle-Lucas has been making the wines after starting at Robert Mondavi Winery.

Ilsley Seis Primas

Such a delicious bottle. I’m kicking myself for not figuring out a way to bring a few bottles back to Paris.

The 2015 Seis Primas is a blend of 62% Malbec, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot and 2% Cabernet Franc with only 183 cases made. The name pays homage to the six girl cousins that make up the 4th generation of the Ilsley family. The wine is sourced from six separate vineyard blocks including a 1996 planting of Malbec that the girls’ grandfather, Ed Ilsley, added to the family estate.

The Wine and Verdict

High-intensity nose. Rich dark blackberry fruit and plum. Lots of blue floral notes of violet and irises. There is also some noticeable oak spice, but it’s not dominating at all.

On the palate, the oak is more noticeable with a chocolate component added to the dark fruit. But still not overwhelming with black pepper spice emerging that compliments the allspice and cinnamon. Full-bodied with high-tannins, the wine is balanced well with medium-plus acidity that keeps the fruit tasting fresh. Long finish lingers on the spices.

I know that I said that it’s hard to find value in the Stags Leap District, but this wine proves me wrong. I’m stunned that this bottle is less than $100. It was easily one of the Top 5 wines that I had that entire week in the Stags Leap District after visiting 15 wineries and trying lots of heavy-hitters.

Honestly, if this wine had the magical “C-word” on the label, it probably could fetch closer to $130. All the Ilsley wines are sold direct-to-consumer. If you want any chance of bagging this trophy, you need to visit this family winery.

Clos du Val Cabernet Franc ($100)
Clos du Val Cab Franc

The 2016 Clos du Val Cabernet Franc. Still young but impressive already.

Even among Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignons, Clos du Val is a unicorn. From founding winemaker Bernard Portet to current winemaker Ted Henry and assistant Mabel Ojeda, tasting a Clos du Val Cab stands out from the pack. While the use of new French oak has steadily increased over the years (100% for their 2015 Hirondelle estate), it’s never been as overt as it is with many of their Napa brethren.

With lively acid and more moderate alcohols, these are always wines that sing in harmony with food. Think Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty’s “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” Yeah, Fleetwood Mac and the Heartbreakers are great–just like a big, bold, luscious Napa Cab is at times. But, damn, if there’s not something magical about tension and style.

These are also wines built for aging. That’s why it wasn’t shocking that when the historic 1976 Judgement of Paris wine tasting was recreated in 1986, it saw the 1972 Clos du Val Cab nab first place.

The Cabernet Franc comes from the estate Hirondelle Vineyard that surrounds the winery. It’s named after the French word for “swallows” and references the birds that build their nests on the northwest side of the winery every spring. The 2016 vintage was 99% Cabernet Franc with 1% Cabernet Sauvignon. Clos du Val’s winemaking team aged the wine 20 months in a mix of 80% new French and Hungarian oak.

The Wine and Verdict
Swallows at Clos du Val

Some of the swallows and nests that give the Hirondelle Vineyard its name.

High-intensity nose. Very floral but also an earthy, leather component. Underneath there is some dark fruit of blueberries and blackberries, but they’re secondary notes in this very evocative bouquet.

On the palate, the fruit makes its presence more known and are amplified by high acidity. Very mouthwatering. The earthy, leathery notes are still here but add a truffle component. It’s not like a Rhone, but it’s almost meaty. Firm, medium-plus tannins have solid structure but are still approachable. Moderate length finish brings backs the floral notes.

This is definitely a completely different Cabernet Franc than anything you would see in the Loire. It’s also not as “Cab Sauv-like” as many new world examples of Cabernet Franc can be (especially in Napa and Washington). The wine is certainly its own beast and is bursting with character. I can only imagine how much more depth and complexity this wine will get with age.

At $100 a bottle, you’re paying top-shelf Cab prices for it. But I guarantee this wine is going to have you scribbling a lot more tasting notes and descriptors than your typical $100+ Napa Cab.

Quixote Malbec ($80)
Quoixote shower

Or step into the shower they have in the visitor’s bathroom at the Quixote tasting room.

Quixote is pretty much the Narnia of Napa Valley. If you want to find unicorns, all you need to do is enter through the Friedensreich Hundertwasser-designed wardrobe and there you are.

Carl Doumani founded Quixote in 1996 not long before he sold Stags’ Leap Winery to Beringer (now Treasury Wine Estates). At Stags’ Leap, Doumani built a reputation for the high quality of his Petite Sirah.  When he sold the property,  he kept many of the choice parcels for his new venture. The current owners, the Chinese private firm Le Melange, which acquired Quixote in 2014, continues to make Petite Sirah a significant focus.

They make three tiers of Petite Sirah. The prices range from the red label Panza ($50) up to their premier black label Helmet of Mambrino ($105-125 depending on the vintage). Quixote also makes a very charming rose of Petite Sirah ($35). All of those are well worth trying. However, the one wine that really knocked my socks off was their Stags Leap Malbec.

Doumani fell in love with the grape after a trip to Argentina in the 2000s. He had a little less than an acre planted with the first vintage released in 2011. Only around 100-150 cases of this wine are produced each year.

The Wine and Verdict
Quixote Malbec

The 2015 Quixote Stags Leap Malbec.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Blackberries clearly dominate the show with some noticeable chocolatey oak undertones. With a little air comes black pepper spice, anise and savory leather notes.

On the palate, this was one of the most quintessential Stags Leap wines I tasted. Totally “iron fist in a velvet glove” all the way. Very full-bodied with ripe, medium-plus tannins. The plush texture is accentuated by the creamy vanilla of the oak. Medium acidity gives enough balance to add juiciness to the blackberries and also highlight a red plum component. Moderate finish brings back the spice notes with the black licorice note lingering the most.

In many ways, I can see regular consumers (as opposed to blind tasters) thinking this was a Napa Cab. There’s the rich dark fruit with noticeable oak. Coupled with the full-bodied structure and mouthfeel, it hits all those hedonistic notes that many consumers seek out in top-shelf Napa wines. But I love what the Malbec-y spice brings to the table. It helps the wine stand apart as a unicorn worth seeking out.

It’s definitely different than Malbecs grown elsewhere in the world (and a lot pricier too). However, this is truly a unique expression of the grape that reflects the Stags Leap District exceedingly well.

Other Stags Leap District Unicorns that I haven’t had yet but am on the hunt for.

In 2014, Decanter magazine noted that the Stags Leap District was planted to 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petite Sirah and 1% other. I honestly don’t think the numbers have changed much in the last five years. If anything, Cab has probably gained more ground and relegated Cabernet Franc and Petite Sirah to the One-Percenter Club.

So, yeah, these wines are going to be hard to fine.  But my experiences with the unicorns that I’ve already encountered has me feeling that these are going to be worth the hunt.

Chimney Rock Cabernet Franc ($85)
Author with Elizabeth Vianna.

Yup. Totally fangirl’d.

I fully admit that I’m an Elizabeth Vianna fangirl. I adore her work at Chimney Rock and she also has a great twitter account worth following.  Another upcoming post in the works will see me getting geeky over Chimney Rock’s crazy delicious Elevage Blanc.

