Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Napa Bottle Blog: Shafer & Stag's Leap

Most people who think they know a little about wine or the Napa Valley area know about Stag's Leap; a few even know about the Stag's Leap Wars and the fact that Stags Leap has become its own appellation, partly because of those wars.

Few people, on the other hand, have heard of Shafer Wines, which is in the Stags Leap appellation and is most famous for a specific wine, which costs over $200 a bottle. I can't claim credit for discovering Shafer-- my new friend and noted wine expert Ben Weinberg from Unfiltered Unfined gave me his personal list of vineyards he thought should go in the Napa portion of Born to Shop California Wine Country. Since he gave me only three suggestions, and Shafer was top of the list, and because some of their wine is Stags Leap District, I scurried over there...thirsty.

Shafer is not the kind of place that attracts herds of tourists or twenty somethings in tight designer jeans. They have an appointment-only policy and seat 12 people at a long table for a formal tasting. And yes, the main reason you go here is to taste the $200 wine as part of the $45 tasting fee. You also need to know that reservations must be made waaaay in advance, possibly months ahead of time. Those twelve spaces are coveted.

There are wines that sell for $48 a bottle and some for $80 a bottle, but the one that the world is talking about is called Hillside Select, which is very hard to get in the first place, sells out on release, but is sold after the tasting (two bottle per person limit) and retails for $215 per bottle for the 2005.

If you've always wondered what a $200+ wine tastes like, you can find out without having to buy the whole bottle if you sign up for a tasting event. You should also know that this is considered a 'cult' wine, in the league as Screaming Eagle, the one that sold for $500,000 a bottle (it was a big bottle) in 2000.

The tasting room is simple, the property is unmarked off the Silverado Trail (#6154), and the atmosphere is pleasant but not razzle-dazzle. All of the people at my tasting (and yes, it was all couples) had gray hair and were probably around 60. I guess these are the remaining Baby Boomers who didn't lose their money in the stock market. They were thoughtful, intelligent and asked complicated questions with knowing confidence. They also invariably drained every drop from all six of the glasses they were served. I wondered who would be driving since I was incapable of drinking more than a sip or two from each glass.

Each place setting had a glass of water, an 'owner's manual' take-away journal about the vineyard and access to a basket of water crackers in the center of the table. When the 'bonus' wine was served in the front of the house, a tray of chocolate truffles was passed. There was one per person on the tray. I counted.

There were no nibbles, no wine/food pairings, no chefs. You were admonished not to feed the dog. This was obviously serious business on all levels-- the tasting was first class as was the push to buy the product. The wine tasting session was well led, conducted smoothly and with considerable style and grace, but it still reminded me of a hotelier making a sales pitch to a group of travel agents. But there was no power point...just powerful sips of righteous grape.

Unlike most other vineyards, the $90 for the tasting fee (two people at $45 each) cannot be applied to the purchase price of wine. Shipping could be arranged if you live in a state that allows this. With the crowd passing out their gold cards, I fled to something more casual.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, nearby, is a division of Fosters Wine Estates America and one of the ways to know if it's Stag's, Stags or Stags' (hey, don't laugh, this is what the lawsuits were about) is to find out if this is the Stag's Leap Wine Cellars which won the 1976 Paris tasting as featured in the movie Bottle Shock.

Once at the proper leap of faith (5766 Silverado Trail), you are where it all began for California wines-- the first of the award winning wines back in the day, the fight for land and territory and names and rights and the very business of having a few strangers over for a look-see. This is a property that was actually created as a resort and functions around hospitality, dating back to the 1880's. Not to get totally confused, there is Stags' Leap Winery at #6150.

But I digress and muddle the wine and the brain. The subject is not roses but rather Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. Like Shafer, this winery is also upside a long driveway that is unmarked save a few street numbers; it too requires reservations for a tasting and costs even more per person-- $45.

Here you settle back into a locally quarried stone /craftsman style bungalow-mansion (The Manor House) and admire the architectural details, the outside verandas, the Victorian toilets inside the house itself (pull the chain to flush) and take in the wine list. A resort in 1892, the property is as lush as the wines. Thankfully, wines here begin at $20 per bottle but average $35-38. The more expensive wines are $75 a bottle.

If all this is confusing, check out the Stags Leap District Growers, which is an organization of all the wineries in the appellation (including Shafer). Then, before you leave, hop on over to Frog's Leap, 8815 Conn Creek Road, in Rutherford.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Suzy,
    Thanks for your help on clarifying the differences between Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Stags' Leap Winery and Stags Leap District. Unfortunately you have blended the attributes of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars and Stags' Leap Winery into one tasting experience. Up front I have to confess that I am a wine industry consultant that does some work for Stag's Leap Wine Cellars so I feel the need to be clear here...Stag's Leap Wine Cellars is the winery which won the Paris tasting and it's is located at 5766 Silverado Trail but there is no Manor House and it's not owned by Fosters. I should also point out that Stag's Leap Wine Cellars offers tastings without appointment for $15 and $30 respectively. To tour the amazing caves an appointment is required of course and that experience is $40 per person which includes some great tastes. If you have a chance to stop by Stag's Leap Wine Cellars we can certainly give you a quick glimpse back in history and a look ahead at what's new there as well. Thanks again for your help on navigating this exciting Appellation.
    Steve Burns
    O'donnell lane, llC