At a time when even cult Californian wines are languishing in warehouses, things are humming at Napa's Stags' Leap Winery.
Through the recession and a global wine glut, Stags' Leap has managed to keep its customer base and has a five-year plan to increase production annually.
"We have very faithful fans for Stags' Leap," says general manager and winemaker, Christophe Paubert, 49, who came aboard only 18 months ago. "We've seen no drop in our merlot sales and I've been asked to bottle more cabernet sauvignon. We're really investing in our own ability to sell our wines in the future."
The 81-acre winery, founded in 1893 by Horace Chase, takes its name from a native Wappo legend about a stag escaping hunters along the palisades. (Confusingly, another, wholly unassociated winery named Stag's Leap Wine Cellars was founded in 1970).
Part of the plan is to give Paubert more leeway in refining the winery's style.
"I love the chemistry of wine but am very traditional, so I'm always wary of new technologies," Paubert says. "The other day a guy showed me a plastic tank with wooden staves inside and said it was better than an oak barrel. I said goodbye to him quickly."
Paubert, past cellar master at Chateau d'Yquem, has made wine in Chile, Spain, New Zealand, and Washington state before coming to Stags' Leap. He abhors overripe fruit that make high- alcohol wines beloved by so many.
"In California we get so much sun that, even without letting the fruit overripen, the alcohol is higher than in Bordeaux," he says. "To make great wine, the grapes have to undergo stress, and in Napa the weather is too perfect — hot in the daytime, cool at night."
Since he has been at Stags' Leap for only two harvests, his own style will only become apparent in the years to come. But I was able to discern his intentions in two white wines he made, which we enjoyed over a plate of fried calamari at Tutta Bella restaurant in Scarsdale, N.Y.
A 2009 viognier ($25) had very fresh, bright, floral flavors but none of the cloying spices and tropical notes that often compromise California examples. So, too, the 2009 chardonnay ($28) lacked the domineering oakiness of the state's typical style.
"Chardonnay's liveliness and acid are key to its appeal," says Paubert. "If you use the wrong kind or quality of oak, you taste more wood than fruit."
None of the red wines I sampled was of Paubert's making. With a porterhouse steak, we tasted two cabernets. First, a 2007 ($49) blend with petite sirah, cabernet franc, and petit verdot in an amiably big, still tannic Napa Valley style. Second, a more complex, nicely balanced 2006 estate grown cab labeled "The Leap" ($75), which, at 100 percent cabernet and 14.5 percent alcohol, showed more finesse than I would have expected.
Stags' Leap is best known for its petite sirah, and its 2008 vintage ($38) is the latest in a 30-year legacy working with a varietal now made by about 450 California wineries.
I've had some inky vintages from Stags' Leap in the past, but the 2008, blended with some syrah, grenache and mourvedre, at just 13.7 percent alcohol, was brighter, lighter, and heavier on the fruit.
The petite sirah bottling called Ne Cede Malis ($75) —"Do not give in to misfortune," a Latin motto from Virgil given by Chase to its oldest vineyard — is the source of grapes that are hand chosen and picked, called a "field blend." The wine shows off the fruit-forward petite sirah and the subtleties of other blended Rhone varietals.
Paubert did make the yet-unreleased petite sirah 2009 and he has great enthusiasm for the 2010 vintage.
"It has huge color and tannin and will need time to age," he said. "Its beauty is in the aromatic freshness of the fruit, and it obtains a fine floral character in our part of the Valley to go with the intense concentration."