Tasting Notes by
George Heritier 




had the opportunity to taste through several selections from two well-known Napa Valley wineries recently, and they provided what I found to be a fascinating contrast, not so much in style, but rather in impact, from my perspective. Neither Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars nor Merryvale Vineyards make the kind of over-oaked, over-ripe wines that sadly seem all too prevalent these days, and each has a unique house style.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is one of the truly legendary wineries in Napa Valley, and its owner Warren Winiarski is one of the driving forces that made the California wine industry what it is today. Rather that try to once again retell their story here, I would instead direct the reader to both Stag’s Leap’s website and to Allan Bree’s fine article in these pages from a few years back. When I received an invitation to taste through some of their wines from their southeastern Michigan distributor, the Vintage Wine Company, I wasn’t about to refuse. I’ve not only enjoyed their wines in the past, one of them (an S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon from the early ‘80s) was a benchmark for this taster when tasted in around ’89, one that I still have fond memories of.

2005 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Napa Sauvignon Blanc, 96%Sauvignon Blanc (25.4% of which is Sauvignon Musque), 4% Semillon, $22, 13.5% alc.: Pale to medium straw color, with a clean, crisp and perhaps surprisingly, slightly dusty personality that I find appealing; it features flavors and aromas of grapefruit and under-ripe pear, shaded with a bit of hay, with good balance, presence, cut and length. Find this wine

This strikes me as being just short of restrained, and in fact, it presents a microcosm of the Stag’s Leap style of winemaking. Tim Clark, Stag’s Leap’s Midwest Regional Sales Manager tells me that winemaker Nicki Pruss would prefer a Sauvignon Blanc that more resembles the bold style of New Zealand, while Winiarski himself wants something very much along the lines of white Bordeaux, and so this was their compromise, and it’s one that I quite like. Made from fruit sourced primarily from Stag’s Leap’s B.R.V. Estate Vineyard (60-70%), and supplemented by grapes from the Rancho Chimiles Vineyard of Terrence Wilson, and other select Napa Valley growers. 81% barrel fermentation (3-4 year-old French oak, 6 months sur lies), 19% tank.

2005 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Napa Chardonnay Karia2005 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Napa Chardonnay Karia, $32, 13.5% alc.: Medium straw color, with subtle oak and clean, restrained Chardonnay fruit reminiscent of cream, apple, pear and citrus, all shaded with a subtle underlying minerality; this is all about balance, elegant and full of finesse. Indeed, Winiarski’s focus has always been on restraint, and this shows that very nicely, with its smooth texture that almost belies the deceptive acidity. Karia is derived from a Greek word meaning “graceful,” and this embodies that characteristic well. Sourced from the Arcadia and B.R.V. Estate Vineyards, and supplemented with fruit from selected Carneros vineyards; 91% Barrel and 9% Stainless Steel Tank fermentation, with only 28% malolactic. Find this wine

2003 Hawk Crest California Merlot, 99.7% Merlot, .03% Cabernet Sauvignon, $14, 13.8% alc.: This ruby dark garnet was included in the tasting to illustrate how the quality of the Hawk Crest line, Stag’s Leap’s 2nd label, has been stabilized and improved, given inconsistent performance in the past, and it certainly held its own in that regard. It offers slightly dusty, well-mannered currant and berry flavors and aromas, shaded with a little earth, some dark chocolate and a hint of spice. Well balanced, with moderate tannins and good acidity, this is a well-priced, harmonious everyday house red, and it’s not everyday that I’ll say that about a California Merlot. Sourced from vineyards in Paso Robles (67.4%) and the Red Hills district of Lake County (13.3%); 9 months in French oak. Find this wine

2004 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Napa Cabernet Sauvignon Artemis, 98.4% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1.6% Merlot, $50, 13.8% alc.: Dark garnet color, with black currant and tobacco aromatics that follow through nicely on the palate, accented with a subtle note of dark chocolate and a judicious kiss of oak; moderate tannins, with good acids and length, this shows pure Cabernet character and pairs well with a slice of prime rib. Artemis not only obviously refers to the Greek Goddess of the wilderness and the protector/hunter of the stag, but is also intended to differentiate from the rival Stag’s Leap Winery. Sourced from Fay, SLV and Arcadia Estate Vineyards, and supplemented with fruit from selected independent Napa Valley growers; 18 months in French Oak (52% new), 100% malolactic. Find this wine

