Tag Archives: Warren Winiarski

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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Geek Notes — Top Audiobooks on California Wine History

Every month I have a Geek Notes feature on upcoming wine books that I’m excited about. A subscriber that is visually impaired once shared to me how he unfortunately can’t enjoy those features as much since his printed book reading days are past him. That gave me the idea to look into what is available in audio formats.

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

While I haven’t done many audiobooks myself, my wife has long been a fan of them for her work commutes. And really, when you think about it, aren’t audiobooks just very long podcasts?

With that, let’s take a look at my top 5 picks for audiobooks about California wine history available on Audible.

Gallo Be Thy Name: The Inside Story of How One Family Rose to Dominate the U.S. Wine Market by Jerome Tuccille with Grainger Hines narrating.

First published in 2009, Tuccille’s work documents the family history of Ernest & Julio Gallo and how they turned a small post-prohibition winery into a global empire. I’m honestly shocked that the Gallos’ story hasn’t been turned into a Netflix miniseries. There is tons of drama here–not the least of which is the possible murder-suicide committed by Ernest & Julio’s father, Joe Gallo, with their mother Susie.

But beyond the drama and family intrigue is a thoroughly engrossing case study in wine business–especially in the American market. While it is very easy to poo poo Gallo wines today, there is no denying their continued success.  Savvy business acumen that responded to changing dynamics in consumers’ tastes drove that success.

Ernest & Julio had almost an intuitive sense about what Americans wanted to drink and they delivered it. That savvy is still on display by their descendants who continue to grow the Gallo empire with new acquisitions and expansions.

A Man and His Mountain: The Everyman Who Created Kendall-Jackson and Became America’s Greatest Wine Entrepreneur by Edward Humes with Mel Foster narrating.

I have not read this one yet but I can see this being similar to Tuccille’s work, absent the murder intrigue and family drama. For wine students wanting to understand the American market, you need to understand the figures who have had their finger prints all over it.

Like Ernest & Julio, Jess Jackson built an empire. But his start was world’s apart from the Gallos. A lawyer by training, Jackson purchased a pear and walnut farm in Lake County in 1974 to give him a change of pace as a gentleman farmer. He planted some vines which he sold to wineries like Fetzer. When Fetzer unexpectedly cancelled a large order on him one vintage, Jackson decided to make wine from the grapes himself. This was the birth of the Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay that has gone on to be a 3 million+ case behemoth.

The background of the author, Edward Humes, also jumped out to me. Following a long career as an investigative journalist, he’s written several highly acclaimed books covering a broad spectrum of topics such as Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart’s Green Revolution and Mississippi Mud: Southern Justice and the Dixie Mafia. This is not the typical resume of a wine book writer which, for me, adds a lot of intrigue to this book.

Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine by George M. Taber with Sean Runnette narrating.
Image a derivative collage put together by self as User:Agne27 on Wikimedia Commons. Originally image details available here https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Producers_from_Judgement_of_Paris_wine_tasting.jpg

Some of the wineries that participated at the famous 1976 Judgement of Paris wine tasting event.

Taber’s 2005 book has long been a favorite of mine. While I haven’t dived into them yet, his other wine books are high on my “to read” list.

To Cork or Not To Cork: Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Wine Bottle

A Toast to Bargain Wines: How Innovators, Iconoclasts, and Winemaking Revolutionaries Are Changing the Way the World Drinks

In Search of Bacchus: Wanderings in the Wonderful World of Wine Tourism

It’s hard to know where the American wine industry would be today if the 1976 Paris tasting didn’t happen, or if Taber wasn’t there for Time magazine to report back. Robert Mondavi was still actively promoting American wines but did the 1976 tasting help spark his joint venture with Baron Philippe Rothschild that became Opus One?

The Baron’s 1970 Château Mouton-Rothschild was one of the French wines that unexpectedly lost in the blind tasting to an upstart from California (in this case, Warren Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars). Coming only three years after Rothschild’s dogged petitioning finally got his Second Growth estate elevated up to First Growth, it’s fascinating to wonder how those dominoes fell to lead him to invest so heavily into California.

Now Taber’s book doesn’t really go off into that kind of speculation and tangent. But he does provide some great background details about the California wineries that took part (Stag’s Leap, Ridge, Heitz, Clos du Val, Mayacamas, Freemark Abbey, Ch. Montelena, Chalone, Spring Mountain Vineyards, Veedercrest and David Bruce) as well as the general state of the California wine industry at the time. Most importantly he provides context to an event that undoubtedly was a pivotal moment in not only Californian, but also American, wine history.

The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty by Julia Flynn Siler with Alan Sklar narrating.
Photo by scottsdale9. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Robert Mondavi with author Pat Montandon in 1981 at the Premier Napa Valley Auction.

