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Stags' Leap: Duel in the sun

I don't know the "inside story" of Stags' Leap Winery, located a tad north of the more commercially prominent Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. The "Winery" predates the "Cellars" by 79 years. It is 23 acres smaller than the Cellars, with (unlike the Cellars) the majority of the grapes coming from the immediate property. The Winery is the more intimate, self-contained estate, but often seems to get little respect. Even the tourist guide, "Inside Napa Valley" leaves it conspicuously off its map of Silverado Trail wineries.

Why the slight? Surely the wines are not to blame. Maybe it's the attitude, because the Stags' Leap Winery is fiercely independent, maverick really, and its cultured and driven winemaker, Robert Brittan, seems a private man rather than the rah rah type. A vineyardist who loves music (and occasionally plays his French horn in the depths of the estate's original wine cellar), he impresses as an "everyman," with vast ranging interests and a fierce devotion to the individuality of his terrain. In doing so, he makes some of the most extracted, expressive wines of the region.

Nestled between the Vaca mountain range and the steep, jutting Palisades, it is breathtaking to view this valley vineyard, still receiving the volcanic deposits from above and enjoying the alluvial soil set down by the Napa River, which once flowed here. It's a wild, Grimm's fairy tale kind of spot, with grand vistas that become a bit dark and scary as night falls. The 110-year-old Manor House is literally built into the hillside, and its structural beauty, containing what is believed to be the first in-ground pool built in the area, is a fitting foothold above the valley floor. One feels transported into a Victorian novel of wealth, seclusion, paramours and ghosts. In fact, the Manor is said to house its own spirit. Left virtually alone the evening of my visit, and after a solitary game of billiards downstairs, I sat in the great room reading, sipping on petite syrah, and waiting. No communication I'm sorry to say, but then, I hope to try again someday.

The afternoon with Robert Brittan was a joyful one. We had met for lunch once before, and so picked up the thread of our lives and activities as we drank his most recent vintages. We spoke far more about philosophy than we did on the intricacies of winemaking. The afternoon flew and each wine showed Robert's fixation on expressing the uniqueness, strength and character that each wine can achieve. The wines are first solid and granitic, like a Bruckner symphony, and from there they go on to reveal so many complexities emerging over time in the glass. That they become more Brahms and Schumannesque rather than Ravel or Debussy-like is Robert's doing. They are of heroic proportion, wines to be savored, not to be consumed quickly or gluttonously.

I thank Robert Brittan for taking me a bit into his world on this thoughtful and provocative visit. There seems to be no bull in the man. I surmise that he isn't the easiest person to work for, but his goals are so inspiring that, like the high school teacher who made a difference in your life, it must be very satisfying and rewarding to do so. Try these wines on a day where you needn't hurry--a night without distractions. They will please the intellect as well as the taste buds.

2002 Viognier, $25
Fresh apricot and pear with a deep, intense, "oily" and long texture. Tart and crisp on the palate with an intriguing suggestion of marshmallow. A breath of spring in February. Just arriving in our market. Grade: B+

2002 Chardonnay, $22
Waves of deep fruit, pineapple, butterscotch and vanilla. Fabulously explosive and decadently rich. Alive with apple, peach and a very refreshing lime-like finish that keeps its size from tasting bloated. Just arriving in our market. Grade: B+

Note: Both the 2001 viognier and, especially, the chardonnay are also excellent and may still be found on some retail shelves.

2001 Merlot, $31
Ruby, crimson color. A super ripe berry nose covered in chocolate! So pretty and yet so forthright and penetrating. Flavors are refined, smoky and mouth charming. This wine is still closed in but is a great cellar selection to drink from 2006-09. Grade: B

2000 Cabernet Sauvignon, $40
Dusty, dark and forest-like. Dark "wild" berries with coffee and chocolate impressions. Flavors are tight yet exciting. Ripe, vibrant fruit that's energetic and promising. Quite drinkable but better in 2-4 years. Passionate stuff. Grade: B+

2000 Petite Syrah, $31
Stags' Leap's signature wine and one of the best anywhere. Positively purple color. A spice garden with a whiff of earth, boysenberry and cola. Hard to describe, but it smells so purely and totally organic. Unique. Flavors are power-packed, highly extracted, tannic and a bit harsh. This vintage seems a bit tough compared to the outrageously good recent bottlings from 1996, '97 and '99. Yet even in a "just O.K." vintage it still impresses, and may in time develop fabulously. A great match for grilled food and lamb. Grade: B