2003 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Napa Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon Fay2003 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Napa Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon Fay, $80, 13.7% alc.: This dark garnet exudes a lovely perfume of rich black currant-cassis shaded with notes of chocolate, tobacco and perfectly integrated oak, all of which follows through beautifully on the palate. Like everything else tasted on this occasion, this exhibits the impeccable balance and finesse that is the hallmark of this producer; it has a lovely personality, with a smooth mouth feel and deceptive structure that will carry it well for several years of development in the cellar, and yet it already drinks so well that one might have a hard time keeping hands off, especially to pair with any fine cut of beef or lamb. Classic Napa Cabernet; an iron fist in a velvet glove indeed! Sourced from the legendary Fay Vineyard, seeing 27 months of French oak and 100% malolactic fermentation. Find this wine

The last wine tasted was bought from the wine list of the restaurant where the tasting was held, because the distributor is sold out and it was felt that it would provide an interesting comparison to the Fay bottling, which it certainly did.

2003 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Napa Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon S.L.V., 98.8% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1.2% Merlot, $110, 14.1% alc.: Dark garnet color, and although a little less effusive on the nose than the Fay, it still displays a lovely perfume that features a little dust, a little earth and black currant-cassis shaded with a hint of chocolate, and these impressions follow through on the palate beautifully; impeccably balanced, this is clearly a deeper, darker wine than the Fay, less immediately gorgeous and needing more time in the cellar, five years minimum. Another classic. 40% of Stag’s Leap’s S.L.V. Vineyard was too young for production in 2003, due to a continuous replanting program that had taken place over the previous decade, so this wine was sourced primarily from Blocks 1A and 2A, planted in the early ‘90s, along with Block 4, the last remaining block from the original 1970 planting. 100% stainless steel fermentation, followed by 27 months in French Oak; 100%malolactic. Find this wine

Merryvale Vineyards

I doubt that I’ve sampled more than two selections from Merryvale in the last ten years, and frankly, found these to be rather different than I had expected. Owned by Jack and Lilo Schlatter, operated by their son Rene, and located in St. Helena, CA in the first winery built following the repeal of prohibition, Merryvale sources fruit from Napa vineyards such as Ridgetop Estate, Showket, Star, Beckstoffer’s Georges III, Vineyard X and from Carneros, Las Amigas. The wines are now made by Australian Larry Cherubino and 14-year Merryvale veteran Sean Foster, but those noted here were made by the previous winemaker, Steve Test; the winery is also in partnership with grower Andy Beckstoffer to produce wines for the Merryvale-Beckstoffer Vineyard label.

We started off with four whites before moving on to the reds; here are my snapshot impressions:

2005 Merryvale Starmont Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley2005 Merryvale Starmont Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, $18, 90% Sauvignon Blanc, 10% Semillon, 93% fermented in French oak barrels, 7% tank-fermented, 13.5% alc.: Medium straw color; slightly astringent, despite the obvious oak, with herbaceous, somewhat grassy apple and melon. Decidedly dry, nothing “fruit forward” about this. Sourced from vineyards including Riverview, Silverado-Milliken, Beckstoffer-Melrose and Juliana. Find this wine

2005 Merryvale Starmont Chardonnay, Napa Valley, $20, 13.5% alc.: Medium straw color; dusty apple and melon nose follows through on the palate with obvious, but not excessive oak. Balanced, very dry and like the Sauvignon, not at all fruit forward. Aged an average of seven months in French oak barrels (7% new); sourced from vineyards including Merryvale Estate-Stanly Ranch, Oak Knoll, Cofran-Johnson, Bayview-Poe, St. Andrews, and Red Hen. Find this wine

2003 Merryvale Reserve Chardonnay, Carneros, $29, 14.5% alc: Pale gold color; overt toasty oak (the only one of the wines tasted on this occasion to show as such) on the nose follows through on the palate, where it dominates the restrained pear-Chardonnay fruit. Good balance and acidity, but more wood than I care for. 17 months in French oak barrels (54% new); first seven months on primary yeast lees, stirred monthly before blending; ten additional months on light yeast lees, unstirred; sourced from Sangiacomo Vineyards, Bayview-Poe Ranch, Beckstoffer-Carneros Lake and Merryvale Estate-Stanly Ranch Vineyards. Find this wine