From a solely Stags Leap perspective, this Cabernet Franc from their estate vineyard intrigues me. Even though Chimney Rock’s vineyards essentially encircles Clos du Val’s Hirondelle vineyard, I suspect that this will be a very different expression of Cabernet Franc. That’s partly why it would be so cool to try.

Chimney Rock also occasionally releases a rose of Cabernet Franc as well as a varietal Sauvignon gris– when the latter is not being used up in their Elevage blanc.

Update: Oh and there’s now this to look forward to!

Yes! A Stags Leap District Fiano!

Pine Ridge Petit Verdot ($75)
Pine Ridge map

While founded and based in the Stags Leap District, Pine Ridge sources fruit from many places and has estate vineyards in Carneros, Howell Mountain, Rutherford and Oakville.

Founded by Gary Andrus in 1978 and now owned by the Crimson Wine Group, Pine Ridge was also a big player in getting the Stags Leap District established as an AVA. While the winery is well-known for its Chenin blanc-Viognier blend (sourced mostly from the Clarksburg AVA in Sacramento, Solano and Yolo counties), the bread and butter of Pine Ridge’s Stags Leap estate is, of course, their Cab.

That’s what makes trying this Petit Verdot so intriguing even though a small amount comes from their Oakville property. Petit Verdot is a late-ripening variety that is seeing increased interest across the globe. It’s being planted more to help offset the toll that climate change is having on overripe Cab & Merlot. Of course, it can be a finicky grape to make as a varietal. However, when it’s done well, it’s a spicy delight!

Regusci Zinfandel ($60)
Screenshot of The Taste podcast

If you want to listen to a great podcast, check out Doug Shafer’s interview with Jim Regusci.

The Regusci family has a tremendous history in Napa Valley beginning with the site of the very first dedicated winery built in the Stags Leap District. The stone building, constructed by Terrill Grigsby in 1878, was known as the Occidental Winery for many years.

In 1932, Gaetano Regusci acquired the property and planted Zinfandel with many of those vines still producing fruit today. The family would sell grapes and maintain a dairy ranch on the property for several decades. In 1996, Gaetano’s son and grandson, Angelo and Jim Regusci, started the Regusci Winery.

While Zinfandel has a long history in Napa, its numbers are slowly dwindling. That’s a shame because Zinfandel is the “Craft Beer” of American Wine and a grape that is poised to capture Millennials’ attention. I don’t think anyone else in the Stags Leap District is still growing the grape which certainly makes this a fun unicorn to find.

Stags’ Leap Winery Ne Cede Malis ($150)

I became fascinated with this wine when I attended a winemaker’s dinner last year with Stags’ Leap Winery’s winemaker Joanne Wing.

Stags’ Leap Winery Winemaker Joanne Wing.

Sourced from a tiny Prohibition-era block of vines, Ne Cede Malis is a field blend.  Mostly Petite Sirah with up to 15 other different grapes including Sauvignon blanc, an unknown Muscat variety, Carignane, Mourvedre, Grenache, Peloursin, Cinsault, Malbec and Syrah. The grapes are all harvested together and co-fermented.

Coming from the Latin family motto of Horace Chase, Ne Cede Malis means “Don’t give in to misfortune.” But with the last vintage of Ne Cede Malis on Wine-Searcher being 2015 (Ave price $86), I do fret that maybe these old vines came into some misfortune. If any of my readers know differently, do leave a comment. (UPDATE BELOW)

Of course, that is the risk that comes with all unicorns. One day they may simply cease to exist. But that is also part of the thrill of the hunt.

Sometimes you bag your prize. Other times you’re standing on the edge of a cliff watching it leap away.

UPDATE: The Ne Cede Malis lives on! I was very excited to get an email from Stags’ Leap Winery letting me know that these old vines are still going strong with the 2016 vintage slated to be released in the fall for a suggested retail of $150.  Only around 500 cases were produced so this is still a unicorn worth hunting!

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The Wine Industry’s “Nice Guy Syndrome”

I’ve been working with Kenneth Friedenreich on his follow-up book to Oregon Wine Country Stories about the Stags Leap District. He’s been sharing some of his drafts on the prologue and, not to spoil anything, he includes a remarkable moment we had on our research trip watching a hawk swoop down into the vineyard to pluck a vole out amongst the vines.
Photo by Michael Warnock. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

Friedenreich expands on this imagery as a metaphor for many of the themes that he’s weaving into the SLD book. But reading his prose and recalling my memories of watching the cold realities of nature in action,  reminded me of Lisa Perrotti-Brown’s article last year for The Wine Advocate called “The Big Parkerization Lie.”

Now I’m not going to rehash the old Parkerization debate or drill deep into this article. But the image of the hawk and vole struck a similar chord with me as Perrotti-Brown’s three-point rebuttal of the Parkerization mythos. While I disagree with her that Parkerization is a “useful lie”, I do think people’s response to Parker (painting him as a villain) and Parkerization (This is why I’m not selling my wine!) is symptomatic of the “Nice Guy Syndrome” poking its head out in the wine industry.

No, I’m not going to make this post about sex either.

Photo of Cabernet Sauvignon aisle

Passionate winemakers working with great terroir is behind every wine on the top shelf–or so the story goes.

That’s because it’s not sex that wineries feel entitled to when they make good wine, but rather sales. There is a sentiment that if you have great land, work it diligently and put your passion into making wine that it’s going to sell. That it should sell.

And if it doesn’t? Well someone is to blame. From wine critics who promote particular styles of wine to distributors and gatekeepers with a stranglehold on consumer channels, they all throw up obstacles. Even pesky consumers, themselves, can be an obstacle such as those maddening Millennials turning their noses up in boredom at the old guard wines and grape varieties.

Those are all valid concerns and serious impediments that wineries do need to deal with. However, there is an even starker truth that is just as raw and stinging as watching a hawk snuff the life out of another animal.

No one needs to drink your wine.

There is no entitlement to sales. No entitlement to attention.

photo by gdcgraphics. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Well the actual line is “If you build it, HE will come” so maybe you can at least bank on Ray Liotta showing up at your tasting room.

It doesn’t matter if you have the most blessed terroir on earth, tended to by the best viticulture and winemaking teams that money can buy. It doesn’t matter if you have generations of heritage and tradition. None of that guarantees that people are going to care, much less beat a path down to your door.

The wine industry has never followed the quaint narrative of “If You Build It, They Will Come.”  You can build the best and be the best, but in the end, it doesn’t matter if you are the hawk or the vole. You stand just as good of a chance of missing out and going hungry as you do of being dinner yourself.

That is the nature of life and the nature of capitalism.

And, really, there’s no villain here.

I did have a Bambi “Oh My God!” moment watching the hawk snatch up that little vole. But the hawk is not a villain. Heck, from a vineyard perspective the vole is a dirty little bastard wreaking havoc among the vines. There is a reason why wineries build nesting boxes to encourage birds of prey to patrol the vineyard.

Photo by Marisszza. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

But he’s just trying to support his little vole family!

But, honestly, the vole isn’t the bad guy either. It’s just trying to survive in the environment that it was born into– a situation that humans have shaped far more than a rodent species ever could.

