You'd think just owning Napa Valley land would make you a superstar. After all, Napa is the paradise of the grape--just plant a couple of vines here and you can make great wine.
Yet a number of wineries have lived quietly in this world of grapey glamour, making fine wine without getting much national recognition. There can be a number of reasons for this, but wine quality isn't necessarily among them. Take the cases of Stonegate and Lakespring, located at opposite ends of the Napa Valley.
"We've never had a lot of press," says Jim Spaulding, founder of Stonegate. "Part of it is, when we broke into this business in 1973, we were a new winery before it was fashionable to be new. When we started there were two dozen wineries in the Napa Valley. Now there are 200.
"Later, when it was fashionable to be new, we no longer had the benefit of being a new winery, so we had no story to tell."
"I don't know what makes a winery's image," says Frank Battat, one of the owners of Lakespring. "Is it a beautiful building, a Taj Mahal? Well, we couldn't afford that."
Both wineries make good wine, emphasizing fruit; they aim for no exotic flavors. Both make wines from the traditional grape varieties. Both have rather plain labels that do not suggest that nirvana awaits under the cork.
But perhaps the real reason why these two wineries lack an image is the way they started: with styles of wine that varied for the first few vintages.
Mainly because Spaulding's own vineyards weren't bearing fruit yet, his first wines were made from grapes purchased from growers all over the north coast--Sonoma County as well as Napa. His marvelous 1977 and 1978 Cabernet Sauvignons were from David Steiner's vineyard on Sonoma Mountain. He also made excellent Cabernets from two Alexander Valley vineyards, Vail Vista and Hafner. They were good wines, but because the source of grapes changed from year to year, so did their style.
Wine-making techniques changed too, because Stonegate used a series of consultants, each with a different idea. That ended a few years ago when Jim's son, David, took over as head wine maker to stabilize the style. Between one thing and another, though, in the early years the consumer could never get a fix on what Stonegate was doing.
Lakespring has had one constant from the beginning: Randy Mason, an excellent wine maker who understood wine-making style. Mason showed his talent early. He made an excellent 1981 Cabernet that brought Lakespring attention, but only in the last few years have his wines commanded general notice, notably his rich, concentrated Merlots.
Like Stonegate, Lakespring in the early years selected grapes from various regions. Battat says that without any vineyards at the start, Lakespring had to buy grapes from various growers and Mason needed time to see what each grower's fruit offered.
Stonegate's recent wines all show more style than in the past, with the best wines a 1985 Cabernet Sauvignon ($14) and a 1988 Chardonnay from the sloped Spaulding Ranch (to be released in two months at $15).
The '85 Cabernet is ripe-flavored and rich with herbal nuances. It clearly needs a few years to grow. The Chardonnay is spicy and floral with an apple or juniper quality and a long, crisp finish. (Spaulding Chardonnays age nicely, and this one should improve with a few years in the bottle.)
Stonegate also will release two other attractive Chardonnays, the 1988 Napa Valley ($15), with tropical fruit (pineapple, grapefruit), and a Reserve ($17), broader and richer than the other two Chardonnays.
Lakespring's top wines are an attractive 1986 Cabernet ($14) with ripe, cherrylike fruit and complexity to carry it into the future, and a stylish 1988 Sauvignon Blanc ($8.50) with a delicate lemon grass note over melon and spice.
Mason's 1988 Chardonnay ($13) also is a good value, with a nicely textured mild creamy aroma. Soon to be released are a wonderful 1988 Merlot (the excellent 1987 was $14) and a 1987 Cabernet that is deep, dark and concentrated, with tremendous black cherry notes and not as much tannin as many others in the valley.
What's nice, for wine lovers who are not label snobs, is that at wineries such as Lakespring and Stonegate, older vintages are available at the tasting room at reasonable prices. By coincidence, both wineries' 1981 Cabernets were stunning successes, and both wineries are offering their 1981s at their tasting rooms. Lakespring charges $18 for its 1981, a real bargain; Stonegate's 1981 is $22.
In addition, Stonegate is offering its 1979 at $26, its 1980 at $24, its 1982 at $20 and its 1984 at $16. Sometimes a lack of image has its pluses for the savvy collector.
Wine of the Week
Vivace Chardonnay ($6). I don't quite know what to make of this wine, so I suggest you try it and see for yourself. First of all, it's from Italy and has no vintage date. This alone should make you skittish. But the wine is refreshing, and what makes it different is the fact that it's frizzante --meaning it's got bubbles, at a level just below that of sparkling wine. (Because of this it's bottled with an extra-hard cork that's difficult to remove with a two-pronged cork puller; use a sturdy helix.) The aroma has traces of banana, grapefruit and apple, and the overall effect is pleasant, especially for hot days and cool lunches. Alcohol is just 10.5%. However, the bubbles dissipate quickly, so any wine left over till the next day will be different. Overall, I liked this new effort.