Splendor in the Glass

Arturo Ciompi's blog on wine

Stags’ Leap: Duel in the Sun

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Clock icon December 31, 2012

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I don’t know the “inside story” of Stags’ Leap Winery, located a tad north of the more commercially prominent Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.  The “winery” predates the “cellars” by 79 years.  It is 23 acres smaller than the Cellars, with (unlike the Cellars) the majority of the grapes coming from the immediate property.  The Winery is the more intimate, self-contained estate, but often seems to get little respect.  Even the tourist guide, “Inside Napa Valley”, leaves it conspicuously off its map of Silverado Trail wineries.

Why the slight?  Surely the wines are not to blame.  Maybe it’s the attitude, because Stags’ Leap Winery is fiercely independent, maverick really, and its cultured and driven winemaker, Robert Brittan, seems a private man rather than the rah rah type.  A vineyardist who loves music (and occasionally plays his french horn in the depths of the estate’s original wine cellar), he impresses as an “everyman”, with vast ranging interests and a fierce devotion to the individuality of his terrain.  In doing so, he makes some of the most extracted, expressive wines of the region.

Nestled between the Vaca mountain range and the steep, jutting Palisades, it is breathtaking to view this valley vineyard, still receiving the volcanic deposits from above and enjoying the alluvial soil set down by the Napa River, which once flowed here.  It’s a wild, Grimm’s fairy tale kind of spot, with grand vistas that become a bit dark and scary as night falls.  The 110-year-old Manor house is literally built into the hillside, and its structural beauty, containing what is believed to be the first in-ground pool built in the area, is a fitting foothold above the valley floor.  One feels transported into a Victorian novel of wealth, seclusion, paramours and ghosts.  In fact, the Manor is said to house its own spirit.  Left virtually alone the evening of my visit, and after a solitary game of billiards downstairs, I sat in the great room reading, sipping on petite syrah, and waiting.  No communication I’m sorry to say, but then I hope to succeed some day.

The afternoon with Robert Brittan was a joyful one.  We had met for lunch once before, and so picked up the thread of our lives and activities as we drank his most recent vintages.  We spoke far more about philosophy than we did on the intricacies of winemaking.  The afternoon flew and each wine showed Robert’s fixation on expressing the uniqueness, strength and character that each wine can achieve.  The wines are first solid and granitic, like a Bruckner symphony, and from there they go on to reveal so many complexities emerging over time in the glass.  That they become more like Brahms and Schumann rather than Ravel or Debussy is Robert’s doing.  They are of heroic proportion, wines to be savored, not to be consumed quickly or gluttonously.

I thank Robert Brittan for taking me a bit into his world on this thoughtful and provocative visit.  There seems to be no bull in the man.  I surmise that he isn’t the easiest person to work for, but his goals are so inspiring that, like the high school teacher who made a difference in your life, it must be very satisfying and rewarding to do so.  Try these wines on a day where you needn’t hurry–a night without distractions. They will please the intellect as well as the taste buds.


2002 Viognier–Fresh apricot and pear with a deep, intense, “oily” and long texture.  Tart and crisp on the palate with an intriguing suggestion of marshmallow.  A breath of spring in February.

2002 Chardonnay–Waves of deep fruit, pineapple, butterscotch and vanilla.  Fabulously explosive and decadently rich.  Alive with apple, peach, and a very refreshing lime-like finish that keeps its size from tasting bloated.

2001 Merlot–Ruby crimson color.  A super ripe berry nose covered in chocolate!  So pretty and yet so forthright and penetrating.  Flavors are refined, smoky, and mouth charming.  This wine is still closed in but is a great cellar selection to drink at least until 2009.

2000 Cabernet Sauvignon–dusty, dark, and forest-like.  Dark “wild” berries with coffee and chocolate impressions.  Flavors are tight yet exciting.  Ripe, vibrant fruit that’s energetic and promising.  Quite drinkable but better in 2-4 years.  This is passionate stuff!

2000 Petite Syrah–Stage’ Leap’s signature wine and one of the best anywhere.  Positively purple color.  A spice garden with a whiff of earth, boysenberry, and cola.  Hard to describe, but it smells so purely and totally organic.  Unique.  Flavors are power packed, highly extracted, tannic and a bit harsh.  This vintage seems tough compared to the outrageously good bottlings of 1996, 1997, and 1999.  Yet even in a “just OK” vintage it still impresses, and may in time develop fabulously.  A great match for grilled food and lamb.

2000 Merlot, Estate Grown Reserve–well-rounded and generous with intense plummy flavors.  Very “elastic”, it gives and gives.  Ripe and profound.  Medium bodied with a touch of mint.  Great depth, very dry and needing more bottle age.

1999 Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Reserve–full, sweet, very ripe, with lingering dark fruits and dark chocolate nose.  Flavors keep extending and expanding with high glycerin and long aftertaste.  Marvelous.