Likewise, critics such as Robert Parker and the frustrating web of distributors and gatekeeping aren’t truly villainous either. Though I’ll give you that many of their tactics can make them prime, juicy targets. But, in their own way, they’re just hawks and voles doing their thing among the vines too.

The lesson of the hawk and vole is that nothing is owed to anyone. In the wine industry, there’s always going to be some combination of luck and circumstance that leads to success or failure. Some of that you can influence. But a fair amount of it boils down to being in the right or wrong place at any given time.

Ultimately, all you can do is just be glad for all the dinners you get and grateful for all the dinners you’re not.

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Book Review — Drive Through Napa

The folks behind I Like This Grape were gracious enough to send me a copy of their latest book, Drive Through Napa: Your Ultimate Companion to Napa Valley’s Wines Regions.

Drive Through Napa cover

Photo courtesy of Naushad Huda, ILikeThisGrape.com

While working on a research project about the Stags Leap District, I had several opportunities to check out the eBook version written by Paul Hodgins and Naushad Huda with Kathy Lajvardi providing graphic design.

Below are a few thoughts about this modern primer on the most famous wine region in the United States.

The Background

Naushad Huda came up with the idea of Drive Through Napa after wandering,

“If Pharrell or Complex Magazine were to write a wine book, what would it look like? What would it sound like?”

Previously, Huda had founded the digital creative agency XTOPOLY that focused on interactive marketing. They worked on T-Mobile’s first mobile eCommerce site and created campaigns for several global companies including Vitamin Water, Nestle, Emirates Airlines, Nivea and Google. After merging XTOPOLY with the Finnish software company Vincit in 2017, Huda served as their Director of Strategy and Partnerships.

It was during this time that Huda, along with his wife Kathy Lajvardi, wanted to take a fresh approach to the traditional concept of a regional wine guide.  Lajvardi is an accomplished artist whose done graphics work for the Iron Man and Transformer movie trailers. Her photographs and paintings are also regularly featured in major art galleries.

Partnering with Paul Hodgins, a longtime writer for the Orange County Register and author of The Winemakers of Paso Robles with Julia Perez, the Drive Through Napa team embarked on their project with Millennials as a target audience.

The Book

With that Millennial-focus in mind, Drive Through Napa is designed to be easily digestible within a 1-hour read. One of the goals of the creative team was to avoid many of the cliches that they saw in other wine guides–such as endless photos of vineyards that all look the same. The main graphics in the book are maps and price-to-rating charts taken from data provided by Vivino.

Another focus of the book was to steer clear of being a “what to drink” guide. Instead, Drive Through Napa takes more of a high-level approach to exploring the 16 AVAs (or “neighborhoods”) in Napa with brief blurbs on climate, elevation, rainfall, soils as well as principal grapes and their characteristics.

SLD Screenshot from Drive Through Napa

Screenshot of winery listing for the Stags Leap AVA which also includes notable vineyards.

Each AVA section touches a bit on some of the history and key pioneers. They also include a listing of most all the wineries and many notable vineyards that call each region home.

A critical distinction between Drive Through Napa and other regional wine guides is that there is no contact information about these wineries. Nor are there any details about which wineries are open to visitors and if appointments are necessary.

I suspect part of the reason for this stems from the goal of not being a “what to drink” guide.

The book does include a note directing folks to check out each individual AVA associations’ website. However, they unfortunately don’t include what those websites are so folks will have to Google them.

In addition to the AVA chapters, the introduction of the book goes into some of the history of California wine and the role that Napa has played in bringing prominence to the state. It touches on the usual characters of the Catholic Church and early 19th-century pioneers but also devotes time to post-Prohibition figures like Brother Timothy Diener of the Christian Brothers and putting the “Mondavi Effect” into context.

Additionally, the intro chapters include a short glossary of essential wine terms used in the book and briefly touches on a few of the major California wine regions beyond Napa.

Things I really liked about the book.

Photo by Sarah Stierch. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 4.0.

Burgundian winemaker and Raymond Vineyards owner Jean-Charles Boisset is one of several subjects interviewed for Drive Through Napa.

The team behind Drive Through Napa certainly achieved their goal in creating an approachable primer. There is brilliant simplicity in the graphics and design that makes it easy to digest even when a fair amount of information stray into technical viticultural details.

You don’t need to be a “wine geek” to pick up this book and find it useful. But if you are a geek, there is most certainly something in it for you as well.

My favorite part of Drive Through Napa was the interviews they included in several AVA chapters. Here Hodgins and Co. asked very pointed questions such as  “What effect does your region have on the grapes that are grown here?”, “What will we notice when tasting a wine from your AVA?” and What do people misunderstand about your AVA?”

This is where Drive Through Napa moves beyond just being an easily digestible primer on Napa Valley towards something that wine students will find immensely useful. In particular, I would encourage folks working on blind tasting exams to pay careful attention to the answers about AVA characteristics and their influence on the resulting wines.

The interview subjects have some serious pedigree.

Richie Allen, Director of Viticulture and Winemaking for Rombauer Vineyards (Carneros)
Taylor Martin, Managing Partner of Italics Winegrowers (Coombsville)
Dave Guffy, Director of Winemaking for The Hess Collection (Mt. Veeder)
Lorenzo Trefethen of Trefethen Family Vineyards (Oak Knoll)
Celia Welch, consulting winemaker of Keever Vineyards and many others (Yountville)
Jon Emmerich, winemaker of Silverado Vineyards (Stags Leap District)
Jean Hoefliger, winemaker of Alpha Omega Winery (Atlas Peak)
Nicole Marchesi, winemaker of Far Niente Winery (Oakville)
Ivo Jeramaz, winemaker of Grgich Hills Estate (Rutherford)
Jean-Charles Boisset, owner of Raymond Vineyards and many others (St. Helena)
Stuart Smith, owner and winemaker of Smith-Madrone Vineyards (Spring Mountain)
Danielle Cyrot, winemaker of CADE Winery (Howell Mountain)
Dawnine and Bill Dyer, owners and winemakers of Dyer Vineyard (Diamond Mountain)
Bo Barrett, owner of Chateau Montelena (Calistoga)
Andy Erickson, consulting winemaker and owner of Favia (Napa Valley)

Things that were “Meh.”

Diamond Mountain screenshot from Drive Through Napa

Good luck trying to find those $30-40 Diamond Mountain wines. My best guess is that these are white wines and roses.

I found the Price-To-Rating charts to be pretty useless. Using Vivino’s 1 to 5-star ratings, Drive Through Napa featured a bar chart for most of the AVAs. Here they highlighted what the average score was of wines at various price points.

Spoiler alert: In every AVA but Diamond Mountain, Spring Mountain and Carneros, the wines with the highest ratings are the ones that cost $70+.

And really, the $70+ wines are still the highest rated segment even in those exceptions. They just happen to share the same rating as another price category.

I honestly don’t think a single person is going to be surprised at these charts.

I also do wish they did little more with the winery listings for each AVA. In particular, I think they should have found a way to signify which wineries had open tasting rooms, those that needed appointments and which ones that there is no way in hell you’re getting into.

