Each month, we’ll bring you the latest news, issues and stories straight from the vineyard, so you can take a “behind the label” look at the California wines you love.
If you are a fan of Cabernet Sauvignon, chances are you know about the Stags Leap District. Even in Napa Valley, a region widely known for the variety that has come to be recognized as the “king of wine grapes,” the Stags Leap District stands out as an appellation that produces Cabernet Sauvignons of a unique character, wines that clearly bear the stamp of their special place of origin.
“The Stags Leap District is only about 1/100th of the size of Napa Valley, so you’re talking about a small patch of dirt,” says Jack Bittner, general manager of Cliff Lede Vineyards, which encompasses 60 acres in the famed District. “Our sense of place is defined by our relative smallness. There is definitely a commonality between our wines and the wines of our neighbors.”
Wine grape growers attribute this commonality, a characteristic variously described by Bittner as well as wine critics as an intriguing combination of elegance and accessibility, power and grace or intensity and softness -- to the appellation’s geography. Sometimes called a “valley within a valley,” the Stags Leap District covers a small area, just one by approximately three miles. Due east of the mid-valley town of Yountville with a topography that ranges from relatively flat to softly rolling hillsides, the region is bordered by the Napa River on the west and the Stags Leap Palisades on the east. The Palisades’ steep, imposing rock formations receive and reflect sun throughout the day, endowing grapevines with much needed warmth and sunlight. But in the evening, breezes sweeping up from the San Pablo Bay cool the vineyards dramatically. This combination of warm days and cool evenings/nights is just what late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon grapes need to develop the desired balance of sugar, acid and pH.
Soils also play an important role in the character of Stags Leap wines. Although they range from the volcanically-derived rock-strewn soils that can be found near the Palisades to the alluvial clay-loam found closer to the river, the soil types of Stags Leap are both coarse and well-drained, with little capacity to hold water. This results in low vigor grapevines that reach deep in the soil for nutrients and direct their energy to producing fruit with great concentration and flavor intensity.
The grape growing potential of Stags Leap was first recognized in the mid-1800’s. Terrill L. Grigsby, a grape grower and vintner, farmed 80 acres of grapevines in the District’s foothills, and in 1878 he built the Occidental Winery -- the region’s first – a three-story gravity-flow winery built of lava rock (today the home of Regusci Winery). In 1893, San Francisco entrepreneur Horace Chase and his socialite wife, Minnie Mizener, founded Stags’ Leap Winery; by 1895 the winery was producing 40,000 gallons of wine.
Although there are many theories as to how the Stags Leap District got its name, it is generally attributed to an old native Wappo legend that told of a stag leaping across the rocky Palisades as it eluded a group of hot-in-pursuit hunters. While the name has stood the test of time, it wasn’t clear that the region’s wine industry would do the same when the twin calamities of phylloxera and Prohibition came along, wiping out many of the wineries and causing growers to turn their vineyards into prune orchards as they tried to make a living.
In fact it wasn’t until the early 1960’s, when Nathan Fay planted his eponymous vineyard with Cabernet Sauvignon, that the modern history of this famed appellation began. Fay’s grapes were sought after by many vintners, including Joe Heitz who bottled a Fay Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon under his Heitz Cellars label – one of California’s first vineyard-designated wines. Vineyard development in the area took off again, and in 1976, when a Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon beat out several first-growth Bordeaux in the now-famous Paris Tasting, the fate and reputation of the District as one of the finest regions in the world for growing Cabernet Sauvignon was sealed.
Today, Cabernet is still king in the Stags Leap District. The appellation earned its status as an official AVA in 1989, the first time an appellation designation was based entirely on soil composition. Since then, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot have come to account for more than 80% of the varieties grown in its roughly 1300 planted acres. Small amounts of other Bordeaux varieties (Malbec, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc) as well as Petite Sirah, Sangiovese and Sauvignon Blanc can also be found there.
Small as it is, the Stags Leap District has much to offer the visitor. Approximately twenty wineries have tasting rooms here, ranging from small, family-owned boutiques to mid-size operations with worldwide reputations. Straddling the Silverado Trail, one of the main arteries of Napa Valley, Stags Leap is very accessible, yet its rural surroundings and relative feeling of seclusion make a guest feel like he or she is taking a step back in time. Meanwhile, the thoroughly charming town Yountville, with its internationally recognized restaurants, hotels and inns, is just steps away, affording the visitor the prospect of enjoying the best of both worlds.
The combination of warm days and cool evenings is just what late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon grapes need to develop the desired balance of sugar, acid and pH.