1999 “Ne Chede Malis” Estate Reserve–The name is derived from a stained glass windown in the Manor House.  (“Don’t give into adversity” is how I translate it, but the “h” seems misplaced.)  A field blend of petite syrah, syrah, carnignane, grenache, peloursin, and mourvedre grapes: quite the Rhône lineup!  Lush with spirity fruit and some heat on the nose.  Very complex flavors with a sense of root vegetables, iodine, and multifaceted complexities.  Maybe a bit overly extracted but fascinating all the same.  Drink with creamy cheeses and contemplate.

(February, 2004)

Is “Bottle Shock” the new “Sideways”? The Judgment of Hollywood

Tag icon Published under Independent Weekly, Past articles

Clock icon February 21, 2012

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Bottle Shock

The story of “The Judgment of Paris” has hit the big screen.  Long the provenance of wine geeks, this is the tale of Steven Spurrier, and energetic British citizen whose training took place at Christopher & Company, England’s oldest wine merchant.  By 1970, he had opened his own shop in Paris.  Les Caves de la Madeleine quickly gained recognition as a first-rate store, run by the energetic, quixotic Francophile.

In 1976, perhaps in part as a publicity stunt, and in confluence with America’s 200th birthday, Spurrier decided that a blind tasting of French and California wines–to show off the merits of each–would be a fun idea.  The French obviously agreed.  It would be yet another medium in which to express the superiority of French wines, and an especially practical way to humiliate those California upstarts.

Well, the rest is history, and a tidal wave of folklore has grown from it.  Utilizing a panel of nine distinguished French judges, the result was a Napa Valley Cabernet besting famous Bordeaux reds.  A Napa Chardonnay did the same compared to venerable Burgundy offerings.  No manner of bluster or post-tasting apologies could dim the raw truth: the panel not only found many California wines superior, but even mistook many of these offerings as French.  “Ah, back to France!” exclaimed judge Raymond Oliver as he swirled and sipped a Napa Chardonnay.  “This is definitely California, it has no nose,” spouted another judge, as he quaffed a Batard-Monrachet.  (I had a reality check when I read the original Time magazine article written shortly after the tasting: “The U.S. winners are little known to wine lovers, and rather expensive ($6+).”  Oh, boy!  Life *and* prices were awfully good in the ’70s.)

Yet I never imagined that this event, important as it was for California’s emerging credibility, could be fodder for a feature length film.  A documentary?  Surely.  But this tale, adored by industry insiders worldwide, is now a movie called “Bottle Shock”, and it makes one wonder what Hollywood will do to spice it up.

A blind wine tasting is about as romantic and exciting to watch as a Mah Jong tournament.  Look!  Here are folks sniffing, drinking, and spitting.  (Special effects and slow motion might enhance the expectoration.)  Sex? I can imagine a bit of hanky panky amid the dark, humid aging barrels, or a post-contest romantic interlude at the Place de l’Opera.  Plus, I’ve seen the movie’s trailer, which features couples kissing amid the vines and a pretty young thing taking off her T-shirt in an attempt to flag a passing car.  (Shades of Claudette Colbert’s leg in “It Happened One Night”.)  But the vehicle turns out to be a police car.  Oops, my bad.

“Bottle Shock” centers on the Barrett family and their estate, Chateau Montelena, a great California cult winery that was having a hard time staying afloat in the mid-70s.  The Judgement of Paris actually helped them turn their business around.  And thank goodness!  It was their Chardonnay that won big in Paris and, as a wine lover with three bottles of their now even more celebrated Cabernet in my own cellar, I’m a beneficiary.  Real life arguments persist as to who was really responsible for Montelena’s ’76 success: the winery owners or radical winemaker Mike Grgich? This remains a sore point to this very day.

Prominent actors in the film include Alan Rickman, Bill Pullman, and Rachael Taylor, with former “Law and Order” cop Dennis Farina spouting home-grown wine aphorisms (“I detect bacon fat laced with honey melon”).  Danny DeVito plays a cameo as Grgich, and Grgich himself appears in several scenes at the chateau.  The real Jim Barrett, owner of Chateau Montelena, appears in the film as a vineyard owner who pours a wine sample for Rickman.

I’m hoping against hope that this will not be a jingoistic film where America conquers France.  It’s fair to ask why the French wine coterie ever agreed to such an event.  Chutzpah and history, I imagine, but there remains a lesson that French winemakers know, and that American winemakers should keep on the front burner.  During the past 30 years, America’s explosive emergence among the new world order of great winemaking is a dynamic story.  But, last time I checked, the wines that garner bids of thousands of dollars a bottle at auction are still French.  They remain the gold standard, like it or not, that they’ve always been.  Plus ça change……

(July, 2008)

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