I doubt including little icons (asterisk, smiley faces, etc.)  next to each name would have added much to reading time. Plus, even if they didn’t want to be a “What to Drink” guide, anyone that is buying this book is likely going to want to visit Napa. And they’re probably going to want to drink something.

Steering folks to the individual AVA associations is fine (though, again, would be helpful to have their web addresses in the book). But that one small change to the winery listing pages would have significantly enhanced the overall utility of Drive Through Napa.

The Verdict

While I was fortunate to receive my e-copy of Drive Through Napa as a sample, I would buy this book without question. For $18 paperback and $9.99 for Kindle, it more than delivers in content and usefulness.

In particular, I wished I had this book back when I worked at Total Wine and helped train their wine staff in my region. I would have recommended Drive Through Napa to every wine associate there, especially those studying for their California TWP certifications. Likewise, I can see this book being handy for sommeliers–especially with those interviews I mentioned above.

You can’t talk about American or Californian wines without talking about Napa. If you want to understand this famous wine region, Drive Through Napa is a great place to start.

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60 Second Wine Review — Odette SLD Cabernet Sauvignon

A few quick thoughts on the 2016 Odette Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley.

Odette SLD Cab

Note: This wine was tasted as a sample.

The Geekery

In 2012, the PlumpJack Group acquired 45 acres in the Stags Leap District from Dick Stelzner. Along with Nathan Fay, Stelzner pioneered Cabernet Sauvignon in the area.

In addition to Odette, the PlumpJack Group also own PlumpJack in Oakville and CADE on Howell Mountain.  While each property has its own winemakers and style, they all consistently use screw caps for all their wines, even high-end reds.

At Odette, Jeff Owens, previously the assistant winemaker at CADE and a protege of Anthony Biagi, has been with the winery since the beginning. He helped design the new winery to meet LEED Gold specifications and oversees the sustainable and organic farming of the estate.

The 2016 Estate Cab is 82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 4% Malbec and 4% Petit Verdot with 75 barrels (about 1875 cases) made.

The Wine

Photo by ANAND HULUGAPPA. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Very rich dark fruit in this Cab.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Ripe dark fruits–black plums, blackberries–and noticeable vanilla. With air, vivid floral notes come out–violets and lavender. Very perfumey.

On the palate, the richness of the dark fruit leads the way. Velvety and very ripe medium-plus tannins hold up the full-bodied fruit. Medium acidity gives some freshness and life to the floral notes, as well as suggest a subtle spiciness underneath. The fruit leads the long finish with creamy vanilla and chocolatey notes lingering.

The Verdict

The Odette wines were by far the most hedonistic and lavishly seductive wines that I tasted on my press tour of the Stags Leap District. They are definitely more velvet glove than an iron fist.

Is that seduction worth $150 a bottle? Depends.

Compared to many of its hedonistic peers that I’ve bought before such as Pahlmeyer Proprietary Red ($170), Bevan Wildfoote Vixen Block ($265), Alpha Omega Beckstoffer Georges III ($200) among others, it holds its own. And, truthfully, I would put the Odette closest to the Bevan–which makes sense given their SLD pedigree.

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60 Second Wine Review — Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Elia Rosé

Today is apparently National Rosé Day. In the US? Globally? Who knows?, but I figured it was as good as any day to share a few quick thoughts on the 2018 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Elia Rosé from Napa Valley.

Stags Leap Elia

Note: This wine was tasted as a sample.

The Geekery

First released in 2015, the Elia Rosé is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from the legendary Fay Vineyard in the Stags Leap District.

The 2018 vintage is a blend of fruit harvested in early September to make rosé (with six hours of skin contact) and then later fruit harvested in November. Tasting notes don’t clarify if this last batch was made in the saignée style. However, the resulting color of the wine and timing suggest that likely was the case.

Winemaker Marcus Notaro then aged the wine for 5.5 months in combination neutral oak barrels and stainless with 550 cases made.

The Wine

Photo by USDA NRCS. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD USDA NRCS

Very ripe cherry notes in this wine.

Medium-plus intensity. A mix of red cherry and ripe raspberries. Around the edges, there is a little mint eucalyptus note that reminds you of its red Fay counterpart.

On the palate, you can definitely feel medium-body weight and phenolics, but the texture is very well done. No bitterness or astringency at all. Again, there is a velvety texture that reminds you of a Stags Leap District Cab. The medium acidity gives some balance of freshness but unfortunately fades with the finish.

The Verdict

This is definitely a unique rosé with a lot of character. It was fun to try as a novelty but, without a doubt, a massive driver of its $44 price is the quality and novelty of its grapes. The Fay Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon averages around $140 a bottle.

You can tell that the SLWC team put a lot of thought and care into crafting a high-end rosé. But, in all honesty, it’s not something that I’d feel compelled to hunt down or pay more than $30 for.  There are just too many other great rosés out there for far less.

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Sculpting Soapstone in Napa

I wrapped up my week-long press tour of the Stags Leap District yesterday. You can look forward to me spending the next couple months working through my notes in between other writings and reviews. For those that want a sneak peek of some of the insights and themes that I’ll be writing about check out the SpitBucket Instagram page. There I’ve posted pictures and thoughts from many of the wineries that I’ve visited.

Photo By Lysippos - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Before the trip, I wrote about some of the questions and expectations that I had going in. A large part of my role in Friedenreich’s research entourage was to bring a Millennial perspective with an eye towards what the future of the Stags Leap District could be. While that is a role that I’m apt to fill, the WSET Diploma student and wine marketer in me is also conscious of the present reality of business.

Many times in between my Millennial “what if” questions, I found myself taking a step back to think about what I would do if I were a general manager, COO or president of a Stags Leap District winery.

Honestly? There is not much that I would do differently.

Though I still see challenges ahead, I couldn’t find fault in how well-executed all these operations were. It’s clear that these wineries have found a recipe that works for them and have spent considerable time, thought and capital into honing and perfecting that recipe. They’re all working hard to maximize the gifts of terroir like a sculptor skillfully chiseling away to reveal the beauty of the piece underneath.

However, they’re not chiseling their work into granite.

The nature of the wine industry is inherently transient. It’s an agrarian product that is a consumable good. There will always be factors at play (climate change, demographics, consumer trends) that will weather even the mightiest of edifices. No matter how much care, attention and capital that you invest, everything you do will always be chiseled in soapstone.

Quixote Malbec

There is some sexy Malbec being made in the SLD. These wines combine the spiciness of Argentine Malbecs with the seductive texture of Stags Leap District wines.

Even the fabled European wine regions spent centuries, if not millennia, figuring themselves out.

Cabernet Sauvignon, which is the backbone of the great wines of the Medoc, is still in its adolescence in Bordeaux. The Bordelais have been making wine since the Romans while Cab only appeared on the scene in the late 18th century. And even then, it took some time to catch on. During the 1855 classification, many of the grandest estates of the Left Bank relied heavily on grapes like Malbec and Merlot.

The soapstone sculpture of Bordeaux has changed many times over the years. With climate change, it’s already starting to change again with a growing focus on Petit Verdot and even Malbec making a return.

With Cab barely out of the womb in Napa, why should we not expect its form to change as well?

