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Cabernet Heaven

A Stags Leap wine is like falling into a pot of blackberry jam.

July 08, 1998|KAREN MACNEIL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Wines from Napa Valley's Stags Leap District always remind me of people from Brooklyn. (Being a New Yorker, I say this affectionately.) Brooklynites don't go through the world unnoticed. And though it seems prosaic to say so, Brooklynites could be from only one place on the planet--Brooklyn.

And so it is with the wines of the Stags Leap District. It's not that the wines have the personality of a Brooklynite. These are wines with the irresistible softness of flannel pajamas, wines that, like great chocolate (which they also taste like), can hold you in their power quietly. It's that Stags Leap wines could not be from just anywhere. They are California's epitome of wines of a place.

Wait a minute, you might be saying. Aren't all wines from a place?

Physically, yes; spiritually, no. Most of the world's wines are no more reflective of or connected to a place than a Hyatt in Madrid. One of the things that makes a great wine great is that it tells the story of a specific place.

There's something else to consider too: At least as far as wine is concerned, not all places are created equal. The Earth has its own erogenous zones, pockets of land that year in and year out (sometimes over centuries) have proved themselves especially capable of producing sensational wine. In these spots, wine can become, like a painting or a song, a moving expression of the intangible.

Says Jack Stuart, winemaker and general manager of Silverado Vineyards, "Stags Leap is one of the few appellations where there really was a 'there there' even before a single winery was built."

So what is it about the Stags Leap District?

Driving north through the Napa Valley along the Silverado Trail, you could easily whiz by the district, for Stags Leap, tucked quietly into the rocky southeastern corner of the Napa Valley, is fairly small. It's just a mile wide and three miles long.

Two things, though, will tip you off that you've arrived. First, you'll see signposts for Shafer, Stags' Leap Winery, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars (two different wineries), Silverado, Pine Ridge, Steltzner, Robert Sinskey, Chimney Rock, Hartwell and others. These are names that could make any California wine lover weak in the knees.

Second, you'll find looming above you the rugged, rattlesnake-infested outcroppings that give the Stags Leap District its name. Legend has it that a mighty stag once roamed these ancient volcanic palisades, eluding hunters for years. Finally, the hunters cornered him--or thought they had--because the powerful stag leaped to safety. (Shouldn't all great wines come with happy endings?)

If the land itself looks callous and unforgiving, the wines are the exact opposite: lush, opulent and cashmere-soft. All wines, of course, have some sort of texture, but texture like this can be startling. And it isn't just happenstance. For great wines, especially those made without a lot of post-harvest manipulation, texture is as much a result of terroir as of flavor. In other words, wines not only can "taste of a place," they can also "feel of a place."

Warren Winiarski, the proprietor of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, was one of the first to put his finger on the sheer physicality of Stags Leap wines when he described them as "an iron fist in a velvet glove."

Winiarski was talking about Cabernet Sauvignon, the leading grape of the Stags Leap District, and the grape that, more than any other, possesses the seemingly contradictory ability to be both powerful and tender at the same time.

It's worth remembering too that it was a Cabernet from the Stags Leap District--the 1974 Cab from Stag's Leap Wine Cellars--that brought world attention to California by besting the top growths of Bordeaux in the now famous Paris Tasting of 1976.

But the wine history of Stags Leap goes back much further. The first winery to use the name Stags Leap was founded in 1890 by a San Francisco entrepreneur named Horace Chase, who built a stately stone manor so that guests visiting the winery from San Francisco would have a place to dine and sleep after their long trip via ferry and stagecoach.

In the wake of Chase's success with Stags Leap Winery, other small wineries sprang up. But within a decade, the deadly vine louse phylloxera decimated the vines. During Prohibition, the vineyards were turned to orchards, and the Stags Leap area grew famous for prunes. Chase's property went into decline and was abandoned in the '50s.

*

Then in 1961 a quiet renaissance began. A would-be grape grower and home winemaker named Nathan Fry planted the region's first Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Fay, now 84, recalls, "At that time there were only 800 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in the whole country. I figured demand for Cabernet could only go up."

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