Everyone seems to agree that the Stags Leap District of Napa Valley is unique because of its topography, climate and soil. The question remains whether that uniqueness translates into distinctive wines that reflect the site.
To test the theory, I spent two days in the Stags Leap District comparing the same vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon made from grapes grown in the Stags Leap District to those made from grapes grown in other California locales. To minimize the influence of individual winemaking style, I compared the same producers’ Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon to one of their Napa Valley Cabernets (which means that 85% of the grapes came from anywhere within Napa, including some from Stags Leap District). In addition, I spent several hours in the AVA Room at Conn Creek Winery where I tasted wines made with exactly the same winemaking techniques from grapes grown in the different Napa AVAs (American Viticultural Area).
How Much Merlot Is In the Blend?
It was a “no-brainer” to John Shafer when, in the early 1980s, he started his efforts to gain AVA recognition for Stags Leap District because he felt that the wines were unique. He recounted his experience showing his first wine, a 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon, made under primitive conditions and entirely from Cabernet, to the trade. Although Shafer’s grapes for that wine came from his Stags Leap District hillside vineyards, they took a round-about journey before they became wine.
Shafer crushed them at the Markham winery, fermented them at Round Hill Winery, and then brought the wine back to Shafer in barrel. But since this was 1978, before barrels made of high quality French oak were readily available, one-third of the barrels Shafer used were old American oak barrels that had previously been used for aging bourbon. It was cold that winter at Shafer’s winery, and he needed to wrap the barrels with electric blankets and keep them under a tarp to warm them to allow for malolactic transformation to occur. When he debuted the wine to an audience of buyers and other winemakers, at least of quarter of them wanted to know how much Merlot was in the blend because the wine was so lush and silky. They couldn’t believe it was made entirely from Cabernet Sauvignon.
Smooth and Graceful
Shafer believes the textural element is the hallmark of the wines from the Stags Leap District. To him, the wines have an “absolutely smooth and graceful finish without a ‘hiccup’ of sharpness.” He contrasts them with Cabernets from Oakville and Rutherford, which he thinks take time to soften. To him, the wines from Stags Leap District are quite approachable when young. As those buyers noted about his initial wine, the wines have a Merlot-like lushness even when just bottled. Tom Jinks, who, with his family owns Robinson Family Vineyards in the heart of Stags Leap District, describes the wines as having “plushness,” while Allison Steltzner, of Steltzner Vineyards, say they have a “velvety texture.”
Geography or Winemaking?
My prejudice based on drinking and tasting Stags Leap District wines over the years was that they indeed have a glossy texture, but that’s a characteristic I associate with winemaking as opposed to geography. After all, the wines from diverse appellations–Château Margaux, Château Lafite Rothschild and Château Cheval Blanc–are all glossy and finely textured. Those properties have virtually unlimited resources and can afford to exclude any wine with even a hint of rough tannins from their first label by diverting it into their second labels, Pavillon Rouge, Carruades de Lafite and Petit Cheval, respectively. Comparing wines from Stags Leap District with those made from grapes grown outside of Stags Leap District but made by the same winemaking team should highlight the effect of place rather than winemaking style.
Despite sampling wines from the same vintage and from the same producer, the comparison between Stags Leap District and Napa Valley Cabernets was potentially flawed because the wines didn’t necessarily undergo the same oak aging or have the same varietal composition. Even though both were labeled Cabernet, US regulations allow for up to 25% of other grapes, such as Merlot or Cabernet Franc, in the blend.
To circumvent this potential problem, I spent hours tasting in the AVA Room at Conn Creek Winery, located in Napa Valley, but outside of Stags Leap District. Through extraordinary effort and dedication, Conn Creek has sourced Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from almost all of Napa’s 14 AVAs and made wine from them using precisely the same winemaking techniques, including oak treatment. Previously open only to the trade, the AVA room is now for the first time consumers can taste the differences between wines made from Carneros grown fruit versus Howell Mountain fruit and of course, Stags Leap District fruit.
My comparison tastings showed that Cabernet from Stags Leap District share common qualities in spite of the potential for differences due to oak aging and varietal blends. The differences between Stags Leap Cabernet and Cabernet from other AVAs was striking at the Conn Creek AVA room. At each tasting, the Stags Leap District Cabernet had a texture that was glossier or more velvety, to use Steltzner’s word, compared to its Napa Valley counterpart. My prejudice that the glossy texture was a product of winemaking was clearly wrong. Whether the producer favored a more delicate style (Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars), a more intense one (Shafer) or a super extracted heavily oaked one (Cliff Lede Vineyards), the gorgeous textural element showed through. In Stags Leap District, this appealing textural quality appears to be a product of geography based because it persists despite the divergent styles of wines from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Cliff Lede or Shafer.
Is It Just Price?
Maybe the extraordinary texture was just a manifestation of higher prices wines. Wines from Stags Leap District are pricey by and large. Vineyard land is in high demand, expensive and rarely changes hand. An acre in Stags Leap District can sell for $500,000, three times of price of one in Carneros. According to Jinks, cabernet grapes from Stags Leap District sell for about $6,000 a ton, twice that of grapes from outside the AVA. Perhaps the uniqueness of wines from Stags Leap District is due solely to price–expensive wines taste better than less expensive wine.
During my visits, I tasted more expensive Cabernets–Ruppert from Baldacci Family Vineyards, Fortis from Pine Ridge Winery, Limited from Silverado Vineyards and a St. Helena Cabernet from Cliff Lede Vineyards–made from grapes grown outside of Stags Leap District. And since my return, I compared Clos du Val’s more expensive Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa AVA) with their Stags Leap District Cabernet. All were very good–make no mistake–but all had a different quality of tannins (grittier) than their wines made from Stags Leap District grapes. And Fortis from Pine Ridge Winery, Limited from Silverado Vineyards, and the Reserve from Clos du Val contained substantial amount of Stags Leap District fruit, just not the minimum.
Nonetheless, these wines, while having other virtues, lacked the glossy texture of their Stags Leap District wines. Although these limited tastings don’t allow me to conclude what percentage of grapes need to come from Stags Leap District to maintain its quintessential character, all the producers I visited told me that they exceed the minimum standards of the AVA; all–not just 85%–of the grapes for their Stags Leap District labeled wines come from the Stags Leap District. John Shafer says that he is not aware of any winery in the district using less than 100% Stags Leap District fruit for their Stags Leap District labeled wines.
One Hundred Percent
The 85% minimum for AVA labeling undoubtedly is a commercial consideration to give producers wiggle room. The 75% minimum rule for varietal labeling–75% of the wine must come from the grape stated on the label for it to be labeled as a varietal wine–can be defended because blending varietals can produce a superior wine. Just look at Bordeaux. But the 85% minimum for AVA labeling makes no sense if you believe that place makes a difference and the producer wants to emphasize the uniqueness of place. I’m not advocating for the rigid regulations that characterize the European system that include, among others, what grapes can be planted where, what are the allowable yields and aging requirements. The freedom of American wine producers to do what they think is best–and not what regulators tell them–is what has shown the world that our wines are as good as anyone’s and has made us one of the world’s leading producers. But if location matters (and it clearly does) then that’s where we shouldn’t compromise. If there’s a place name on the label, all the grapes should come from that locale.
June 30, 2009