Afternooning with Nicki Pruss of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, and the 2007 and 1999 S.L.V.

S.L.V. estate vineyard of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, adjacent to Fay.

The harvest was done quickly - from start to finish in the first half of October. Much later than the normal late August through late September picking. 2010 has been unusually cool and extended growing season in Napa. That bodes well for the complexity that will develop in the wines. At Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, they are already oogling over what's to come. Standing in the Fay vineyard with Nicki Pruss, the winemaker since 2005 and assistant winemaker since 2000, we taste a cluster of Petit Verdot grapes doomed to die on the vine, as the primary fruit has been brewing in the barrels for a couple of weeks now.

Nicki Pruss' journey into wine was somewhat circuitous. An American of Irish, Austrian and Eastern European descent (Pruss used to be Prussetski), a podiatrist by trade, and an avid beer-brewer hobbyist, her bicycle trek across France in 1995 changed everything. She came back to the States and drowned herself in wine studies, eventually landing an internship at Stag's Leap in 1998 under winemaker Michael Silacci, who moved on in 2001 to make wine at Opus One.

It's Sunday, October 31, Haloween, 2pm, a beautiful time of year in Napa, blue skies, comfortable upper 60'es, my belly full of unbelievably great St. Louis bbq ribs from Bounty Hunter. Listening to Nicki explain the vision she carries forward from the days of Warren Winiarski (one of Napa Valley's "founding fathers", now 82 and active as a grape grower), getting ready to taste the best wines of the modern world, I think to my lucky self - "this wine hobby of mine... might be worth something after all"!

This is the Stags Leap Palisades rock formation, where according to the legend, a stag pursued by hungry hunters leapt over the v-shaped ravine, eventually lending name Stag's Leap District to the entire area. To this day, the label on the Stag's Leap Wine Cellars bottlings eternalizes the majestic stag.

Founded in 1970, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars is an icon in the annals of Napa Valley history. Not to be confused with Stags' Leap Winery, located up the road off the Silverado trail (much contention has transpired over time as the two wineries battled over the prestigious name), Stag's Leap Wine Cellars put California on the world wine map when it bested all top Bordeaux in the 1976 Judgment of Paris with their 1973 S.L.V Cabernet Sauvignon from then 3 year old vines - the event consumerized in the 2008 hollywood flick "Bottle Shock" (see a cool "Fiction vs Fact" analysis of that movie here). Just like another California contender in that prestigious contest - Ridge Vineyards - Stag's Leap Wine Cellars is a different type of winery, something you don't find much these days in California - a winery that through the years stayed true to its vision of "balance, elegance, restraint". Back in 1976, wines made throughout Napa tasted very different from most of what is produced today. Those wines were closer to Bordeaux in their approach - lower alcohol, less extract, less sugar. Over the last 3 decades, as the majority of California-made wine has shifted toward the "alcoholic fruit-bomb" style, the stalwarts of the yesteryear - Stag's Leap Wine Cellars and Ridge - have stuck to their guns and continue to churn out uncompromising wines that touch the soul as well as the palate.

Just taste the 2007 Artemis ($55) - the entry level red that contains Napa Valley regional fruit, including some from the Fay vineyard. Black cherries meet aromatic root veggies and herbs. Crimson color. Medium body. Beauty in a glass, elegance with food, no wonder this wine sells like bonkers in restaurants. (Another highly recommended wine of similar stature and appeal is Ridge's Santa Cruz Mountains Estate red.) Nicki took me through the current release lineup - the 2008 Sauv Blanc, 2008 Chardonnays Arcadia and Karia, and the 2007 Cabs: Artemis, Fay, S.L.V., and Cask 23. The 2007 is obviously a fantastic vintage in Napa - the wines showed beautifully - without over-oaking and over-extraction, confirming their hallow pedigree.

That's Stag's Leap Wine Cellars winemaker Nicki Pruss and Iron Chevsky, holding a bottle of 1999 S.L.V. after enjoying (not spitting) a glass of it.

Fay ($95) was an obvious step up from Artemis. Then - S.L.V. ($125) - a bit tighter (less expressive) and more tannic at this stage, leaning toward blacker fruits. Most of the original Cabernet vines from the 70's have been replanted. Block 4 in the S.L.V. is the only remaining patch of gnarly vines from 1972 reaching deep into the earth, contributing concentration and complexity to the final blend. And then the regal Cask 23 ($195), a combination of the best plots from Fay and S.L.V. One whiff immediately reveals influences of the terroir - fascinating hints of bay leaf and rosemary and tobacco. And finally, the treat of the day - the 1999 S.L.V. - a beautifully complex, perhaps the most complex Napa Cab I've had in years - full of secondary flavors, mushrooms, forest pine, layered with restrained black fruit, serious, simultaneously gastronomic and intellectual wine. "This would be perfect with a mushroom risotto!", Nicki and I agreed. Oh, how I wish I had a few of these developing in my cellar for another 10 years!

The winery was purchased in August 2007 for $185 million by Chateau Ste. Michelle Estates of Woodinville, Washington, and Italian wine giant Antinori, famous for their Solaia and Tignanello Super Tuscans. Stag's Leap's 2007 reds are the first fruit of that partnership, and from the taste of things, Nicki hasn't skipped a beat!

(Note: Stag's Leap wines can be purchased for much less than the winery's official suggested retail price via


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