The Wineries and Legend of Stags' Leap AVA

Stags Leap is home to several beautiful wineries.
Stags Leap is home to several beautiful wineries.

Located on the old Silverado Trail, a former horse trail that ran through the Napa Valley, the Stags' Leap American viticultural area (AVA) is world famous for top-quality Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine. Many confuse the Stags' Leap AVA with two wines of similar names from the AVA, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, and Stags' Leap Winery.

History of Stags' Leap

The name apparently derives from an old Wappo Indian legend that an enormous stag once eluded hunters when he leapt from one mountain peak to another. The Stags' Leap district is all about the soil, with vineyards planted on the ancient remains of an extinct volcano.

The area has been making wine since 1863 when the winery was established, but was largely forgotten during Prohibition until 1961, when Nathan Fay planted Cabernet Sauvignon on his property. This became the Fay Vineyard. Fay sold these grapes to Heitz cellars who produced a Cabernet Sauvignon based wine called Heitz Cellars "Fay Vineyard."

The Soil

The poor eroded volcanic soil stresses the vines, leading to a low yield of highly concentrated grapes with a combination of power and intensity, as well as a certain recognizable softness and elegance. This is, in fact, the trademark of wines from the Stags' Leap AVA.

Stags' Leap was the first AVA in Napa to be so designated, solely because of the nature of the soil. The Stags' Leap AVA contains 2700 acres with 1300 acres currently under grape cultivation.

The Paris Tasting of 1976

The Stags' Leap AVA rose to international prominence when a Cabernet Sauvignon made by Warren Winiarski of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars was chosen as the best red wine among a host of top French Bordeaux wines. This was quite a feat considering this was Winiarski's first vintage and the vines were only three years old.

The blind tasting was held in Paris and intended to be a challenge to the supremacy of French wine. Apparently, the tasters initially refused to accept that the wine they had chosen was, in fact, Californian and insisted what they were tasting was French wine. The tasters were all respected French wine authorities, and the tasting became an extremely controversial issue still discussed and argued over today. This shocking outcome effectively legitimized California wine and the Stags' Leap AVA has carried a certain prestige ever since.

Grapes and Styles of Wine

The Stags' Leap AVA is all about Cabernet Sauvignon. Other varietals are also planted such as:

  • Merlot
  • Petite Syrah
  • Cabernet Franc
  • Malbec
  • Petite Verdot
  • Grenache
  • Syrah

Blending Options

Usually winemakers use Merlot, Malbec, Petite Syrah, Petite Verdot and Cabernet Franc to blend with the Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines. Vineyards also plant some Sauvignon Blanc , which they commonly sell to winemakers outside the area to blend with their own wines. Most, if not all, of the red wines are Bordeaux style blends.

Eliminating Confusion

Many are confused about the differences between three disparate entities, all bearing the moniker Stags Leap. Whether discussing the AVA or the wines made from similarly named wineries, there is one truth that rises above all others. Choosing a wine from the Stags' Leap AVA is usually a great choice, because winemakers in the region produce consistently good wines made from the high-quality grapes grown there.

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The Wineries and Legend of Stags' Leap AVA