Saturday, July 19, 2008

California Wine Tour Day 5 - Stags Leap District

Today we started the last day of our trip and our only full day in Napa on the Silverado Trail. This road runs parallel to Highway 29, is less crowded, and most importantly is home to many excellent wineries. One of these is Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, where we intentionally started the day. If you have been keeping track of our tour, you will not be surprised to learn that this winery is included in the Paul Lukacs book "The Great Wines of America: The Top Forty Vintners, Vineyards, and Vintages". The wine that led to the inclusion in the book: The Stag's Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon, which won top red wine at the 1976 Paris tasting. What made it more remarkable is that this wine was the very first vintage from Stag's Leap Wine Cellars and the vines that produced the fruit were only three years old. How’d that happen?

According to the winery, “In 1969, Warren Winiarski tasted homemade Cabernet Sauvignon from Nathan Fay's vineyard on the eastern side of the Napa Valley and knew he'd found a place capable of producing wines as classic and expressive as France's greatest vintages. In 1970, Warren and his family established their S.L.V. vineyard on land next to Fay's and began their winery, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, in early 1972.” A few years later, the Paris tasting – and then international recognition for producing “elegant Cabernets”. In the mid 1980’s they were able to purchase the famed FAY vineyard so that now they produce reserve wines; one from this vineyard, the second from the famed S.L.V. vineyard, and CASK 23 – a proprietary blend produced from the two vineyards and only during exceptional years.

By the time we arrived at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, the tasting room was already crowded – at 11:00 am. We started with the regular tasting of the Napa Valley Collection which consisted of the Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, KARIA Chardonnay, Napa Valley Merlot, and the ARTEMIS Cabernet Sauvignon. The Sauvignon Blanc was one of the best we tasted – more like the true Bordeaux blend with the addition of the aromas from the Semillon. It is a refreshing wine, nice acidity – with a slight grapefruit flavor. A good start to the day. The KARIA Chardonnay has the chardonnay flavor expected from the variety, with a slightly creamy finish. The wine was aged 9 months in used French oak – so that finish is soft – not buttery. Fortunately this wine is widely available on the East Coast. The Napa Valley Merlot is a medium-bodied wine that is extremely smooth for a wine that has been aged a year and a half in French oak. The nose is all vanilla, with strawberry flavors and a slightly pleasant spicy finish – not a peppery finish. Finally, the ARTEMIS Cabernet Sauvignon is the full-bodied red – aged 16 months in French oak – that is both fruit forward (black cherry) – yet spicy and buttery at the finish. That must be how they describe a wine as complex.

We next moved to the Estate tasting where we were able to sample the famed S.L.V., FAY, and CASK 23 cabernets. All the wines are aged two years in French oak, with the S.L.V. and CASK 23 consisting of a tiny portion of Petite Verdot. Initially the FAY cab resembled the Napa Valley cab with a fruity dark cherry flavor – but this wine was even more complex with a smoother and slightly spicier finish. Even the hint of pepper blended into the entire experience. The S.L.V. was our favorite, completely smooth, full of aromas and flavors and with an acidity that seem to blend the wine in the palette. If only this wine met our budget. The CASK 23 is a blend of the first two wines, yet doesn’t really taste like either. It is spicier than the two with more of a chocolate flavor – mixed with cherry and vanilla. This is not a dessert and at $175, it may be the last taste we will have. We savored these wines; the thought of spitting and dumping never crossed our minds. Afterwards we felt extremely fortunate to have tasted these historic wines – thank you Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. Oh yea, if you visit, ask to view the vineyard map that displays how the vineyard is planted. They should sell it as a post

While driving to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars we passed an Alamo-ish villa painted exclusively white so after that tasting we backed tracked to visit Chimney Rock Winery. The winery was founded by the Anthony Terlato in 1980 with the goal of producing artisan wines of "first-growth structure, style and taste". Since the geography of the Stags Leap District encourages slow ripening fruit and richer flavors, their vineyard selection was a good start. The winery also created the "Fletcher Lyre" trellising system which creates smaller, richer grapes. The result is wines that have scored consistent 90+ ratings from major publications. But are the wines tasteful for the average consumer?

The Chimney Rock estate is a beautiful place to visit, from driving through the gate - to the tasting facility – and finally the lazy waterfall in the courtyard. Without tasting the wines, we enjoyed sitting on the patio as our son played with his toys on the waterfall. The patio was also crowded as other families and couples stayed after sampling the wine. As for wines, we started with the Elevage Blanc a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris. There was nothing wrong with this wine, except it just happened to follow Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar’s version on the itinerary. And we preferred the later. On the other hand, the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon and Elevage (Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, & Petite Verdot) were very comparable to those produced at Stag’s Leap. The Cabernet Sauvignon had a blackberry flavor with a smooth vanilla finish, whereas the Elevage had more chocolate flavors – yet just as smooth. Back East, one of the best viniferia wines is Cabernet Franc so we were excited to be able to experience a West coast version at any opportunity. Unfortunately, that opportunity was rare, so thankfully Chimney Rock had two offerings, the 2005 Cabernet Franc and the Rosé of Cabernet Franc. The winery usually doesn’t produce a single varietal Cabernet Franc, but the yield from the 2005 harvest was so ideal, there was enough juice for just such a product. Like the Elevage, this wine had a hint of chocolate that complemented the black cherry flavor. Very nice. The Rosé of Cabernet Franc was the first of a few rosé styled wines we tasted for the day and this one was quite different. Usually rosé wines have a strawberry flavors but this one was more of dark fruit – plum and cherry – and more aromatic. The acidity makes this a refreshing dry wine as well. If we didn’t have to move on, this would have been the wine to drink on the patio.

See the Compass Tours section at for pictures.

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