Growing grapes and making wine in the Stags Leap District of the Napa Valley is the vinous equivalent of being granted a license to print money.
It’s not quite that simple, of course, but nobody would say that Stags Leap is a challenging place to farm exceptional grapes. Obvioisly, Mother Nature gets the final word each harvest season, but it’s no mere coincidence that many of California’s greatest wines come from this area – the home of Chimney Rock Winery.
The district’s name is derived from the legend of a nimble stag, said to have escaped a hunter by making a fantastic leap from one of the towering rock outcroppings to another.
Although grape growing goes back to the 1880s, it wasn’t until 1961, when Nathan Fay planted the district’s first Cabernet Sauvignon vines, that other growers and winemakers were drawn to the area. One by one, they discovered the “magic” in this narrow pocket of land.
The Stags Leap District, barely a mile wide and three miles long, today is planted with 1,350 acres of vineyards. Beginning seven miles north of the town of Napa and embracing Chimney Rock Winery at its southern end, the appellation is bounded by rocky hillsides on the east and the Napa River on the west.
The natural environmental mechanics of warm sun and cool breezes mesh perfectly with coarse, gravelly soils. The distinctive Stags Leap Palisades, with its massive rocks, store the sun’s energy and nurture the fruit through leisurely ripening and maturation.
In 1976, long before the government designated the area as an official American Viticultural Area, a 1973 vintage Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon swept the famous Paris tasting, besting the likes of First Growths Mouton-Rothschild and Haut-Brion. Today, wineries such as Chimney Rock continue to produce Cabernets that compare favorably with the world’s greatest wines.
The Wilson and Terlot families, co-owners of Chimney Rock, work with veteran vintner Doug Fletcher and University of California-Davis graduate (with a Master’s in enology) Elizabeth Vianna to produce wines that are unique and true to their place of origin.
Two primary Cabernets are crafted each year, one that focuses squarely on the variety, and one that embraces Bordeaux blending methodology, known as “Elevage.” The 2006 “Elevage” is Cabernet-based and also includes portions of Merlot and Petit Verdot.
Beginning with the 2006 vintage, Chimney Rock began making a sister wine to the “Elevage” called “Elevage Blanc.” It consists of Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris, and is built to last. The French equivalent would be Haut-Brion Blanc – a white wine that’s not as famous as its red sibling, but it every bit as “noble.”
Chimney Rock also crafts a tasty Fume Blanc, made entirely from Sauvignon Blanc grapes, and a sophisticated Cabernet Franc Rose that may well change your opinion (for the better) about blush wines.
Situated on the eastern side of Napa Valley’s Silverado Trail, the Chimney Rock tasting room is open seven days per week, and reservations are not required to sample the daily wine flights.
The estate offers four tour programs, and reservations are suggested for those excursions.
The “Estate Tour and Tasting” ($35) provides a behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of the winery, both in the vineyards and the cellar.
The “Ganymede Tasting” ($50) is named after one of the estate’s blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon and an interactive tasting of Reserve and single-block wines that are sold only at the winery. A selection of cheeses is included.
The “Elevage Tour and Tasting” ($70) includes an exploration of the vineyards, samples pulled straight from the barrels, and a seated tasting that includes hors d’oeuvres to complement each selection.
And finally, the “Vineyard Tour and Tasting” ($90) includes a more extensive vineyard tour (covering a full mile), an alfresco lunch among the vines and a selection of wines.
A visit to Chimney Rock is a great way to gain a clear understanding of what a special place the Stags Leap District is.
Chimney Rock Winery
5350 Silverado Trail, Napa, CA 94558
Winemakers: Doug Fletcher & Elizabeth Vianna
Tasting Room Hours: Daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.