Venture into Stags Leap in Napa Valley.

There is a legend of a regal stag that was stalked by hunters on a ridge of the Vaca Mountain Range on the Eastern edge of the Napa Valley. This wise stag eluded the hunters with his agility whilst bounding atop the peaks of the mountains. This is the legend which many give credit for the name of the Stags Leap District in Napa Valley. However this area received its name, rest assured that its fame has arisen in truth from its ability to produce some of the most regal Cabernets in all of Napa Valley.

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1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars' cab came out on top at "The Judgment in Paris" that pitted French wines against American wines. The event helped prove to the world what those in Stags Leap District already knew: the area produces some of the world's best wine (photos courtesy of Stags Leap District Winegrowers Association; bottle photos courtesy of brands).

Just an hour and a half drive north of San Francisco, the Silverado trail bisects the Stags Leap district. The Stags Leap district was made an official American Viticultural Area in 1989, and it claims to be the first AVA in the U.S. delimited based on its soil formations. SLD is conveniently delimited with easily distinguishable geographic boundaries. To the west rise the Vaca Mountain Range and Stags Leap Palisades, to the east is the Napa River. The north and bookend is the Yountville crossroad and the southern tip tapers as the Napa River snuggles up to the Silverado Trail.

As this region contains both mountainsides and a river you can imagine the diversity of microclimates and soil mixtures. But there are two major soil formations derived from these two sources. The mountain soils are volcanic in nature with the foothills and lower lying slopes rich in eroded soils with wonderful drainage. The river and lowland areas are an amalgam of alluvial soils, clays and loam. Studies of soils in the heart of the district show that these two categories of soils have met and mixed to form some of the most sought-after parcels for the growing of Cabernet Sauvignon. Above the soil the climate here touches both ends of the spectrum with warm, even hot daytime temperatures with cooling winds being sucked into the valley from San Pablo Bay, which allows the grapes to cool and retain their acidity.

The resulting wines are the proverbial ‘iron fist in a velvet glove.’ The very best embody power and grace together. It would be impossible to speak of Stags Leap District without pointing out one of the most famous events in the history of the Napa Valley and the wine industry as a whole; ‘The Judgement of Paris’ when California wines trounced their French competitors in a blind tasting. Th at very wine, 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon came from these soils. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is still thriving and is still one of the shining stars of the district. Their estate Cabernets including Cask 23 and SLV Vineyard are cornerstones for anyone who loves Cabernet. But my favorite from this stable in most vintages is the Fay Vineyard, which is located right in the heart of the AVA. It always has an intense core of black fruit with hints of hot rocks, which I perceive as the terroir of Stags Leap District. It is one of the most age-worthy wines in the valley.

Pine Ridge Vineyards is another leading light in SLD. Their Stags Leap District Cabernet is a heady one, fully masculine and powerful. Shafer Vineyards may be SLD’s most ‘cultish’ wine and for good reason. Their Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon is a wine of legend. This is a wine of indomitable force, every time I have had the privilege of tasting it; it is the epitome of richness, hedonism and power. It is considered by many to be one of the best of all California. Cliff Lede’s Poetry Cabernet Sauvignon is another stately example of Cabernet from SLD. Typically blended with other Bordeaux varieties, it is deliciously complex and a wine that is well worth the search. Many other noteworthy wineries that claim vineyards in or fruit from SLD include Joseph Phelps, Robert Mondavi and Beaulieu Vineyards for some of their top bottlings.

Great wine abounds in the Stags Leap district. The great Warren Winiarski who made the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet once told me that the special part about his vineyards is that they were a blend of the fire and the flood, like Yin and Yang, grace and power. One need only taste a great bottle from the area to know exactly what he means.