Now I’m not discrediting the beauty of Napa and, particularly, Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon. I had many delicious examples which I’ll be writing about on this blog. But while not as numerous, there were certainly several “unicorn” wines of other grapes that had me excited about what the future sculpture of SLD could be.

Some strawmen, some strong points.

Now back to those Millennials and the future challenges they may pose.

Often I heard the strawmen assessment that Millennials would come around once they had more money. However, there were also some excellent points which I’ll tackle in future pieces.

One is that education will be paramount in reaching Millennials. That does present the challenge of how do you entice anyone to want to be educated. But I also think it offers a double edge sword. One that can both cut Napa/SLD producers just as much as it can clear the path.

Another strong point is that rather than thinking of demographics, producers should market to “tribes”–i.e., a tribe Cab-lovers. This was argued exceedingly well by Russ Joy, the general manager of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. That tribal spin invites personalization with a sense of community and identity. A sort of “hipster” approach, which is somewhat ironic.

Malk Vineyards

This tiny little patch of vines in the foreground is Malk Family Vineyards. Beyond the dirt road is Steltzner, then Joseph Phelps, then Mary Jane Fay Vineyards (fruit sold to Shafer), then Odette and FINALLY you get to the Silverado Trail.

But probably the point that I could appreciate the most was the blessing of small production.

This was made quite clear at the tiny 2-acre estate of Malk Family Vineyards. With only a few hundred cases, the Malks don’t need to focus on chasing the market. Anyone who finds them (and believe me, the drive to find them is a bit of a hunt), is someone who is already passionate and committed.

That small production provides a bit of cover that will undoubtedly help many producers weather the changes–regardless of what they’re carving.

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Napa Valley — Boomer or Bust?

Note: A follow up to this post can be found at Sculpting Soapstone in Napa

I’ve entered the lion’s den.
Photo By Aaron Logan - from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/albums.php, CC BY 1.0,

This week I will be in Napa assisting Kenneth Friedenreich, author of Oregon Wine Country Stories, with research on the Stags Leap District for the sequel in his Decoding the Grape series.

Surprisingly, no one has written a dedicated book about the district yet. With 2019 being the 30th anniversary of the AVA’s establishment, a deep dive into the legacy and future of this influential region seems long overdue.

That puts me on a fact-finding mission with Friedenreich and two of his other compatriots as we embark on a schedule of winery visits and interviews. In many ways, I am the odd duck in this entourage being not only the only woman but also a Millennial seeing Napa Valley beside the eyes of three Boomers.

Past and Present

The dichotomy will be rich as Friedenreich, Doc Wilson (a longtime fixture in the Oregon wine scene) and Mark, a pediatrician from Portland, represent the bread and butter of Napa Valley.

Photo By LEONARDO DASILVA, CC BY 3.0,

Are legends still exciting?

They are the generation that took with gusto an appreciation for fine American wine. For the last 40 plus year, every Napa vintner that has had an inkling of success achieved that by courting the Boomers.

While the recipe has varied somewhat over the years, the entire business model and marketing of Napa has been oriented towards enticing and exciting this large and lucrative demographic.

And it has remained a lucrative demographic even as the Boomers settle into retirement. They (along with the smaller Generation X) are still the ones buying the high priced and highly prized bottles that have paved Napa’s reputation with gold. That’s a reality that no vintner can ignore.

But what of the Future?

On the surface, I’m probably the ideal Millennial consumer that Napa wineries could hope for. I’m highly engaged with wine and willing to travel. I crave experiences which is something that Napa has spent decades perfecting. And, most keenly, I’m in a position of financial stability where I could afford to join wine clubs and regularly buy $100+ bottles if I wished.

Pritchard Hill at sunset

I will say that the view from Pritchard Hill is awe inspiring.
It does add a bit more character than the highly manicured vineyard lawns of the valley floor.

I might be a minority among my cohorts, but there are other Millennials like me, and we are the future bread and butter.

And with auspicious timing. For just as some industry folks are beating the strawman that Millennials will come running as soon as they have more money in their pockets, here I am representing the best-case scenario that Napa vintners could hope for.

How are they planning to reach me?

While Friedenreich is going to write his retrospection of the Stags Leap District from his Boomer perspective, he’s very conscious of the contemporary. One of the things that I’ll be contributing to the team is being the canary in the vineyards.

Will the Stags Leap District (and Napa in general) still be relevant in another 30 years?

Yes, Cab is King but for how long?

Even if I can afford $100+ bottles, what is the distinct value that makes getting these wines worth buying instead of a nice whiskey or the myriad of other options I have?

I’m from a generation that is notoriously in love with great stories so how are today’s SLD and Napa wineries communicating their stories? Do they feel authentic? Is it presented in a way that I can connect with and relate to?

The old recipe is not going to work.

Photo By Jim G from Silicon Valley, CA, USA - Darioush Winery, Napa Valley, California, USAUploaded by Josve05a, CC BY 2.0,

I mean, yeah, that kind of looks interesting… I guess.

To be brutally blunt, Napa can be really boring.

The marketing to my generation has been trying to sell us a luxurious lifestyle that is rather generic.

Oh, beautiful people in a beautiful place. That’s nice.

Open up Instagram and you see a countless stream of beautiful people in beautiful places. There’s nothing special about that messaging. Been there, done that. Scroll.

Adding a glass of high priced Cab or Chardonnay doesn’t make the #NapaStyle filter feel any more unique or authentic. At worst, with literally hundreds of wineries delivering the same message, it feels fake and basic.

So what Napa will I see this week?

Will I see producers following the old recipe of success that has served them so well? Perhaps. With Boomers and Gen Xers still buying, it would be foolish to abandon it altogether.

But what I am hoping to see is a glimpse of planning for the future. I’d like to see a Stags Leap District and a Napa Valley that recognizes that the old #NapaStyle filter is a recipe for Millennials to keep scrolling past.

What I want is Napa unfiltered.

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Nathan Fay’s Leap of Faith

Over the next several months I will be working on a research project about the stories and wines of the Stags Leap District. In 2019, this Napa Valley region will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of its establishment as an American Viticultural Area. So in between my regular features and reviews, you can expect a fair sprinkling of Stags Leap geekiness.

Stags Leap Fay bottle

My review of the 2011 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Fay Vineyard is down below.

Today the wines of the Stags Leap District are part of the robe that drapes Napa Valley in prestige and renown. However, originally that wasn’t the case. As the sleepy valley shook off the dust from decades of Prohibition and ambivalence, this little pocket in the shadow of the Vacas was dismissed as too cold for Cabernet Sauvignon.

While ambitions were growing up-valley in places like Oakville and Rutherford, the Stags Leap District was known for cattle and prunes. It took a single wine, from three-year-old vines, to shake the world into casting its gaze on this three-mile long “valley within a valley.”

But before anyone had reason to give the Stags Leap District a look, Nathan Fay took a leap.

The Origins of Fay Vineyard

A native of Visalia in the San Joaquin Valley, Nathan Fay moved to Napa in 1951. He purchased 205 acres in 1953 that was once part of the Parker homestead dating back to the 1880s. The land included several acres of prune trees that were a popular planting in the valley.