Speaking of Robert Mondavi, his story and family drama would also make a very interest Netflix series. It’s still jaw dropping to think about how fast the forced sale and corporate takeover of the Mondavi Winery by Constellation Brands happened back in 2004.

Even though the empire’s collapse was rapid, there were smoldering cinders burning long before the ruble. While they never came to blows like Robert and his brother Peter famously once did, the infighting among Robert’s children–Tim, Michael and Marcia–played just as much of a role in shaping the Mondavi family narrative.

Siler’s work touches on all that as well as the family’s early history dating back to Cesare Mondavi’s arrival in the US from his native Italy. But the major focus of the book is the charismatic force of Robert Mondavi. Like the Gallos, Jess Jackson and Martin Ray, it’s hard to see the American wine industry being what it is today without his legacy.

Napa: The Story of an American Eden by James Conaway with John Morgan narrating.

This book is part of a series that Conway has written about the history and potential future of Napa Valley. The other two books are The Far Side Of Eden (2003) and Napa at Last Light: America’s Eden in an Age of Calamity (2018) with The Far Side of Eden not yet available in audio format.

Photo by Schmiebel. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

A black-crowned night heron fishing in the Napa watershed. Concern for the habitat of this bird and other animals fueled support for Napa Prop C. which aimed to curb vineyard development in the hills of the valley that feed into the watershed.

I just started reading the hard copy version of this book. I was inspired to pick it up after listening to Levi Dalton’s interview with James Conway on episode 446 of his I’ll Drink To That! podcast.

Prior to his great interview with Dalton, Conway was already on my radar after reading his very biting essay for The Atlantic from March of this year titled “Rich People Are Ruining Wine”. A lot of this was happening during the political battle surrounding Napa’s Prop C ballot measure that aimed to limit vineyard development on hillsides that would have impacted the watershed of the Napa river.

Following a lot of heated debate from both sides, the measure ultimately lost in this June’s election–49.1% to 50.9%. Listening to Conway’s interview with Dalton and reading the first few chapters of this book, it seems that the war over Prop C was just another chapter in the endless story of the battle for the soul of Napa.

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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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Event Review — Stags’ Leap Winery Dinner

Daniel’s Broiler in Bellevue, Washington is one of my wife and I’s favorite restaurants to visit. Each year they host a Champagne Gala that we love going to. Even when we’re not thrilled with the wines selected, we nonetheless always enjoy the exquisite food crafted by Executive Chef Kevin Rohr and a chance to try interesting food pairings.

Recently I got to attend a dinner featuring the wines of Stags’ Leap Winery with Assistant Winemaker Joanne “Jo” Wing.

The Background

I geeked out about some of the backstory of Stags’ Leap Winery in my 60 Second Review of their 2013 Napa Valley Merlot. With a long history dating back to the late 19th century, the winery is one of Napa’s most historic properties.

In California’s Great Cabernets, James Laube notes that the rise of the modern-era of Stags’ Leap Winery under Carl Doumani went hand in hand with the “Cabernet boom” of the 1970s that saw the notable Cabs of Burgess, Cakebread, Caymus, Clos du Val, Mount Eden, Mt. Veeder, Silver Oak and Joseph Phelps hit the scene. It also saw the birth of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and decades-long legal intrigue.

The War of the Apostrophe” soon took off with Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (and winner of the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris) suing Doumani–who promptly counter-sued.

The two men eventually settled their differences in the mid-1980s and released a special collaborative bottling between the two estates called Accord from the 1985 vintage to commemorate. The agreement was that Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars would have the apostrophe to the left of the ‘s’ while Doumani’s Stags’ Leap Winery would have it to the right.

You could tell that the Treasury Wine Estate rep at the dinner wasn’t too happy about the apostrophe typo on the menu.

Around this time, the two wineries faced another challenge with other wineries in the area like Gary Andrus’ Pine Ridge Winery, Steltzner Vineyards, Shafer Vineyards and more wanting to use the Stags Leap name and petitioning for American Viticultural Area (AVA) approval under that name for the region. After more legal challenges, a compromise was struck for the name of the new AVA to be the Stags Leap District (SLD) sans apostrophe.

Today the winery is owned by Treasury Wine Estates where it is part of a vast portfolio that includes 19 Crimes, The Walking Dead wines, Beaulieu Vineyards, Beringer, Ch. St Jean, Penfolds, Provenance, Hewitt Vineyard and more.

The current winemaker is Christophe Paubert who succeeded Robert Brittan when the later left Napa to make wine in Oregon at his own Brittan Vineyards and consult for wineries such as Winderlea.

A Bordeaux trained winemaker, Paubert has extensive experience working at such illustrious estates as the 2nd Growth St. Julien estate of Ch. Gruaud-Larose and the First Growth Sauternes estate of Chateau d’Yquem. Prior to joining Stags’ Leap in 2009, Paubert was the head winemaker for 4 years at Canoe Ridge Vineyards in Washington State.

