Visitors to Paradise (aka Napa Valley) expect to immerse themselves in the beauty of nature, the decadence of fine cuisine, and the poetry of the region’s wines. Left behind are the pressures and rules of “real life,” right? Surely something as mundane and constricting as grammar doesn’t matter in this world-famous wine region. Well, this is what we thought until this past weekend when we were arranging to meet an old friend at a winery in the highly regarded Stags Leap District. The night before our visit we decided it would be nice to send her a note with the name and location of the winery. Each of us, though, came up with a different address – they were a couple of miles apart. “You looked up Stags Leap, right,” she asked. “Yes, he replied.” We shared our phones with each other and one of us said: “Your winery is s-apostrophe,” while the other said “Your winery is apostrophe-s.” Huh? There are two wineries in the Stags (no apostrophe) Leap District that have “Stags Leap” in their name. One of them is Stag’s Leap, the other is Stags’ Leap. Seriously. This really happened.
It turns out that the place we were going was apostrophe-s (Stag’s Leap), and once we cleared up this confusion we sent confirming details to our friend. What difference does it make which side of the “s” the apostrophe sits? A lot! Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is one of the wineries that put Napa Valley on the map as a legitimate global region. We have written before about the 1976 Judgement of Paris, a tasting where Napa red and white wines competed against some of the most famous and expensive French wines. (For a refresher on the man who made the Chardonnay that bested the French, read this post: A Pair of Aces for Father’s Day.) On that particular day in Paris in 1976, Stag’s Leap 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon was judged the best, beating out not only five other California entrants but also scoring higher than the royalty of Bordeaux: Haut-Brion, Mouton-Rothschild, Montrose, and Leoville Las Cases. This is not to say that the s-apostrophe winery (Stags’ Leap) is bad, as they do make quality wines; but we wanted to take our friend and her discriminating palate to one of Napa’s historical spots.
Thankfully, Stag’s Leap did not disappoint on any measure – location and ambience, service, or the wine. We were fortunate to be seated outside on the patio just a few feet away from the vineyards. The winery is nestled in what is often called a “valley within a valley.”
The Stag’s Leap property is surrounded immediately by vineyards and farther out by mountains and the Napa River. From our table we overlooked Stag’s Leap’s two estate vineyards – Fay Vineyard and SLD Vineyard.
After settling in we took a look at the tasting menu and opted for the Estate Collection Tasting Flight. This tasting is comprised 100% of wines made from grapes grown on Stag’s Leap property and offered both white and red options.
As most tastings do, our Stag’s Leap adventure started with a white wine: the 2014 Arcadia Chardonnay. This wine is sourced from the Arcadia Vineyard, a large property on Napa Valley’s Mount George. This wine was not a “California chardonnay”: creamy, almost buttery texture with hints of oak and low acidity; instead, what we tasted was a wine resembling a more traditional French approach: higher acidity and more balance. We were surprised to find out that the Stag’s Leap Chardonnay had been aged in French oak and had also undergone malolactic (secondary) fermentation, which often result in the more buttery wine. However, the use of only 20% new oak likely accounts for the balanced outcome.
Moving on to the reds, we did not have to make any tough choices – there were three Cabernet Sauvignon offerings to try. We started with the 2011 Fay Cabernet Sauvignon and proceeded to try the 2011 S.L.D. Cab and then the 2010 Cask 23 Cabernet. All three wines were excellent representations of Cab from the Stags Leap District but also different as a result of their different soil types and winemaking approaches. In our group of five there were different opinions as to which of the Cabernet offerings was the best but we all agreed that all three are among the best we have tasted in Napa Valley. None of the three would be considered a classic Napa Valley “fruit bomb” Cabernet, even though they each had strong presence of dark fruits in the aroma and on the palate. However, due to the unique soil of the Stags Leap District, each of the red wines had elements of earthiness and minerality that provided structure and depth to the wines. One of the Cabs – the S.L.D. – was the wine that won in Paris in 1976 and it was easy to see why. The 2010 Cask 23 Cab – a blend of the best Cab grapes from each of the vineyards – was by far the most sophisticated, intense and powerful of the Cabs, at least to our taste. We went to another winery later that day and we should have reversed the order and started at the other winery, which also produced a Cabernet Sauvignon. This other winery’s Cab offering was solid, perfectly drinkable, but, alas, not at the level of the Stag’s Leap Cabs (any of them).
We thoroughly enjoyed our time at Stag’s Leap and cannot review our experience without mentioning the great service. Our host was attentive, knowledgeable and, in the end, very generous. When he overheard us talking about where we live in Napa, he realized we were neighbors and comped one of our tastings even though it was a weekend. Normally Napa Valley residents can get a complimentary tasting but only during the week; we appreciated the courtesy and have already planned a return visit.
John & Irene Ingersoll
April 27, 2017