But following World War II, the fortunes of the Napa prune industry was on the decline. As William Heintz noted in his work California’s Napa Valley: One Hundred Sixty Years of Wine Making, Napa prunes were facing stiff competition from large-scale producers in the Sacramento Valley. Not only was the production bigger, but so were the prunes. Their size, Heintz shared, made them look more appealing in supermarket cellophane bags than their less plump Napa cousins.

Photo by Kduck94558. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

The Stags Leap Palisades frame the east side of its namesake district and profoundly influences the terroir.

Then Napa’s most lucrative export market for prunes, the United Kingdom, shriveled as cheaper options from Hungary became available. Faced with these prospects, Fay sought the advice of the University of California-Davis. They encouraged him to switch to viticulture.

But the experts at Davis cautioned Fay against planting “warm weather grapes” like Cabernet Sauvignon, noting the chilly maritime winds that funneled up through the Stags Leap District in the late afternoon.

They didn’t take into consideration the influence of the Stags Leap Palisades. Fay had noticed, how during the heat of the day, these hills of volcanic rock would absorb the sun’s warmth. In the evening, after the wind had passed, they would radiate it back to the land. Fay also knew that the famous region of Bordeaux, well known for Cabernet, had its own maritime influences to deal with.

A Hunch and Some Hope

Conversations with the Mondavi brothers of Charles Krug gave Nathan Fay a hunch that there was a market for Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. In 1961, he took the plunge, planting the first sizable acreage of Cabernet south of Oakville. When those 15 acres of vines came of age, the Mondavis were his first customers with Joe Heitz of Heitz Cellars soon following. Then came George Vierra of Vichon, Frances Mahoney of Carneros Creek and others looking to buy Fay grapes.

By 1967, Fay was expanding his plantings, moving from the deep alluvial soils on the west side of his property to the shallow volcanic soils closer to the Palisades. With the help of his friend, Father Tom Turnbull, Fay planted 30 additional acres of Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Wine That Started It All?

Photo by Bob McClenahan. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Warren Winiarski in 2015, many years after his fateful meeting with Nathan Fay.

While the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars gets the glory of winning the Judgement of Paris, in many ways that bottle was the moon reflecting the light of a 1968 Cabernet Sauvignon made by Nathan Fay. It was the pull of this wine, made from Fay’s vines, that changed the gravitation of Warren Winiarski’s career–and perhaps that of the entire Napa Valley.

George Taber describes Winiarski’s 1969 visit with Fay in his book Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine. Winiarski had finished the first two vintages as the inaugural winemaker of Robert Mondavi Winery and was looking to start his own operation.

He had planted a few acres up on Howell Mountain but found that his Cabernet Sauvignon buds were not taking to their grafts due to insufficient water in the soils. Winiarski was intrigued by irrigation techniques that Nathan Fay was experimenting with on his property. So he went down the Silverado Trail to pay him a visit.

While the two gentlemen discussed farming, Fay took Winiarski to a small building across from his house along Chase Creek where he kept barrels of his homemade wine. While Fay sold most of his grapes, he saved enough to make a few cases each year.

Tasting this young and roughly made wine, Winiarski found the aromatics and texture to be unlike anything else he had tried in Napa. The experience impacted him so dearly that when the land next to Fay’s vineyard, the 50 acre Heid Ranch, went up for sale the following year, Winiarski sold his Howell Mountain property and purchased the site.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and the Fay Vineyard

Photo by Jim G from Silicon Valley, CA, USA. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Entrance towards the winery and tasting room of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

The wine that beat some of the best of Bordeaux was not made from Fay grapes. The fruit for that 1973 bottling came from the young vines next door where the two sites shared the same deep alluvial soils. Most of the Cabernet buds Winiarski used for the new vineyard were from Fay’s vines with a few from Martha’s Vineyard in Oakville as well.

In 1986, Nathan Fay was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Wanting to scale back, he negotiated a sale for most of his vineyard to Winiarski. By 1990, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars was producing a vineyard-designated Fay Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Fay passed away in 2001 with Winiarski acquiring the rest of this fabled vineyard from Fay’s heirs in 2002.

In 2007, Winiarski sold Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and its vineyards to a partnership of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and the Antinori family. He agreed to stay as a consultant through the 2010 vintage and winemaker Nicki Pruss remained through 2013. That year, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates brought Marcus Notaro down from Col Solare in Washington State to take over the winemaking.

Since 2006, Kirk Grace, the son of legendary Napa cult wine producers Dick and Ann Grace of Grace Family Vineyards, has been the vineyard manager. During his tenure, Fay and Stag’s Leap Vineyard have converted to sustainable viticulture, earning Napa Green certification in 2010.

A Stable of Wines
close up of fay label

Since Winiarski’s retirement, bottles of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars wines no longer feature his signature above the establishment date.
They do, however, note his 1976 triumph in Paris.

The Fay Vineyard is one of four Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings that Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars produces. Kelli White notes in Napa Valley Then & Now that, along with Cask 23 and S.L.V., Fay is always 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and estate-grown fruit. The entry-level Artemis is made from mostly purchased fruit and will often include Merlot and some Malbec.

Both Fay and S.L.V. will see around 20 months aging in 100% new French oak. The Cask 23, which is a blend from the two vineyards, will have 21 months in 90% new French oak. The Artemis is usually aged for 18 months in a mixture of American and French oak barrels with only about a quarter new. While the winery typically makes these wines every year, the quality of the 2011 vintage led them not to release a Cask 23.

Review of the 2011 Fay Cabernet Sauvignon

Medium intensity. Noticeable pyrazines right off the bat. Green bell pepper that overwhelmingly dominates the bouquet. Tossing it in the decanter for splash aeration allows some tobacco spice to come out, but it’s green uncured tobacco. Fighting through the greenness finally brings up a mix of red cherry, currant and a faint floral note that isn’t very defined.

On the palate, the green bell pepper, unfortunately, carries through but the medium-plus acidity adds more lift to the red fruit flavors. It also highlights the oak spice of cinnamon and allspice. Medium-plus tannins are soft with the velvety texture you associate with a Stags Leap District wine. They balance well with the medium-bodied fruit. Moderate finish still lingers on the green with the uncured tobacco hitting the final note.

The Verdict

Photo by JMK (JohnManuel). Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-2.5

Folks that are less sensitive to pyrazines might not mind this 2011 Fay. But for me, getting past the green bell pepper was a tall order

It would be incredibly unfair to harshly judge the terroir of the Fay Vineyard and winemaking of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars based on a 2011 wine. While there were some gems from that troublesome vintage (Chappellet, Paradigm, Barnett Vineyards, Corison, Moone-Tsai and Frank Family being a few that I’ve enjoyed), you can’t sugarcoat the challenges of 2011. The cold, wet vintage made ripening a struggle. Come harvest time many wineries had to be aggressive in the vineyard and sorting table to avoid botrytis.

While I applaud Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars for realizing that this vintage didn’t merit producing their $250-300 Cask 23, it’s hard to say that it warranted making a $100-130 Fay Vineyard either. I’m not a fan of dismissing vintages wholesale but 2011 is a year that you have to be careful with.  Great vineyards and winery reputation (or glowing wine reviews) won’t spare you from striking out on expensive bottles.