Assistant Winemaker Joanne Wing is a New Zealand native who started out at Indevin, one of New Zealand’s largest wine producers. She gained experience working harvest across the globe from Saintsbury in Napa to Mount Pleasant Winery in the Hunter Valley of Australia as well as in Bordeaux before accepting a position at Stags’ Leap as a harvest enologist and working her way up to Asst. Winemaker.

Gorgeous Viognier that is well worth seeking out.


Passed hors d’oeuvres paired with 2016 Stags’ Leap Winery Napa Valley Viognier
Smoked sablefish with soft scrambled farm egg, ikura, chives and Chevre crostini with watermelon beet, grilled apricot, chili spice

I’m not a big beet person so I let my wife try the Chevre Crostini while I had the smoked sablefish with the ikura roe caviar. Both were smashing pairings with the Stags’ Leap Viognier with the wine being a particular revelation.

Sourced primarily from cooler climate vineyards in the Carneros AVA and Oak Knoll District, the Viognier had medium-plus intensity nose of orange blossoms and white peach notes.

On the palate, those white peach tree fruits carried through but also brought some tropical notes of passion-fruit and papaya. However this Viognier never came close to the tutti-fruity “Fruit Loop Cereal” style that unfortunately befalls many domestic Viogniers–especially those fermented and aged only in stainless steel. To avoid that pratfall, Paubert and Wing fermented the wine in neutral French oak barrels with weekly batonnage for 4 months. This very “Condrieu-style” approach produced a Viognier with textural weight and depth but with enough medium-plus acidity to keep it from being flabby or overly creamy.

The acidity also matched perfectly with the hors d’oeuvres, cutting through the “fishiness” of the sablefish and roe. My wife was particularly impressed at how well the acidity matched with the Chevre–the tangy goat cheese that often calls for high acid whites like Sauvignon blanc.

At $22-27, this is an outstanding Viognier with loads of personality and complexity that I would put on par with the àMaurice Viognier from Washington State as one of the stellar domestic examples of this variety.

The preserved kumquat vinaigrette on the salad were quite a treat.


First Course paired with 2016 Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Chardonnay
Spring Salad with Belgian endive, baby kale, avocado, marcona almonds, preserved kumquat vinaigrette

Sourced from the Carneros and Oak Knoll District, this Napa Chardonnay counters the stereotype of over-the-top, oaky, buttery Chardonnays. With 25% fermented and aged in new French oak, 50% in “seasoned” French oak and the rest in stainless steel with no malolactic fermentation, this Chardonnay aimed for an elegant and food-friendly style.

The wine had a medium intensity nose with apple and citrus lime notes. A little subtle baking spice from the oak rims around the edge.

On the palate, the citrus notes came through the most and played off the baby kale and avocado very well. Medium-plus acidity maintained freshness and balanced the moderate creaminess in the wine. The clove oak spice and an almost marzipan nuttiness lingered on the moderate finish.

Overall, this was a very drinkable and pleasant Chardonnay that did hit the target for food-pairing. But, admittedly, at $25-30 it didn’t jump out as anything wow-worthy–especially following in the footsteps of the scrumptious Viognier. It’s a very well made California Chard but it is still one of hundreds of similar well-made and similarly priced California Chards.

The star of the night. I can still taste the braised short ribs and that delectable sauce.

Second Course paired with 2014 Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Braised short ribs with seared sea scallops, morel mushrooms, chervil

From a food perspective, this was the winning course of the night. The braised short ribs melted in the mouth and had you dearly wishing you had more than just the bite. The scallops were perfectly cooked and while I was skeptical with pairing them with a big Cab, the morel and au jus sauce from the short ribs offered just enough weight to carry the pairing.

As with other wines in the white label Napa Valley series, the Stags’ Leap Cabernet Sauvignon includes some estate fruit but is mostly sourced from vineyards throughout Napa Valley. Joanne Wing noted that while Paubert likes the flexibility of having some fruit from warm climate sites like Calistoga, he’s far more excited about the fruit from the cooler southern reaches of Napa like Coombsville, Oak Knoll and Yountville.

Medium-plus intensity with rich dark fruit–black currants, black plums, blackberries. This screams Napa Cab from the nose but it is not as overtly oak-driven as the norm with a little tobacco spice element.

On the palate those dark fruits carry through but there is a little earthy forest-floor element that emerges that adds some intrigue. Medium acidity adds juiciness to the fruit but not enough to be mouthwatering. The oak is a little more pronounced but is more spice driven than vanilla. The medium-plus tannins are still quite firm and young but are more tight than biting. Moderate length finish ends on the fruit which testifies to the youth of this wine.

Stags’ Leap Winery Assistant Winemaker Joanne Wing.

