By Celia Strong
And off we go to Napa. Let’s face it–any time any of us get to go to Napa is a good time. It’s beautiful, it’s fun (even if you’re working), it’s full of good restaurants and, of course, some great wines. Somehow, $50 in Napa for a bottle of wine doesn’t seem like as much as $50 here for a bottle. Must be something in the air out there. Or maybe they pump something into the airplane air vents so that when you land you’re ready. Whatever it is, we’re all ready for our next trip.
Napa is a small city located at the southern end of Napa County. The word “napa” is from a Native American language that has been translated as “grizzly bear” (possibly why a bear is the California state animal), but it’s also translated as “house” and “motherland.” In prehistoric times, the valley was inhabited by Patwin and maybe Wappo Native American tribes. These tribes lived mostly on the floodplains and for food gathered acorns, nuts, earthworms, grasshoppers and California buckeye kernels that they ground to make bread. The maximum prehistoric population probably didn’t exceed 5,000. (That’s really a lot of nuts and worms when you think about it.) In 1776, when the east coast was fighting our Revolutionary War, the Spanish, coming up from Mexico, built a small fort just northwest of Napa. In the early nineteenth century, Russian settlers from Sonoma County let their cattle and sheep graze in Napa Valley. In 1841, a plaque was placed on the summit of Mount Saint Helena. The first Europeans to explore Napa came in 1823, and the first white settlers arrived in the early 1830’s. They found six different tribes, with six different dialects, living in the valley. Unfortunately, the settlers brought outside diseases with them and most of the natives died from a smallpox epidemic in 1838. More settlers came, including George Calvert Yount, who is thought to be the first Anglo-Saxon settler in Napa and, when he died in 1865 (Civil War time in the East and South) the town of Yountville was named after him. In 1859, the first commercial winery in the county was opened. The descendants of many of the first vineyard workers and owners stayed active in the business and today many of their names are still part of the wines and wineries we’re familiar with. When you visit Napa County, it’s some of this history at each winery that makes them so special.
One of the best known AVAs in Napa County is the Stags Leap District, 2,700 acres located about six miles north of the city of Napa. This was the first appellation to receive AVA status, in 1989, because of its unique soil characteristics–loam and clay sediments from the Napa River and volcanic soil deposits left over from the erosion of the Vaca Mountains. Like many Napa AVAs, Stags Leap is known for its Cabernets. In 1976, at the Judgement of Paris wine tasting, a 1973 Cab from this AVA won first place in the red wine category. Grapes were planted in the district as early as the 1870’s and the first winery there was founded in 1878. The first Cabernet grapes were planted in 1961, interestingly on the land that would become the winery that won the Paris competition. The name for Stags Leap comes from an old legend about a hunting party that lost a great stag because it leaped from peak to peak on the hills in this part of Napa. Stags Leap Cabernet wines are unique because they are sturdy yet delicate, strong but with finesse, powerful and still elegant and graceful. Blah blah. They are also not cheap.
But, now, guess what! All this great history and our winery for this week located in Napa was established just 10 years ago. Yikes! But, for 10 years they have made great wines. Cliff Lede (pronounced LAY-dee) was born in Edmonton, Canada and grew up making “basement” wine with his mother. In his late 20’s he began hanging around a local wine shop. One of his early tastes was Ducru-Beaucaillou, a Bordeaux that he fell in love with and that started him collecting Bordeaux wines in 1982. After many trips to France, and one to Napa in 1997, Lede decided he had to have a piece of winemaking for himself. Being a runner and realizing he could run in shorts in February in Napa, the decision was made and he started looking for his opportunity. His search ended with a 60 acre property in the Stags Leap District in Napa. Established in 2002, the winery for Cliff Lede Vineyards was completed in 2005, all state-of-the-art with gravity flow for the juice crushed from the grapes, a berry-by-berry sorting system and conical tanks inspired by Chateau Latour in Bordeaux. By using one tank for each vineyard block, each lot of grapes is sure to become everything it can and should be, each at its own speed. The wines are barrel aged in single layer of barrels so that each barrel can be reached as needed. Part of his 60 acres includes a valley floor vineyard called Twin Peaks Ranch. The soil of the ranch is varied and used with different clones, root stock varieties and is the base of their Cabernet Sauvignon program. The rest of the property is hillsides–steep, facing southwest, high exposure vineyards that reach from the highest part of Stags Leap AVA to the valley floor. And, yes Cliff Lede is known for its Cabernet wines.
But, we’re in a heat wave this summer and we’re going to look at Cliff Lede’s Sauvignon Blanc. This grape is part of the same family as Cabernet, so of course it does well in the same growing conditions. The 2010 Sauvignon Blanc started with a really wet winter that kept the soil moist into spring. The vines responded with lots of leaves but a moderate quantity of berries. Cool temperatures from spring through to harvest made it one of coolest years in Napa wine history. This coolness slowed the berries’ development, delayed harvest by two or three weeks and yielded low sugar levels in many of the grapes. A portion of the Sauvignon Blanc used to make this wine comes from a vineyard in the southeastern hills of Napa that has silty impoverished soils, and its grapes have austerity and brightness that grapes from richer soils can’t. The fruit for this wine was all harvested by hand and arrived at the winery at dawn. Meticulous hand sorting lead some of the grapes to whole cluster, gentle pressing and some to sixteen hour skin contact before they were pressed. The wine was aged on its lees with no secondary, malolacitc, fermentation. All of this extra work makes the Cliff Lede an amazing Sauvignon Blanc. It has apple and Meyer lemon aromas with floral notes including peach blossoms. Then tropical notes come like pineapple and lychee nuts all with a mineral support. The wine is rich and long and luscious so all the extra steps and work pay off. And at about $25 a bottle it’s really a pretty good deal. But, you guessed it! We have a better deal for you. A special $19.99 price. I’ve already enjoyed my first couple of bottles, and I have another chilled and ready. Now it’s your turn. Visit Napa from your own house. Enjoy.
By Celia Strong