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The Man Who Made Stags Leap

Napa honors Nathan Fay, the Cabernet pioneer of the Stags Leap District.


When California wine exploded on the world scene in the mid-'70s, Cabernet Sauvignon took center stage immediately. I was a waiter at the time. Almost overnight, it seemed, the wine-drinking habits of the clientele veered from carafes of generic "burgundy" and "chablis" to cork-finished bottles of branded varietals--and I found myself in the new and novel position of wine buyer.

Some of the most impressive wines then were a handful of single-vineyard bottlings from around the state, including Ridge "Montebello," Rodney Strong "Alexander's Crown" and several from the upper Napa Valley. They were exciting because they hinted that California had a diversity of well-defined terroirs comparable to the more evolved Old World wine regions such as Bordeaux and Burgundy.

One bottling that I purchased as often as possible (admittedly more for myself than for the restaurant) was Heitz "Fay Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon. I loved the wine's elegant richness and soft, almost chewy tannins, but there was more to it than that.

The Stags Leap area of southeastern Napa, where the vineyard was situated, seemed to be emerging as a new viticultural entity in a valley that had long been dominated by Rutherford and Oakville. Its distinctive character was as clear on the palate as that of a Bordeaux commune such as St. Julien or Paulliac.

Heitz Cellar produced only five vintages (1975-79) from grower Nathan Fay's vines, but the timing was perfect. In retrospect, that sequence of vintages can be seen as a kind of birth announcement for the Stags Leap District, which in 1989 became the first subordinate American Viticultural Area lying wholly within the Napa Valley AVA.

To call Nathan Fay a grape grower is accurate but hardly adequate. He is one of those rare individuals who inspire the people around them to pursue lofty goals while teaching by example.

Fay, now 85, moved to the Napa Valley from his native Visalia in 1951. Two years later he bought 205 acres in a sheltered declivity beneath the towering Stags Leap palisade. In 1961 he planted Cabernet Sauvignon vines, the first significant planting of Cabernet in the valley south of Oakville. In 1967 Fay and his good friend Father Tom Turnbull (another legendary Napa Valley figure) planted 30 more acres together.

The first vines were planted on deep alluvial soil, but Fay soon began extending the vineyard onto leaner volcanic ground. An accomplished home winemaker, he gauged the vineyard's evolution vintage by vintage through his own wines--effectively using the Cabernet vine to chart the Stags Leap geology in terms of subtle differences in fragrance, body, structure and tannin.

Meanwhile, for three decades he sold most of the fruit to vintners, including Peter and Robert Mondavi (Charles Krug), Joseph Heitz, George Vierra (Vichon) and Frances Mahoney (Carneros Creek). Some of the young winemakers who learned from Fay and cut their winemaking teeth on his grapes include Dick Ward and David Graves (Saintsbury), John Kongsgaard (Newton, Livingston, Luna), Charles Meyers (Harbor Winery), Doug Fletcher (Chimney Rock) and Jack Stuart (Silverado). The valley's renowned vine-budding specialist, Jose Navarro, says he learned his basic budding technique from Nathan Fay.

Last week scores of Fay's friends and admirers gathered at the historic Stags Leap Estate (owned by Beringer Vineyards) to pay tribute to an extraordinarily effective life. They raided their cellars to assemble a remarkable tasting of Fay Vineyard wines, many homemade, going back to 1968. And during a leisurely spring luncheon on the lawn beside the majestic stone manor (built in 1891), they rose one by one to praise the gentle white-haired guest of honor, who for nearly half a century has been a pillar of the Napa Valley wine community.

A high point of the afternoon was the presentation of the Nathan Fay Graduate Fellowship Fund for graduate studies in viticulture research. The $10,000 endowment check from the Stags Leap District Winegrowers was accepted by James A. Wolpert, head of the UC Davis Viticulture and Enology Department. Wolpert also introduced the first Nathan Fay Fellow, graduate student Solomon Dobrowski, whose work in aerial imaging is expected to help improve vineyard management.

The keynote speaker was Winiarski, who founded Stag's Leap Wine Cellars in 1972 and purchased most of Fay's vineyard when the grower retired in 1986 (vintner Joseph Phelps bought a portion, as well).

Winiarski became prominent after the famous Paris Tasting of 1976, when a panel of French judges, tasting blind, declared several California wines to be superior to their French counterparts. Chief among the winners was the '73 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon; Winiarski's young vineyard was next door to Fay's and propagated from Fay's best vines.

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