Wed 29 Aug 2012
The Silverado Trail winds through the bucolic eastern side of the Napa Valley, a 29-mile long road that was created as a wagon trail in 1852 to link the cinnabar mines on Mount St. Helena with the shipping outlet of San Pablo Bay. The palisades of the Vaca range lie just east of Silverado Trail, which runs parallel to state Highway 29 a few miles to the west, the main road that runs up the center of the valley through Napa city, the small but important towns of Yountville, Oakville and Rutherford, to St. Helena and up to Calistoga in the north. Compared to the carnival atmosphere of Highway 29, especially on weekends, Silverado remains quiet and isolated, a reminder of the valley’s rural days.
Warren Winiarski arrived in the Napa Valley in the late 1960s, a political science professor from Chicago whose interest in wine had been piqued when he studied in Italy. He apprenticed himself at Souverain Cellars and Robert Mondavi Winery before buying 45 acres in 1970, between Silverado Trail and the Stag’s Leap formation, in what is now Stags Leap District, the little red area on the accompanying map. He was persuaded to do so after tasting the homemade cabernet sauvignon of Nathan Fay, produced from his vineyard next to the land that Winiarski eventually purchased. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars produced its first wine — 400 cases — in 1972, but it was the 1973 bottling that changed everything. (Consultant in the early days was the highly influential André Tchelistcheff, mastermind behind the Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.) That 1973 vintage of cabernet sauvignon, from the Stag’s Leap Vineyard, was chosen for the famous and infamous Paris Tasting of 1976, in which the wines of two obscure fledgling wineries, little known even in California, prevailed against the best estates of Burgundy and Bordeaux. The other triumphant wine was the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 1973, made by Mike Grgich.
Winiarski coined the well-known phrase “iron fist in velvet glove” to describe the cabernet sauvignon wines from his Stag’s Leap Vineyard, a handy rubric for a character that combines a granitic quality with a plush texture. Indeed an almost feral iron-iodine element runs through all of the SLV wines that I encountered on a recent sponsored visit to the winery, where the group I was with tasted the 1979, ’83, ’93, 2003 and 2007, ’08 and ’09. The winery produces an SLV in every year, a Cask 23 wine only in the best vintages, and a Fay wine from the vineyard that Winiarski acquired in 1986. (This image of the Fay Vineyard looks east toward the Vaca palisade and the promontory from which the legendary stag is supposed to have leapt.)
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars — not to be confused with Stags’ Leap Winery, the position of those apostrophes the result of a lawsuit — thrived not only as a result of winning the Paris tasting but because of the quality of its cabernets and chardonnays, being regarded as one of the great Old School Napa Valley wineries, along with Heitz, Beaulieu, Caymus, Robert Mondavi, Freemark Abbey, Clos du Val, Beringer, Charles Krug, Montelena and others. Stag’s Leap, however, seemed to get lost in the shuffle as newer, heavily financed producers came along in the late 1980s and the 1990s and achieved the status of cult cabernet-makers in the hearts of well-heeled collectors. Perhaps the Stag’s Leap wines lost a shade of dimension and depth. In any case, Winiarski sold the winery, in 2007, to a partnership of Washington state’s Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Tuscany’s Marchesi Piero Antinori.
Vineyard manager for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is Kirk Grace; winemaker, now in her 12th harvest, is Nicki Pruss.
On a side note, my first encounter with a wine from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, oddly, was not one of its vaunted cabernets but the Gamay
Beaujolais 1981, which I purchased for $6.99 and drank on November 5 and 6, 1983. It was quite charming, but I have never seen so-called “gamay beaujolais” mentioned on any product list for the winery, so I assume the attention it received was short-lived. Anyway, it turns out that gamay beaujolais was actually the French valdiguié grape; the term “gamay beaujolais” was banned on labels of American wine after April 2007.
Here are my notes on seven vintages of cabernets from the Stag’s Leap Vineyard, later abbreviated as SLV on labels, tasted at the winery.
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars SLV 1979, Napa Valley. The vines were only nine years old when this wine was made; the wine aged 15 months in a mixture of French and American oak barrels. A dollop of merlot, 1.5 percent. The color is medium ruby-garnet with perfect clarity and transparency, in the old sense. The bouquet is warm and spicy and inviting, a gratifying amalgam of crushed and macerated black and red currants and plums with mint and iodine and graphite and hints of tobacco, cedar and soy sauce. The wine is well-knit, smooth and balanced, though vibrant acidity is a bit prominent; it grows more complex, more vigorous as the minutes pass, adding touches of celery seed, candied fennel and lightly roasted plums or fruitcake, and the tannins seem to expand in volume too, though they are soft and moderately plush. Altogether a lovely wine at 33 years old and with some life, say five to seven years, ahead. 12.9/13 percent alcohol. Excellent. Price at the time: $15; seen on the Internet for $180.
It’s fascinating to read James Laube’s evaluation of this wine in California’s Great Cabernets: The Wine Spectator’s Ultimate Guide for Consumers, Collectors and Investors, published in 1989. He first writes, briefly, that that 1979 SLV “has an off, mossy quality.” In the principle review, he says: “This wine has never appealed to me — it tastes extremely dry and tannic without much in the way of fruit or charm. Drink 1990,” and he gives the wine a rating of 68 on the 100-point scale. As you can see by my notes, the wine must have shed its theoretically detrimental qualities, smoothed out those tannins, gained fruit and blossomed into something wonderful.
