For years, one of my favorite annual fall wine events in Napa Valley has been the release of a mixed case of stunning Stags Leap District Cabernets, called the Appellation Collection. It’s a promotion to familiarize wine lovers with wines in this appellation, organized by the Stags Leap District Winegrowers Association.
The group has just announced its 12th annual release and this one is an eye-popping case of 15 different 2004 Cabernets from Stags Leap District, one Cab from each of the producers in the association.
This mixed case enables aficionados of these wines to get one bottle of the top, or near-top, wine from 15 different producers without having to run around the valley to each of the wineries. In effect, it’s a one-stop solution to obtain a case (albeit a case of 15 bottles) of the top wines from a top vintage of an entire appellation.
Or maybe I should say it’s a NO-STOP solution, because if you live in a shipment-friendly state, you can order a mixed case online without ever even having to leave your home; simply go to www.stagsleapdistrict.com/appellationcollection and order a mixed case. As there are only 300 mixed cases assembled, however, don’t wait too long to order.
The price for the 15-bottle Cab collection this year is $1,200. And for this princely sum, you receive a case-and-a-quarter of some gorgeous, tooth-staining, purple-red wines, which will easily age six to 10 years.
For the record: I’m just finishing the last few bottles from two full sets of the 1997 Appellation Collection, which I bought years ago upon release. I love the ability the mixed case affords – to go into the cellar and choose a Cab for dinner from any of 15 different wineries.
The Stag’s Leap District is only 2,700 acres large, about half of which are planted in vines. The District starts seven miles north of the town of Napa on the Silverado Trail (east side of the valley). The northern boundary is the Yountville Crossroad.
Essentially, Stags Leap District, home to fewer than 20 wine producers, is a mile wide and about three miles long.
The hillsides here have western and southern exposures, which are particularly friendly to Cabernet Sauvignon. As is the soil, comprised of rich volcanic sediment and bale loam (with a clay-like substructure). You want complexity? The soil here has it in spades. So no wonder the wines do, too.
The University of California at Davis, the foremost wine research center in the US, has said of the soil in Stag’s Leap District: “We have not seen any valley floor soils elsewhere in Napa Valley similar to those of Stags Leap District.”
Which may be why the Cabernets produced here have an evident similarity in texture and taste and why they are among my personal favorites of all wines produced in the valley.
The Stags Leap District was designated an American Viticultural Appellation (AVA) in 1989, the first viticultural area in the US to be approved on the basis of the distinctiveness of its soils.
At the Association’s invitation, I had a chance last week, at Silverado Vineyards, to taste through the entire collection of 2004 Stags Leap District Cabs. My tasting notes and scores follow. This mixed case is the only Cabernet collection offered by any AVA in all the US. For the wine lover, it’s a simple way to own an assortment of wines that would otherwise be challenging to assemble.
What’s intriguing about the 2004 collection is the relative uniformity in quality, texture and taste in the wines. In the end, yes, each wine a bit different from the next, even though some wineries are contiguous.
“Never forget, there are 15 different Cabernets here… and 15 winemakers… which means 15 different spins on the same thing,” says Silverado Vineyards winemaker Jon Emmerich.
I asked Emmerich how he personally rates the 2004 wines from Stags Leap District among the six vintages of the decade so far.
“I rate it in the top three, probably after 2001 and 2005,” says the winemaker.
You can wait for the winegrowers to offer that mixed case of 2005 Cabs next year at this time… but you’d be making a mistake to pass up the 2004 collection. It’s a stunner.
This year's collection includes:
Baldacci Family Vineyards - 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon
Lovely dark cherry notes and a bit of the aroma you get from red wax lips, which you sometimes get (and can chew) at Halloween. Grown on the family’s 17-acre vineyard, the grapes are 100 percent Cabernet. There are gorgeous flavors of ripe red and black fruits; the wine is elegant and has a focused, long finish. 91 points.
Chimney Rock Winery - 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve
100 percent new French oak adds cacao and cherry notes to the nose. Maybe there’s even a hint of raspberry. Very sweet on the palate, offering seductive flavors and tons of fleshy texture. There is a luscious middle palate and an exquisite finish. 92 points.
Cliff Lede Vineyards - 2004 Poetry
There is a striking nose of dark ripe fruit and also a hint of more wood on this sample of bottled poetry than on either of the two preceding wines (89% new French oak, barrel aging for 24 months). The wine has great grip at the front end a powerful focus toward the middle palate, and a fabulous, focused finish. 95 percent Cabernet, 3 percent Cab Franc, 2 percent Petit Verdot. 92 points.
