Monday, August 10, 2009

Stag's Leap District Visit - Part 1

Yesterday I had the fortune of spending a Sunday afternoon in Napa Valley while out in the Bay Area for my real job. I spent about 3 hours total and hit 5 wineries that are all in the Stag’s Leap District in the southeast of Napa Valley. If your not familiar with it, the Stag’s Leap District is an American Viticultural Area (AVA) well known for producing some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon in the world – primarily from fruit grown on or near the hillsides that frame the eastern edge of the valley. The grapes get excellent afternoon sun exposure combined with cool mornings due to the district’s proximity to the San Pablo Bay. This combination of cool nights and mornings and hot afternoons along with some great, rocky, volcanic soil and extensive sun exposure produces some very unique wines.

The Stag’s Leap District AVA gained fame even before they officially became an AVA thanks to the 1976 Judgment of Paris wine tasting that pitted California wines against much more well known French wines in a blind tasting. The top red wine in this tasting was a Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet, and a Clos du Val Cabernet also did well in the competition. Eventually some of the wineries and growers came together to lobby for recognition as a their own AVA, which is no small feat considering that Stag's Leap Wine Cellars and Stag's Leap winery had a longstanding lawsuit going over the Stag's Leap name. They eventually received the AVA designation in 1989. The wineries and growers argued – and I agree with them wholeheartedly – that the terroir in the Stag’s Leap District makes Cabernet Sauvignon grown there unique and different from other Napa Valley Cabernets. I also happen to think it makes them better than any Cabernet Sauvignon in the world.

Stag’s Leap District wines are powerful and gentle all at the same time. Warren Winiarski from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars referred to these wines as having “an iron fist in a velvet glove.” It sounds crazy, but it is a perfect description of what great wines from the Stag’s Leap District give you. The hot days give you big, beautiful fruit flavor, and the cool nights help maintain decent acidity for balance. The soils and climate somehow deliver tannins that are always present but unbelievable smooth and silky.

Well that’s enough background for now. Let’s get to my visit to the Stag’s Leap District. I hit five wineries and spent 30 to 45 minutes visiting and tasting at each one. Because of my limited time, I chose not to tour any of the wineries but simply to visit their tasting room. The wineries I visited on this trip were Clos Du Val, Chimney Rock Winery, Regusci Winery, Baldacci Family Vineyards, and Pine Ridge Vineyards. On previous visits to the area I have also been to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Steltzner Vineyards, and Cliff Lede, which are all very nice in their own right, but not the focus of this posting.

My first stop was Clos du Val which is the southernmost property I visited. Situated on beautiful grounds with very nice landscaping and a charming area for picnics, this winery has been making outstanding Stag’s Leap District Cabs since the early 1970’s. They also participated in the 1976 Judgment of Paris. In a follow up tasting of the exact same wines 10 years later, they were the winner.

At Clos du Val I tasted one Chardonnay and a few different Cabs. Their 1998 Reserve Cabernet was one of two standouts for me. It had aromas of blackberry, cassis, and blueberry with a hint of spice. The tannins were very pleasant and the wine was very well balanced. The 2005 Stag’s Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon from Clos Du Val was even better and less expensive than the Reserve. It had a nice purple-red color in the glass with gorgeous aromas of blackfruit with much of the same on the palate. The tannins were strong but not harsh. With some time this could be a very nice wine.

My visit to Chimney Rock Winery was everything you could ever want in a winery visit. As you pull into the parking lot you get stunned by the beautiful scenery of the Stag’s Leap Palisades right in front of you. The winery building itself is rather simple outside, but very warm and inviting once you step inside. The tasting room staff – especially Tom – were friendly and knowledgeable, and it was a pleasure to spend time with them. The experience was made all the more pleasant by meeting and spending some time in the tasting room with a very nice young couple visiting from Chicago who were also sampling some of the fine wines that Chimney Rock has to offer. Why is it that wineries always have so many nice people visiting and working for them? I guess it’s just an added perk to go with all the great wine.

The wines at Chimney Rock ranged from good and interesting to outstanding. Their 2003 Arete Cabernet and the 2004 Reserve Cabernet were unique in that they had tannins so soft and so smooth that I actually wanted a little more iron fist and a little less velvet glove. Two wines that stood out were the 2005 Ganymede Cabernet and the 2006 Tomahawk Cabernet, although I have to say there basic 2005 Stag’s Leap District Cabernet was also quite good. The Tomahawk may have been the best wine of all the wines I tasted during this visit. It had wonderful aromas of blackberry and cassis with a hint of black cherry and spice. This is a wine I could sit down with and just smell it for an hour before drinking any of it. The bouquet was absolutely gorgeous. On the palate the wine was very fruit forward but with incredible balance. The fruit was the star, but there was an excellent supporting cast of acid and those silky Stag’s Leap District tannins. I can’t believe how good this tasted at such a young age. It should get even better with a little time.

The next stop on my trip was Regusci Winery. Situated right next door to Chimney Rock, this stop was a last second drive-by decision, and I was happy that I made it. The staff here (especially Vickie) were warm, friendly, and informative, and I also met some very nice folks here tasting wine (from the Carolinas I think). This family owned winery has roots that go back to the 1800’s, and the property was acquired by Gaetano Regusci in 1932. He made wines at the time, but also dedicated a lot of land to other crops and livestock. Eventually his descendants put the focus entirely on grapes, and they grew them for other wineries and now for their own.

I tasted a number of different wines here with some surprising standouts for me. I thought they had a very nice 2007 Chardonnay with grapes sourced from the Carneros region in the southern end of Napa and Sonoma counties. I was also surprised by their 2006 Merlot. It had beautiful blackfruit aromas with a subtle lavender undertone, and it had the great velvety mouthfeel that you get with Merlot done right. The blend included about 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, and aside from the velvety mouthfeel, you could almost convince me I was drinking a Cab not a Merlot. Vickie was right to tell me that they have a “kick ass” Merlot. This also tells you a little bit about how fun the atmosphere is in this winery.

Regusci also had an excellent Bordeaux style blend. Their 2006 Patriarch Proprietary Blend had a great bouquet with flavors of blackberry and cherry with nice acidity and classic Stag’s Leap tannins. It was a very enjoyable wine to finish my visit to Regusci.

Well that’s part one of my visit to the Stag’s Leap District. In the next day or two I will write about Baldacci Family Vineyards and Pine Ridge Vineyards. Thanks for reading!

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