If you’re going to seek out a Fay Vineyard Cabernet, there is a charm in finding some of the Warren Winiarski vintages from 2009 and earlier. But I would also be optimistic about the more recent releases from the new winemaking team as well. While they might be different in style compared to the Winiarski wines, better quality vintages will be far more likely to deliver pleasure that merits their prices.

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Two Great Videos About the Stags Leap District

I’m currently working on a research project about the Stags Leap District in Napa Valley. Despite the region’s fame, I’ve discovered that there aren’t many resources covering the Stags Leap District as its own entity. Virtually every wine book groups the AVA within the patchwork quilt of the greater Napa Valley with maybe a couple pages, at most, dedicated to it.

Photo by Kduck94558. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-4.0

A vineyard shadowed by the basaltic palisades in the Stags Leap District of Napa Valley.

Which is a shame. As you peek under the covers and explore this dynamic wine region, it’s almost impossible not to see how distinctive this area and its wines really are.

Over the next couple months, I will be writing several posts about the Stags Leap District and sharing more of my research. But, for now, I want to highlight two great videos on YouTube that are worth watching.

An Introduction to the Stags Leap District’s Terroir

This short (1:19) video features winemaker Michael Beaulac of Pine Ridge Vineyards. He gives some great insights about the uniqueness of the Stags Leap District’s soils. This is important because the Stags Leap District was the first AVA in Napa to be designated based on the distinctiveness of its soils.

Beaulac highlights the importance of the Stags Leap Palisades in influencing the climate of the AVA. You also get a nice view of these rocky, basaltic outcrops of the Vacas in the video as well.

The Very Interesting History of How The Stags Leap District Became an AVA

Next year will be the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the Stags Leap District AVA. And, whoa nelly, was it a journey to make that happen!

Photo by Jim G from Silicon Valley, CA, USA. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is today one of the flagship wineries of the Stags Leap District. But during the AVA’s creation, they were one of its fiercest opponents.

No one knows that story better than Richard Mendelson, the attorney who was driving force behind the AVA petition. This video is a bit longer (40:24) but Mendelson gives tremendous background on the process that started in the early 1980s and didn’t come to fruition till 1989. And he definitely covers the challenges and drama over the name! However, I was most fascinated by the struggle that went into delineating the boundaries of the AVA. In some ways, it seems like “wind” played more of a deciding factor than soils.

I also highly recommend Mendelson’s book Appellation Napa Valley. This covers not only the Stags Leap battle but also the work that went into the establishment of all the other major AVAs of Napa.

Mendelson, who also worked on the petitions of the Rutherford, Oakville and Paso Robles AVAs as well as the failed Rutherford & Oakville Benches applications, is a well known expert of wine law. So if you want to get super geeky, you can check out his more technical books Wine in America: Law and Policy and From Demon to Darling: A Legal History of Wine in America.

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The Fanatical But Forgotten Legacy of Martin Ray

As California Wine Month comes to a close, I want to spend some time reflecting on the men and women who have made California what it is today.

Folks like Agoston Haraszthy, H.W. Crabb, Charles Krug, Josephine Tychson, Louis M. Martini and, in more modern history, people like Andre Tchelischeff, Robert Mondavi, Warren Winiarski, Robert Haas, Donn Chappellet, Fred and Eleanor McCrea and Dick Grace.

Truthfully, the list could go on ad infinitum because the history and story of California wine is truly a patch work quilt of individual dreams and efforts.

But I’m willing to bet that if you asked most wine lovers to list some of the influential figures in California wine history–only the truly old timers and the geekiest of wine students would mention Martin Ray.

Which is remarkable considering the modern legacy of all “the Martians” that came after Ray.

The Invasion of Quantity over Quality

In the link above, wine economist Mike Veseth highlights the dichotomy in thought of two post-Prohibition wine pioneers over what the “idea” of wine should be–a topic he greatly expands upon in his 2011 work Wine Wars: The Curse of the Blue Nun, the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck, and the Revenge of the Terroirists.

Philip Wagner, who founded the Maryland winery Boordy Vineyards, bequeathed the Wagnerian ideals of wine being an everyday commodity–much like any other food and beverage–that should be affordable and accessible. As Veseth notes, the existence of “Two Buck Chuck” is a very Wagnerian model. However, Wagner’s idea of everyday affordability wasn’t just limited to bottom of the barrel prices.

Photo from Radicaldreamer29. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Martin Ray in the 1960s.

Martin Ray, on the other hand, thought that American wine should aim high and not settle for just being a commodity like milk and grains. Inspired by the great wines of Europe, the original “Martian” was convinced that California had the potential to reach similar heights.

Post-Prohibition Blues

As Thomas Pinney notes in A History of Wine in America, Volume 2: From Prohibition to the Present, the American wine industry was in a bit of a funky, cloudy haze in the years after the repeal of Prohibition–just like many of the wines of that period.

The goal of most post-Prohibition wineries was cheapness and quantity with quality being a distant third. In chapter 4 of his work, Pinney quotes UC-Davis professor Maynard Amerine’s 1940 letter bemoaning the fact that many producers ignore their vineyards until late in the harvest season, letting the grapes go far past their ideal harvest time and producing wines that were “…heavy, lacking the essential fruit quality and frequently have an overripe grape or raisin taste.” Beyond the poor condition of the fruit, Amerine noted, in the winery this often led to the presence of spoilage bacteria.

Amerine’s letter (as quoted by Pinney) would go on to say:

Aside from [Martin] Ray you would be amazed at how few of our growers or vintners have the least conception of these facts. This is one of the recurring reasons for the lack of quality (or even drinkability) of California wines.

— Maynard Amerine’s October 20th, 1940 letter to Julian Street as quoted in Thomas Pinney’s A History of Wine in America, Volume 2

Martin Ray was different.

 

A protégé of Paul Masson, Ray grew up near Masson’s vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco.

While today his name is synonymous with low-quality jug wines made by Constellation Brands, Paul Masson was a pioneer in his own right aiming to make high-quality sparkling wines in the style of his homeland of France–even importing his own cuttings of Pinot noir and Chardonnay vines from Burgundy (likely from his friend Louis Latour’s vineyards).

During the Great Depression, Martin Ray quit his career as a stock broker to join his neighbor Paul Masson at his winery. Falling in love with the industry, Ray bought the Paul Masson winery in 1936.

Seeing the poor quality that dominated the post-Prohibition wine industry, Ray made it his personal mission (a fanatical obsession as Pinney describes) to bring back the quality levels and standards that trademarked the industry in the Pre-Prohibition days of Haraszthy, Krug, Lily Langtry, Tychson, Jacob Schram, Gustave Niebaum and Georges de Latour.

The Best Of Intentions, The Poorest of Results
Photo from the California Historical Society. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD US

A 1935 advertisement for California port with a hefty 18-20% ABV.

But he had an uphill battle with the legacy of bootlegging, speakeasies and moon-shining leaving American drinkers with a taste for things strong and sweet.

Many of the California wines that dominated the market were often fortified with brandy and sweetened up with the use of raisins or very late harvested grapes made from Muscat, Thompson Seedless and Sultana. Thomas Pinney notes those three grapes represented nearly half (44%) of the 1941 vintage alone.