Clos Du Val - 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon
Ripe red fruit tweaks the nose; blackcurrants, cedar, and briar tease the palate. All these flavors are wound around a core of brightness. The wine is alive in the mouth, exhibiting textures that thrill you; velvet, silk, velour to name a few. A magnificent achievement. 93 points.
Malk Family Vineyards (labeled Griffin Vineyards) - 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon
The first bottle was challenged; it exhibited vanilla and wax on the nose with an imbalance of alcohol. This was a wine of many parts, not one of which sublimated with any other. Disjointed, unfocused, and unfriendly, I thought. 88 points, and only generously so. I thought it only fair to ask for a second bottle.
Second bottle: still a lot of vanilla on the nose, suggestive of too much wood. Bit on the high-alcohol range, as was the first bottle, but this sample had a thick, palpable texture, which had been lacking in the first bottle. Almost like velour in the mouth. But still out of balance with respect to the level of alcohol. 90 points.
Hartwell Vineyards - 2004 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
Unlike earlier vintages, the Hartwells chose to tweak this year’s Cab with a smidgen of Petit Verdot. And it shows. This is a lush, sensual, alluring wine. The texture is “virtual silk.” This is was the first wine of the 15-wine tasting that I had to swallow, just couldn’t waste it spitting. This is a ripe, food-friendly – and did I say fabulous? – wine. 93 points.
Ilsley Vineyards - 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon
The Ilsley Vineyard abuts Shafer’s hillside on the east side of the Silverado Trail. Some 90 percent of the family’s fruit is sold to Shafer, some of it destined for the winery's One Point Five Cabernet (also part of this Appellation Collection). As David Ilsley is vineyard manager of his family’s vineyards and also vineyard manager for Shafer, no one’s shocked that Ilsley's Cab has similar features to Shafer's Cab.
In this case, the 2004 Ilsley offers deep dark ripe fruit on the nose and a bevy of stunning, complex flavors on the palate. The finish is magnificent, pushing this bottle over the top. 94 points.
Pine Ridge Winery - 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon
Stacy Clark’s tasting notes (she’s the talented winemaker) point out that this wine is 86 percent Cab, 6 percent Merlot, 4 percent Cab Franc, 3 percent Petit Verdot, 1 percent Malbec. She could have added: “And 100 percent inspirational!”
My tasting notes: “Silk on steroids! Gorgeous wine, a stunner!”
To flesh out the notes: coffee aromas leap from the glass as well as ripe cherries, strawberries and raspberries. One of the most aromatic wines in the Collection this year. Penetrating flavors, too, and a memorable texture.
In sum, this wine is even more attractive than the 2004 Rutherford Pine Ridge Cab, which the winery also produces, and which I tasted blind and rated one of the top Rutherford Cabs from 2004. 94 points.
Regusci Winery - 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon
Ripe black fruits and a touch of sweetness on the early attack; very focused flavors, particularly of blackcurrant, briar, tobacco. A really good wine, but somewhat lacking on the back end. Bottle variation? 92 points.
Robert Sinskey Vineyards - 2004 RSV Cabernet Sauvignon
Organically farmed grapes, TLC and patience have produced a really good wine, though slightly on the jammy edge. The nose suggests lushness, bordering on sur-mur, or over-ripeness. The palate further adds to the impression – there is an almost late-harvest quality to the fruit. If they market this as “late-harvest Cab for the Zin-lover” they will attract a large following. 90 points.
Shafer Vineyards - 2004 One Point Five Cabernet Sauvignon
Winemaker Elias Fernandez says this vintage reminds him of the winery’s 1992 Cab. How lucky you are, then, if you are still holding on to a few bottles of the 1992 Shafer Cab. That vintage was stunningly good. But so is this vintage. I find the nose is actually voluptuous – two layers of ripe fruit compete in a singular whiff for your attention.
This is likely the most sophisticated wine in the case. There is lovely balance, an elegance and a joie to this wine. Blackberry, dark chocolate and herbs dominate. The overall impression is: great wine-growing, great wine-making, great wine-drinking. 94 points.
Silverado Vineyards - 2004 Solo
Winemaker Jon Emmerich opened a bottle of the 1982 Stag’s Leap Cab from this vineyard and at 26 years of age, it blew everything else in this tasting out of the water. Unfortunately, they haven’t thought of introducing a “bonus bottle” enabling lucky buyers to find a surprise, 16th bottle in their mixed Appellation Collection case – this 1982 Silverado Vineyards Cab.