SLV 1983. Poured from a 1.5-liter magnum. The color is radiant medium ruby with a light garnet-tinged rim. Again there’s that touch of mint and iodine, but the wine displays slightly less graphite or granite-like minerality; it is, on the other hand, slightly cooler, detached and more elegant than the ’79 discussed previously. On the other hand, again, even after 30 or 40 minutes in the glass, this example, anyway, did not offer quite the depth or complexity of the ’79, though it was still a lovely wine. Flavors of slightly macerated and stewed red and black currants are ensconced in a sizable, mouth-filling structure dominated by potent, even pregnant tannins that assert a dense and gritty presence. The finish brings in that back-note of slightly caramelized fennel. Drink now through 2020 to 2023. Very Good+. Price at the time: $18.
SLV 1993. Poured from a 1.5-liter magnum. The wine aged 18 months in French oak barrels; there’s five percent petit verdot in the blend. A dark ruby color sports a slightly lighter ruby hue at the rim. Here’s a cabernet that feels, at 19 years old, whole, complete, authentic and essential. The wine is remarkably lively and vibrant, ringing with the resonance of its iron-and-graphite-like minerality, its fleet acidity and its dense, intense, pervasive, chewy tannins; in other words, it performs like a youngster, and while the wine could profitably be consumed now, it has many years ahead to develop and mature, say from 2020 to 2030. No kidding. Excellent. Original price: $40.
SLV 2003. From an unpredictable year, with early heat spikes followed by the rainiest April on record, Stag’s Leap produced a gorgeous cabernet sauvignon for SLV. The color is solid ruby with a dark, almost opaque center and a shading toward magenta at the rim. The wine aged a whopping 27 months in French oak; a dab of merlot totals 1.2 percent. This is a deeply fruity, spicy and vibrant wine that draws you in with its power and vitality; SLV ’03 is profoundly minerally in the earthy, graphite, iodine-and-iron range, with attendant dense, dusty, leathery tannins, yet the wine is exquisitely detailed with hints of cedar and sage, celery seed and black olive, crushed black currants, plums and mulberries, all drawn out to a long finish packed with loam and underbrush. The alcohol content is a comfortable 14.1 percent. Drink now through 2030 to ’35. Excellent. About $110.
SLV 2007. A contradictory year — some winemakers said that it was like having two or three different years in one — that turned into a great vintage for cabernet sauvignon. SLV ’07 is 100 percent cabernet; it aged 24 months in French oak, 88 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby with a purple-violet rim and an opaque center. Young as it is, as rigorous as the tannins are, the wine almost gushes with black and blue fruit scents and flavors that would edge close to being rich and jammy if not held in check by those finely-tuned, well-oiled tannins, by vibrant acidity and by a granite/graphite/iron character of magnificent proportions. Despite the profundity, though, despite the monumentality, the wine is precisely balanced and poised, and it’s edged by delicate details of mulberry, ancho chili, bitter chocolate, sage and lavender. 14.5 percent alcohol. Best from 2013 or ’14 through 2030 to 2037. Exceptional. About $125.
SLV 2008. Another 100 percent cabernet sauvignon wine, this one aging 24 months in French oak, 87 percent new barrels. What I find interesting about the amount of new oak that winemaker Nicki Pruss deploys is that none of these 21st Century wines shows the least aspect of toasty new oak or oaky, spicy vanilla; what they reveal, instead, and especially in the instance of SLV ’08, is remarkable brightness and freshness combined with a purity and intensity of black currant, cherry and plum scents and flavors. This is, as is practically not worth mentioning, a very young, vigorous, rather single-minded cabernet that’s extremely well-knit, polished, sleek and almost elegant, though equipped with afterburner tannins and deep-rooted granitic minerality. Yeah, there’s grit here but also lovely suppleness and dignity. 14.5 percent alcohol. Best from 2014 or ’16 for drinking through 2028 to 2033. Excellent. About $125.
SLV 2009. This wine rested in French oak, 84 percent new barrels, for 20 months; it’s 100 percent cabernet sauvignon. The wine is very dark, very deep, brooding and keeping its own counsel. Black and blue fruit scents and flavors are fleshy and roasted, slightly macerated and stewed, with an edge of charcoal, graphite and cocoa powder. Young, dry, taut as a coiled spring: you feel or perhaps only sense the dynamism and energy biding their time. 13.5 percent alcohol, and notice that point in an era when many cabernets from Napa Valley reach 15 percent. Let this wine quietly contemplate its own nature until 2015 or ’17 for consumption through 2027 to 2030. Very Good+ for now with Excellent potential. About $125, to be released Fall 2012.
Then, at lunch at the winery, our group was offered a horizontal tasting of the Stag’s Leap Fay Vineyard, SLV and Cask 23, all from 2009. Briefly: 1. Fay ’09, aged 19 months in 84 percent new French oak; a plentitude of the readily identifiable iodine-iron minerality; briery and brambly, underbrush; notes of thyme, sage and cedar; ravishing deep, spicy black fruit; heaps of finely-milled tannins, somehow both formidable and friendly; dense yet almost ethereal; 14% alc.; drink 2015 or ’17 to 2027 to 2030. Excellent. About $95. 2. SLV ’09, a little more classic than the example tried at the earlier tasting; lovely and slightly demanding personality and character; leaning toward clear Excellent. 3. Cask 23 ’09, a blend of the best lots of the Fay and SLV vineyards, 20 months in 90 percent French oak barrels; very earthy, very minerally, very tannic yet so beautifully polished and knit, already seamless in its fathomless depth and dimension; a little taut and resistant, yes — truculent, no. 13.5 % alc. Try from 2016 or ’17 through 2035 to 2040. Excellent. About $210.