Splendor in the Glass

Arturo Ciompi's blog on wine

Stags’ Leap: Duel in the Sun

Tag icon Published under Independent Weekly, Past articles

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)

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