So we content ourselves with the 2004 Silverado offering, which has a lot of smoke and toast on the nose, suggesting that it is perhaps still early to be judging/drinking this wine. Purple fruit, young tannins, herbal notes, and a short finish suggest this wine needs more time than others in the Collection to mature. I hovered – between 91 and 92 points.
Stags' Leap Winery - 2004 The Leap Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
Winemaker, Kevin Morrisey says 2004 was a terrific vintage and thinks this wine is a showcase for black and red fruit, toasted vanilla, tobacco, violets and charred meat.
I personally found this wine to offer a kaleidoscope of flavors, which rippled over my palate in gentle succession, most of them fruits, and all of them only rolling to a stop long after I’d swallowed. Balanced and elegant. A memorable wine. I wrote “awesome” in my notes and circled it, then scored the entry 94 points.
Steltzner Vineyards - 2004 Reserve Barrel Select Cabernet Sauvignon
If you ever find me describing anything within the pages of napaman.com as ”nice,” drinks are on the house for all readers! I don’t like the word, and never use it. When used as an adjective, it says nothing about anything.
Take Steltzner’s own tasting notes for their wine: someone has described the 2004 Cab as having “nice acidity.”
Now what the hell is that? Too much acidity, not enough acidity, text-book acidity – any of these I understand. But “nice acidity???”
I don’t know about “nice acidity,” because the bottle we sampled exhibited mostly coffee and vanilla notes and presented a noticeable, jammy raspberry presence on the middle palate. In sum, more like a candied fruit experience than a wine-drinking experience. If anything this wine lacked acidity. 90 points.
Taylor Family Vineyards - 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon
This is the third vintage, which the Taylor family has crushed for its own label. Lousy luck… a lousy bottle? My sample showed a medicinal nose suggestive of bandages and iodine. Comparing notes with the wine writer next to me, she found them evident, too. I wanted to ask for a second bottle to neutralize my first impression, but we ran out of tasting time. Given the location of these vines, the fruit they produce, and the wineries to whom these grapes used to be sold, I have to guess that this was an errant bottle. 88 points.
STOP THE PRESS!
Following publication of this story, I was contacted by Sandy Taylor Carlson whose family owns Taylor Family Vineyards. She said that I must have been served a punk bottle of her wine at the press tasting and offered to drop off a bottle for me to re-taste.
See the update below – this is a much better wine than noted here.
Unhappy with the tasting notes above, feisty winery owner Sandy Taylor Carlson emailed, asking if I would retry her 2004 Stags Leap District Cabernet. When I learned of her family’s winemaking history, I said, “Of course. Come by and we’ll taste together.”
For 17 years, the Taylors (Sandy’s dad grows the fruit) sold his grapes to Pine Ridge for its sensational Stags Leap District Cabernets. I have bought these wines for years and know how good the fruit is/was, so figured that I needed to revisit the wine, which we’d been offered at the press tasting (above).
2004 Taylor Family Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon
What a difference a day makes. And a second bottle, too. Nothing like the sample served at the press tasting. Winemaker Gustavo Brambila has fashioned a wine with dark cherry, chocolate, cassis and tobacco on the nose. There are perhaps too many intrusive young tannins, but this wine is, for the record, not actually being released for another month, so youthful, bordering-on-aggressive, tannins are to be expected. Certainly tolerated. This wine needs at least two years to shape up, and shut up; the tannins, at this stage, overwhelm the fruit on the palate. Ends with a cranberry finish. Will retail for $60, or $65 (not yet decided) on release next month. 91 points.
2003 Taylor Family Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon
Sandy brought along two previous vintages, hoping to show me how her family’s wine ages over time. I love her spark, faith and optimism. She wasn’t going to take a lousy score lying down… and I’m glad that she didn’t, for I maligned her well-made wine (above) by basing my notes on a single, flawed bottle.
The 2003 is perhaps not as successful as the 2004 vintage. It has many of the same aromas on the nose – mostly cherries, vanilla and a large, looming Asian spice-pack. Lots of oak on this wine, possibly too much, overpowering the lushness of the fruit. This vintage retails for $60. 90 points.
2002 Taylor Family Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon
Ah.. THIS is the daddy. The color alone sets you up for excitement; it is deep regal red, the color of sexy pajamas, the kind Hugh Hefner might wear. A very sophisticated nose, offering scents of blackcurrant and cassis. A lovely wine, with lots of flesh in the middle and a black cherry, raspberry, chocolate, Asian spice dance on the palate at the swallow. Available from the winery library at $65. A steal. 93 points.
These wines and their story can be found at www.tayorfamilyvineyards.com
-- and tell them that napaman.com sent you!