At $45-50, this is priced in lined with many of its Napa peers as a sort of “entry-level” Napa Cab. It’s hard to say it is a compelling value compared to what you can get for equivalent pricing from other regions like Washington and Paso Robles. Like the Chardonnay, I feel like this Cab is certainly well made but not blow-your-socks-off-you-must-find-it good partly because of the premium you are paying for the Napa name (and the winery’s history).

However, I do suspect that this wine could kick it up a couple notches with a few more years of bottle age that potentially could make it far more compelling.

Third Course paired with 2014 Stags’ Leap “The Investor” Red Blend
Piedmontese New York Steak with herb polenta, spring vegetables, blackberry demiglace

Admittedly, this was one of the few times I’ve been disappointed with a Daniel’s steak. Perhaps it was just this cut but I found it was in the weird position of being both too fatty and too dry and lacking flavor. The polenta and blackberry demi-glace were excellent though. But I found myself again wishing that the braised short ribs were the main course.

A unique blend of Merlot, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, The Investor pays homage to former owner Horace Chase who made his fortune investing in gold and silver mines during the Gold Rush days of California. The Merlot and majority of the Petite Sirah come from estate fruit in the Stags Leap District and Oakville while the Cabernet and Malbec are sourced from vineyards throughout Napa Valley.

The medium-plus acidity and savory, herbal element of The Investor red blend definitely helped interject some much needed flavor into the Piedmontese New York steak.

Medium-plus nose with a mix of red and dark fruits–plums and currants. There is more overt oak vanilla on the nose of this wine than with the Cab but it doesn’t seem overwhelming. Underneath there is also a blue floral element that is not defined.

On the palate, the mix of fruits carry through with mouthwatering medium-plus acidity tilting the favor towards the red fruit. Some savory herbal and smokey notes join the party that dearly helps the food-pairing with the flavorless Piedmontese New York steak. The vanilla oak notes add a layer of velvety softness to the high tannins that still have a fair amount of gripe. Like the Cab, the moderate length finish ends on the youthful fruit.

At $50-60, The Investor intrigues me a lot more than the Napa Cabernet (and the Napa Merlot) because of the savory, smokey element and mouthwatering acidity. It’s still young and has some “baby fat” of oak that needs to be shed but this is a unique blend that could turn into something exceptionally good.

Dessert paired with 2014 Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Petite Sirah
Chocolate torte with Devonshire cream, coconut crisp

While the chocolate torte was amazing and sinfully delicious and the wine outstanding, this was not a winning pairing. The wine was nowhere near sweet enough to balance with the torte.

While delicious on their own, the pairing of the chocolate torte with the Stags’ Leap Petite Sirah just didn’t do it for me.

Still, it was somewhat fitting to end the Stags’ Leap Winery dinner with the wine that truly epitomizes the estate. While the name “Stags Leap” is synonymous with Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags’ Leap Winery was always a vanguard in cultivating and promoting Petite Sirah.

High intensity nose that started jumping out of the glass as soon as the waiter poured it. Blackberries and boysenberries with some peppery spice and violets.

On the palate, the first thing that hits you is the weight and richness of the wine with the full brunt of the dark fruits and high tannins. But there is an elegance with the juicy medium-plus acidity and fine balance that keeps the wine from being overbearing. On the moderate finish, there is some subtle dark chocolate notes that come out but not enough to make the food-pairing work. This was definitely a wine to savor on its own.

At $32-40, this is a more premium-priced Petite Sirah but it is well worth not only its price but also its reputation as the winery’s flagship. During this course, Jo told us about the Ne Cede Malis block of Prohibition-era vines that is a field blend of majority Petite Sirah with Muscat, Malbec, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Carignan and up to 9 other varieties. The grapes are harvested together and co-fermented to produce a limited release bottling. I have to admit that if Stags’ Leap Winery’s mobile ordering website wasn’t so buggy and difficult to navigate, I would have purchased a bottle of the Ne Cede Malis Petite Sirah (as well as several bottles of the Viognier) right then.

Overall Impressions

Attending this dinner left me wondering if Stags’ Leap Winery is a victim of its own name and location in Napa Valley. While the winery absolutely shined with its Viognier and Petite Sirah, their more typical Napa offerings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay were just “ho-hum”.

I do appreciate that Treasury Wine Estates has let Paubert, Wing and Co. continue producing their more obscure bottlings but I have no doubt that the health of the winery’s bottom line depends on the case sales of the bread and butter Cab, Chardonnay and Merlot. It’s where the money is–especially in Napa–and that is what they’re out to sell.

Yet after tasting their outstanding Viognier, scrumptious Petite Sirah and very character-driven Investor blend, its hard not to think about what more the winery could do with their talented winemaking team and unique approach if they didn’t have to live up to the name Stags’ Leap.

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