Departments — 18 July 2014
A summer stop along the Silverado Trail

By Mark Gauert

It’s one thing to sit and watch judges swirl, smell, sip and expound on (and on) about the minerality, rounded fruit or long finishes of the wines entered each year at the American Fine Wine Competition here in South Florida. It’s another to stand in sunshine burning through the soft fog of a Napa Valley morning and watch a master winemaker crush a clod of dirt between his thumb and forefinger.

“You can see and feel how different the soil is here, just up the hill,” says Marcus Notaro, winemaker of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. “The soil [along Chase Creek in the FAY vineyards] below was denser, more alluvial, which gives the wine more fruit flavors, perfume, lushness. The soil here [higher, in the venerable S.L.V. vineyard] is more volcanic, grainier, containing minerals washed down from the palisades above, which gives the wine spiciness, structure.”

All qualities that give wine judges much to eventually swirl, smell, sip and expound on (and on) upon.

Notaro, who became the winemaker here just over a year ago after, was formerly winemaker at Col Solare, in the Red Mountain appellation of Washington State. His first complete vintage at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars will be the 2013, and he says he couldn’t have picked a better vintage to start with. “This was one of the most even vintages I’ve ever experienced, giving ultimate quality and uniform ripeness.”

We hear so much about drought, and mandatory water restrictions ahead, in California. But Napa Valley appears green and verdant this summer; and Notaro says there’s been just enough rain that the growing so far this year is only a week or so off last year’s “even vintage.”

He picks through the S.L.V. vines, which yielded the 1973 harvest that produced the storied (and movied) Judgment of Paris win in 1976, and finds many tendrils of new growth – a sign, he adds, that the vines are finding water just fine. He stops to pluck a green cluster that contains a single ripe cabernet sauvignon grape, the first of the 2014 vintage year.

Back at the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ visitor center, he places the grape cluster gently on a counter in the tasting room, and a crowd gathers to marvel at the lone ripe grape as if it was a nugget of gold. There’s red in them thar hills.

“Well, that’s it,” someone breathes. “On now to 2015.’’

Well, not quite. There’s still some ripening, harvesting, crushing, bottling and about three years of aging in oak casks in the 54-degree cellar here, etc., before the 2014 estate cabs (FAY, S.L.V. and CASK 23) turn up in our glasses.

Out on the sun-dappled patio of the tasting room, over an excellent glass of 2011 of Artemis cabernet sauvignon (the 2010 Artemis won a gold medal this year at the American Fine Wine Competition), Notaro talks about some changes coming soon. After years facing west toward the busy Silverado Trail, for example, a new visitor center opening Sept. 22 around back will face east.

“That’s the way it should be,” he says, smiling. “Toward the vineyards.’’

We raise a glass to the veraison still gathering a crowd back in the tasting room, and to Notaro’s first year in the vineyards of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

The Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, 5766 Silverado Trail, Napa, Calif., 707-944-2020 is open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily for tastings, excluding major holidays. Recent Estate Tasting Flights ($40) have included the 2011 FAY, 2011 S.L.V. and 2010 Cask 23 cabernet sauvignons and the 2012 Arcadia vineyard chardonnay; recent Napa Valley Collection Tasting Flights ($25) have included the 2012 sauvignon blanc, 2012 Karia chardonnay, 2011 merlot and 2011 Artemis cabernet sauvignon. The cellar, with its map of Napa on the floor, 54-degree cool and sparkling “stars” in the ceiling, is a must see. PHOTO: Marcus Notaro, winemaker at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, courtesy of the vineyard.

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