Home is where the Stags Leap

By Celia Strong

This week, as always, there will be some wine repeats, but some new wines, too. We’re going to Napa Valley, California, a particularly special part of the valley for, what I think, a particularly nice wine.

Napa Valley is probably the best known of all the California AVAs. Within the main, large Napa Valley AVA, there are more than fifteen sub-regions, all AVAs as well, mostly well known and many homes to great wines. And, further, great in most cases means pricey too. Wine production, commercial wine production to be precise, in Napa dates back to the nineteenth century. But the production premium wines that we now know Napa for only started in the 1960’s. Compared to all the wines we drink from European countries, there’s not much history here. But, some of Napa’s brief history is interesting. Quickly, the valley’s first commercial vineyard was established in 1858 by John Patchett.  He sold a gallon of his wine for two dollars. Hmmm? The original “two buck?” Right after that, in 1861, Charles Krug established another commercial winery in St. Helena.  We can still get wines from the Charles Krug Winery. By the end of the nineteenth century, there were more than one hundred forty wineries in Napa County. Besides Charles Krug, there are several others still producing from these early days — Beaulieu, Beringer, Chateau Montelena, Far Niente, Mayacamus, Markham, and Schramsberg. Wine production in Napa, like most other sources in the United States, suffered setbacks in the late 19th century and early 20th — phylloxera outbreaks in the vineyards, Prohibition and the Great Depression. The really big comeback for Napa resulted from the win, at the 1976 Judgement of Paris Wine Tasting, by two Napa wines.

In 1938, Beaulieu hired André Tchelistcheff and he is credited with introducing modern winemaking into Napa. Aging wine in French oak barrels, cold fermentation, vineyard frost prevention and malo-lactic fermentation are all taken for granted now, but are less than  100 years old in Napa. On a secondary front, from the world of advertising and self-promotion, Beringer Vineyards, in 1939, invited Hollywood stars like Clark Gable, Charles Laughton and Carole Lombard to visit, taste their wines, buy a T-shirt, etc.  “All roads lead to Beringer!” was their slogan.  This  is considered the beginning of wine-based tourism. (Just kidding about the T-shirt, but you get the idea. I think the whole California wine industry could only exist in California, geography aside.)

Today, Napa Valley has more than 450 wineries. And more than 4 million people visit the valley every year. And movie stars? They still probably visit, and now they even own vineyards.

Back to the big Paris tasting in 1976 for one quick second. A Napa Valley Chardonnay and a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon both took prizes. The 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay was first in its category. (The movie “Bottle Shock” is a good version of this fun story.) And the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon was the winning red wine. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars makes our wine for this week.

In 1970, Warren Winiarski established his winery in the Stag’s Leap District of Napa. (Please, not even 10 years old when its Cabernet won?) Winiarski bought 44 acres for less than $200,000 dollars in this district where stags were actually seen leaping on the hillsides. The land was planted with prune trees, cherry trees and walnut trees, but, after tasting wines from nearby land, Winiarski replanted his acreage with Cabernet and Merlot vines. He named it Stag’s Leap Vineyard and produced his first vintage in 1972. (Yes, that means his winning 1973 wine was only his second.) After the Paris win, accolades and money to expand both came to Winiarski. More land, more varieties, more everything. In 2007, a joint venture between Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington state and Antinori Srl from Tuscany, Italy,  bought Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. How much? $185 million dollars. That’ll buy a few T-shirts. A few movie stars too, if Winiarski wanted.

Our Stag’s Leap wine this week is its Sauvignon Blanc. The Stag’s Leap Sauvignon Blanc has a Napa Valley appellation, which means at least 75 percent of the grapes come from the valley AVA.  California produces more Sauvignon Blanc wines than any other state. In some instances, Sauvignon Blanc wines have also been called “Fumé Blanc.” Robert Mondavi made the first Fumé Blanc wine in 1968. Also a Napa producer, Mondavi was offered some particularly good Sauvignon Blanc grapes that year. At the time, California versions of this wine had a poor reputation because of their grassy flavors and aggressive aromas, especially cat pee. Yum! Mondavi decided to try and tame that aggressiveness by barrel aging the wine. He then released the wine but called it Fumé Blanc — a break from the variety name and a link to the French wine, Pouilly Fumé, that is also made from Sauvignon Blanc and often lightly oaked. Now, California producers can use either name for their Sauvignon Blanc wines, both oaked and unoaked. The wines tend to fall into two styles —the New Zealand style with tropical fruit notes mixed with citrus or the Mondavi Fumé Blanc style with rounder, softer textures and melon notes. The style, either one, is partly where the grapes are grown in California and partly what the winemaker does with them.

The 2009 Stag’s Leap Sauvignon Blanc is almost bits of both these styles. Almost, but closer to one than the other. (You decide which.) It is a vibrant wine, with lots of lovely tropical notes in its aromas — orange blossoms, grapefruit, lychee nuts, peaches. The flavors become juicy in your mouth, fruit-forward, and have an overcoat of lively acidity. Guava, honeyed tangerine, juicy pears, limes, a hint of minerality, citrus notes, sandalwood spice are some of the flavors. And wouldn’t a candle with all that be just perfect!  This wine’s finish lingers in our mouth. Thank goodness — we can enjoy it a couple of minutes longer.  I have to warn you, though, all these aromas and flavors and textures are not in the first sniff or first sip. You might get hints but it’s only as you work your way through several glasses, or the whole bottle, that it has a chance to open up and develop for you. More like a European wine?  Probably. More fun and enjoyable?  I think so. A good excuse to have another glass?  Your choice.

When it’s paired with mild Thai dishes, medium spicy curries, pasta with shellfish and a white wine cream sauce, sea bass with chanterelles, and lots more food varieties, it becomes very easy to study this wine, too see all its nuances and layers and complexities. For $19.99. Enjoy.

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