2000 Merlot, Estate Grown Reserve, $50
Well-rounded and generous with intense plummy flavors. Very "elastic," it gives and gives. Ripe and profound. Medium bodied with a touch of mint. Great depth, very dry and needing more bottle age. Grade: B+

1999 Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Reserve, $65
Full, "sweet," very ripe with lingering dark fruits and dark chocolate nose. Flavors keep extending and expanding with high glycerin and long aftertaste. Marvelous. Grade: A-

1999 "Ne Chede Malis" Estate Reserve, $50
The name is derived from a stained glass window in the Manor House. "Don't give in to adversity" is how I translate it, but that letter "h" seems misplaced. A field blend of petite syrah, syrah, carignane, grenache, peloursin and mourvedre; quite the Rhone lineup. Lush with spirity fruit and some heat on the nose. Very complex flavors with a sense of root vegetables, iodine and multi-faceted complexities. Maybe a bit overly extracted but fascinating. Drink with creamy cheeses and contemplate. Grade: B

A Hop, Step and a Jump
Across the street from Stags' Leap, I paid a quick, unannounced visit to Stacy Clark, winemaker at Pine Ridge Winery. This yielded a couple of very impressive tasting notes. My thanks for her last-second hospitality.

2000 Onyx, $50
A blend of 60% malbec, 16% merlot and 24% tannat. Ripe, luscious nose. A wide spread bouquet of tantalizing fruit, caramel and vanilla toffee cream. Very hearty and plump. Direct, powerful and mouth filling. Grade: B+

2000 Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags' Leap District $70
A warm, smooth and velvety round bouquet. Licorice, briar and berries imbue the vibrant flavors with no harshness, and "happy" tannins will lead to further development. A superb 2000. Grade: A-

Cabernet Leftovers
Here are the cabernets that were inadvertently mislabeled during my big, blind tasting in December. They were retasted blind this past week.

1999 Gallo of Sonoma, Estate, Northern Sonoma $80
Deeply colored with gorgeous fruit, great depth and a velvety, penetrating bouquet. Perfect balance and textbook black currant nose. It epitomizes class and is simply delicious, yet still young. In 2007 it will be a gem. Grade: A(+); a classic

Note: Gallo's best is as good as any cab in California.

2001 Sebastiani, Alexander Valley $28
Clean, pure, subtle and elegant nose. Inky dark with deep blackberry, plum and fudge impressions. Mouth-filling sappy fruit. An excellent husky drink with tannin to lose. Will improve for years, but buy it now! Grade: B+

Grapes are from winemaker Mark Lyon's own single vineyard. Good Buy.

1999 Kendall-Jackson, Great Estates, Napa Valley $40
Pretty color! Subdued bouquet with overtones of olive, oak and brambly fruit. Clean with cherry flavor components and a smooth texture. Drinks well, and tannins promise two more years of development. Grade: B-

2000 Justin, Paso Robles $22.50
Ample dark fruit, nice purity and a touch of greenness on the nose. Simple, full flavors. A bit strident and biting. Still, a good middle of the road choice. Grade: C+

2000 "Q", Famiglia Zuccardi, Argentina $20 Grade: C

1999 Kendall-Jackson, Great Estates, Alexander Valley $40 Grade: C-

2001 Simon Hackett, McClaren Vale, Australia $18 Grade: D

2001 Carmenet, California $10 Grade: D-

Wine of the week

2002 Borsao, Jorge Ordonez, $7
From the hot climate of Campo de Borja in Spain, a ripe, slightly raisiny nose that shouts the grenache grape (and that's good!). Rustic style, but not harsh or biting to drink. Very dry and tasty. Best Buy. EndBlock

Ciompi's Grades
I use the old, public school grading system.

A: A wine that seems to give all it is capable of. It offers a myriad of complexities and memorable attributes that make it a standout.

B: Very good with real flavor interest and a number of highlights that make a fine wine.

C: Average. No true defects, but minor flaws that hinder its charm. It is OK and is recommended.

D: Many irritating flaws take away most of the wine's pleasure. The wine is drinkable.

F: Undrinkable, with unacceptable defects and no pleasure factor. A failure.


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