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A Winemaker's Journal

Bottling a Place

By Elias Fernandez

Wine labels are packed with information. Read carefully and you’ll typically find who makes the wine, what year the grapes were picked, the grape variety and where the vineyards were located.

For many wine lovers this last bit of information is traditionally very important. On most bottles of French wine you’ll only learn where the wine was produced, not what grape varieties, such as Chardonnay or Merlot, went into the wine. And the label won’t just tell you that it’s a wine from France, it’ll tell you the appellation within France such as Bordeaux or Burgundy. And within those larger territories you’ll find the name of a tiny growing area perhaps one or two miles across.

In the U.S., fine wines will usually narrow the focus to, say, Napa Valley. Then within the Napa Valley appellation, you’ll find a “sub-appellation” such as Stags Leap District, where I make wine. Napa Valley includes sub-appellations such as Rutherford, Oakville, Spring Mountain, among others. Sonoma County includes the sub-appellations of Russian River, Dry Creek, and Chalk Hill.

Winemakers and wine enthusiasts today believe these areas impart distinct characteristics to the wine. But that wasn’t always the case.

When the Shafer family moved from Chicago to their newly purchased vineyard in Napa Valley in 1973, things were very different. There was no sub-appellation called Stags Leap District. Beyond that, there was very little Cabernet Sauvignon planted here.

Yet in a the span of just 20 to 30 years Stags Leap District has became an area that Wine Spectator calls “a source of some of Napa’s best-known and highest-quality Cabernets.”

Something that wasn’t well understood in the early days was that our seeming weakness – that consistent of midday heat followed by late afternoon cooling – was in fact one of our greatest strengths.

From his first vintage in 1978, John Shafer saw the climate helped develop Cabernet fruit that retained high-toned acidity in grapes that achieved deep ripeness, resulting in wines of exquisite balance.

“I’ll never forget the Napa Valley Vintners 1981 Wine Symposium and the official debut of of our ’78 Cabernet. Because I was the new kid on the block all the big shots of winedom were coming by to taste our first release,” says John.

Commenting on how well developed and soft this Cabernet was for a wine that hadn’t been released yet, many asked the same question: “How much Merlot did you add?”

“None,” John would reply to a look of skepticism. The truth was that he made it with 100 percent Cabernet because that was all he had. But the tasters kept prodding me about the blend.

“What I realized later was that the buyers were identifying the most prominent attribute of Cabernet Sauvignon grown in the Stags Leap District: the silky, supple, velvety tannins that don’t require softening with the addition of Merlot,” says Shafer

It was that distinct character, so clearly identified with this region that would prompt John four years later to head up a committee of growers and vintners in petitioning the government to designate this region the Stags Leap District appellation, now recognized worldwide for its Cabernet Sauvignon.

To decide for yourself how important “place” is to wines, try picking out wines that come from sub-appellations and taste the difference.