The nature of the industry and a devastating winery fire were too much to overcome. In 1942, Ray accepted an offer from Seagram’s for the Paul Masson brand and what was left of the winery.

The Sky’s The Limit

However, rather than retire, Ray tried his hand again in his fanatical quest for quality. Purchasing land on the hilltop across from the old Paul Masson vineyards, Ray transferred many of those Burgundian cuttings of Pinot noir and Chardonnay to plant what is now known as Mount Eden Vineyards–2000 feet above the Santa Clara Valley. His widow Eleanor Ray and their daughter, Barbara Marinacci, detailed Ray’s passion and goals in their book Vineyards in the Sky: The Life of Legendary Vintner Martin Ray which is a great read for folks wanting to know about this pivotal time in California’s wine history.

By Radicaldreamer29 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The Martin Ray vineyard was renamed Mount Eden in 1972 with the legendary Dick Graff and Merry Edwards making the first few post-Ray vintages. Today Jeffery Patterson tends to these grapes.

Branded under his own name, Martin Ray spared no expense.

His goal was to make Pinot noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon that could compete with the best that Europe offered. In the vineyard, he focused on lowering yields and refused to irrigate–believing that excess water diluted the vine’s potential to make great grapes.

After the grapes were harvested, he rushed to get them crushed and fermenting within an hour of leaving the vine in order to minimize the degradation of quality and exposure to spoilage bacteria.

The wines were barrel fermented and then pressed in a custom-built hand press that Ray designed himself to minimize extraction of harsh tannins. He then aged the wines in oak barrels before bottling them unfined and unfiltered. However, rather than releasing the wines soon after bottling, Ray kept the wines back and aged them further in the cellar. Not a single bottle was released until he felt that they were ready for the market. Sometimes this meant holding them back as long as ten years.

Recognition, at last?
Photo a derivative of photos on Wikimedia Commons uploaded by self under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Unfortunately by the time Steven Spurrier was touring California to select wines for his famous tasting, the wines of Martin Ray were fading into obscurity.
S

Ray’s efforts and dedication to quality allowed him to ask for and receive some of the highest prices in all of California at the time–$2 a bottle.  Martin Ray wines were even served at the White House for both Johnson and Nixon.

However, Ray still had the cards against him. Many American drinkers of dry wines were more apt to look eastward towards Europe than to the homegrown products of California. The costs and expenses of his quality-driven style–plus some bad business decisions with investors–caused Martin Ray to lose his winery in 1970. The new owners did allow him to spend his remaining years living in a house below the vineyard.

He passed away in 1976–the same year that the famous Judgement of Paris wine tasting took place. It seems both fitting and tragic that the moment when Martin Ray’s passion and vision were actualized was when he left this earth.

That year, American wines truly did compete with the best that Europe offered.  The embrace of American consumers came shortly after.

His life’s work. Finally completed.

Rediscovering Martin Ray

Following the Judgement of Paris, the California wine industry entered a boom period of prosperity and acclaim. In the dust, the name of Martin Ray continued to fade into obscurity until 1990 when a young entrepreneur named Courtney Benham stumbled upon a warehouse in San Jose that contained 1500 cases of old Martin Ray wines along with Ray’s letters and winemaking notebooks.

That same year Courtney Benham had founded Blackstone Winery with his brother Derek. Intrigued, Benham inquired with the family of Martin Ray about acquiring the rights to Ray’s name.

Lindsey Haughton and Bill Batchelor of Martin Ray.

In 2001, the Benham brothers sold Blackstone to Constellation Brands for $140 million and in 2003 acquired the historic Martini & Prati Winery in the Russian River Valley to be the new home of Martin Ray Winery.

Blackstone’s winemaker Dennis Hill made the first vintages of the new Martin Ray wines until the 2001 sale. Then Bryan Davison succeeded him. The new winery building in 2003 saw the hiring of Bill Batchelor. The brand expanded to with the introduction of sister labels, Angeline and Courtney Benham Wines.

Batchelor eventually left Martin Ray in 2017 to take over the winemaking operation of Gundlach Bundschu. He was succeeded by his assistant winemaker, Lindsey Haughton who has been with the winery since 2012. Prior to joining Martin Ray, Haughton worked harvest at Heitz Cellars in Napa and studied at Fresno State University. While at school, she worked at Engelmann Cellars.

The Wines

2016 Martin Ray Sauvignon blanc Russian River Valley ($16-20)

100% Sauvignon blanc sourced from vineyards mostly in the Green Valley of the Russian River.

High intensity nose. Very intriguing mix tropical citrus fruit like starfruit and pomelo with richer honeydew melon and subtle grassiness. It’s not as green as a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc but the nose is as intense as one.

On the palate, the citrus notes hold court and add a lemony note. Medium-plus acidity is mouthwatering and fresh but doesn’t stray into tartness. Good balance with medium bodied fruit. Moderate finish brings back some of the honeydew notes.

2016 Martin Ray Sonoma County Pinot noir ($23-28)

A gorgeous Pinot that way over delivers for the price.

100% Pinot noir sourced from the Ricioli and Foppiano Vineyards in the Russian River Valley and the Sangiacomo Vineyard in Carneros.

WOW! High, high intensity nose. Mix of dark cherries with red raspberries and some subtle dried floral and earthy notes. With air those earthy notes become more defined as forest floor and cola nut.

On the palate the red fruit comes out more than the dark but feels weightier with medium-plus tannins. Noticeable vanilla oak also brings spices like nutmeg and cinnamon to the party. Medium-plus acidity is very lively and balances the weight of the medium body fruit. Long finish lingers on the juicy fruit at this point. It will become even more complex as the baby fat of oak fades and the floral and earthy notes develop.

2016 Martin Ray Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon ($18-22)

100% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from vineyards in the Alexander Valley, Sonoma Mountain and Dry Creek Valley.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Very jammy dark fruits of black currants and blackberries. More noticeable oak on the nose with toasty vanilla and some clove.

On the palate those jammy dark fruits come through with medium-plus body weight. Ripe medium-plus tannins holds up the fruit and contribute to the smooth mouthfeel with the vanilla. Medium acidity gives some balance but has me wishing for more. Reminds me a lot of the Justin Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon. Moderate length finish continues with the dark fruit and vanilla oak.

Final Thoughts

It’s interesting that the modern incarnation of Martin Ray seems to combine the “Wagnerian” and “Martian” ideals. These wines offer affordable everyday drinking of very good quality.

I know that not every household has $20 wines as their everyday drinkers. But compared to many higher priced $30-40 bottles, these wines certainly make that kind of quality level more attainable.

Compared to many Napa and New Zealand Sauvignon blancs over $20, this Russian River Sauv. blanc is extremely tasty and vibrant.

The Pinot noir, in particular, is outstanding for the price with single vineyard designates from the legendary Sangiacomo vineyard rarely dropping below $35. The Ricioli and Foppiano vineyards in the Russian River Valley also tend to fetch higher prices.

While the Martin Ray lineup certainly does include more expensive wines from the Diamond Mountain District and Stags Leap District of Napa Valley, I don’t think the original Martin Ray would balk at these more affordable bottles from Sonoma.

 

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