No one knows exactly how long the Stags Leap area has been known as such, but the best loved and oft-repeated story is that the regional name grew out of an old Wappo Indian legend that an enormous stag once eluded hunters by leaping from one of the area’s craggy mountain peaks to another. In any case the name stuck and the region received well-deserved official recognition as an AVA (American Viticultural Area) in 1989.
Wine grapes have been grown in what is now the Stags Leap District AVA since the mid-1800s and the district’s first producer, Occidental Winery, was established in 1878, on land that is now home to Regusci Winery. The first winery to be called Stags Leap was built in 1893 and, remarkably, was producing over 40,000 cases by 1895. The first set back came with the phylloxera problem beginning around the late 1880s. Early in the new century the death blow was dealt as the states began to go dry, one-by-one, in anticipation of prohibition and vineyards were gradually converted to orchards.
Nathan Fay is an important name in the region because he was at the forefront of a rebirth, planting the first Cabernet there in 1961. Of course, Cabernet is king in Stags Leap these days. When Warren Winiarski tasted Fay’s home-made wine, he knew he’d found the right location for his winery and built Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars right next door. He later went on to acquire the Fay vineyard. He amazed himself and the wine-world when his 1973 Cabernet took first place over some formidable first growths of Bordeaux in the famous “Judgment of Paris” tasting in 1976. This was a turning point in the marketing of Napa Valley wines. In a rematch, thirty years later, both the 1973 Stag’s Leap wine Cellars Cabernet and another wine of the region, the 1972 Clos du Val Cabernet, came in 2nd and 5th respectively, ahead of their French counterparts.
The Stags Leap District is on the east side of the valley about five miles north of the town of Napa, bisected by the Silverado Trail. The region is enclosed by the rugged palisades on the east side and rolling hills and the Napa River on the west. It’s sometimes called a valley within a valley at about one mile wide and three miles long. The region is 2700 acres, about half of it planted to grapes. The Yountville AVA wraps around the western side of the region and the Oak Knoll District is close by.
Like other regions in the Vaca range, which forms the eastern boundary of Napa Valley, volcanic soil plays a huge role. Two main soil types dominate the Stags Leap district. The eastern palisades contain a good deal of bare volcanic rock, unsuitable for planting, but as you move down-slope there’s a mixture of coarse, extremely well-drained gravel over volcanic bedrock.
The narrow floor of the “valley within a valley” has only few feet of loose topsoil. It was once a pathway for a much broader Napa River and old river sediments have created a remarkable blend of fine-particle loams and gravelly loams over a hard, clay-like substructure that prevents the vine roots from penetration. According to Dr. Deborah Elliot-Fisk of UC Davis, the shallow soil “limits the vigor of the vines so the canopy is smaller and (therefore) the fruit crop produces lower tonnage and increases flavor intensity.”
The craggy palisades serve to both warm and cool the region. The rocky façade soaks up the sun all day and radiates it in the evening but, at the same time, it works like a convection, drawing in cooling marine air from San Pablo Bay.
The southern end of the region is relatively open, but then narrows into rough, wandering passageways that help funnel the flow of cool air farther north than might be expected. At a glance the regional climate appears to be best for Merlot, but the radiation off the rocks provides just enough heat to ripen the famous Cabernet over a long growing season. Stag’s Leap can be as much as 5-10 degrees warmer than neighboring Yountville District some days.
The style – “rock-soft”
Warren Winiarski described the regional character for Cabernet as “An iron fist in a velvet glove.” for its “unique combination of softness and structure, strength and suppleness.”
90% of the district is planted to Bordeaux varieties, and 80% of that is dedicated to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. A small amount of Petite Syrah and Sangiovese along with a bit of Chardonnay and some highly-regarded Sauvignon Blanc make up the rest of the acreage.
As you look around the district, at the weathered, volcanic palisades to the east and the soft, rolling hills to the west it paints a picture of the local Cabernet character as described by other local vintners: “Rock soft”.