2003 Merryvale 'Silhouette' Chardonnay, Napa Valley, $45, 14.5% alc.: Medium straw to pale gold color; reticent nose shows subtle honeyed pear, with flavors echoing politely. This is all about balance and finesse, and the oak doesn’t dominate as in the ’03 Carneros Reserve. 17 months in medium-plus toast French oak Burgundy barrels (70% new); first seven months on primary yeast lees, stirred monthly; last ten months on light yeast lees, unstirred; sourced from Milliken, Stanly Ranch and Beckstoffer-Carneros Lake Vineyards. Find this wine

2003 Merryvale Starmont Merlot, Napa Valley, 87% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon and 1% Cabernet Franc, $24, 14.5% alc.: Dark garnet color; earthy, “sticks-y” red and black currant flavors and aromas, showing moderate oak at most. Restrained and balanced. Up to 16 months in French oak barrels (55% new); sourced from vineyards including Beckstoffer-Las Amigas and Orchard Avenue, Showket, O'Brien Family and Oak Knoll. Find this wine

2001 Merryvale Reserve Merlot, Napa Valley2001 Merryvale Reserve Merlot, Napa Valley, 82% Merlot and 18% Cabernet Sauvignon, $35, 14.5% alc.: Dark garnet color; earthy, “sticks-y” red and black currant flavors and aromas. Richer in character than the Starmont Merlot, but similar in profile, and well structured. 19 months in 100% French oak Bordeaux chateau ferre barrels (70% new); sourced from Beckstoffer-Las Amigas, ToKalon, Vineyard X and VI, O’Brien Family and Showket Vineyards. Find this wine 

2004 Merryvale Starmont Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley (no technical information available), approx. $27: Dark garnet color; earthy, briary black currant flavors and aromas, with no noticeable oak; balanced, almost Bordeaux-like in character. Find this wine

2003 Merryvale-Beckstoffer Merlot - Beckstoffer Las Amigas Vineyard, Carneros, Napa Valley, $39, 14.5% alc.: Dark garnet color; flavors and aromas show some subtle oak over red and black currants accented with sticks and subtle dark chocolate. Not at all fruit forward, with a classic claret-like character; well structured, with good promise for aging and development. 18 months in French oak Bordeaux chateau ferre barrels (66% new); sourced from Beckstoffer-Las Amigas Vineyard, Blocks D2 and D5. Find this wine

2002 Merryvale-Beckstoffer Cabernet Sauvignon - Beckstoffer Vineyard X2002 Merryvale-Beckstoffer Cabernet Sauvignon - Beckstoffer Vineyard X, Oakville, Napa Valley, $75, 14.5% alc.: Deep, dark garnet color; the tight nose gives only a hint of the rich, earthy black currant and bitter chocolate flavors that follow. More Franco than Napa in personality, and well structured for bottle aging and development. Like the rest of the reds tasted here, this begs for a medium rare ribeye steak. 18 months in French oak Bordeaux chateau ferre barrels (100% new); sourced from Beckstoffer-Vineyard X, Blocks B, C and D. Find this wine

Merryvale 'Antigua' Dessert Wine, 100% Muscat De Frontignan from vintages 1970 to 1983, 1992 to 1994, and fortified with fine pot-still brandy, $29, 18% alc.: Amber gold color; nutty toffee and orange peel flavors and aromas aren’t excessively heavy, or excessively sweet for that matter. It shows its high alcohol on the nose, but in a pleasing way, and again, is almost restrained in style. Aged in French oak barrels and tanks for an average of 11 years.  Find this wine

Some Final Thoughts

The Merryvale wines all show a remarkably consistent house style, be they red, white or even the Antigua Dessert wine. They are obviously well made and reflect their high quality vineyard sources, but at the same time, they all show a restrained, almost austere character. They will no doubt pair well with food, but still, with every one of these, I kept looking for some little bit of excitement, and I just couldn’t find any. They all seem to lack the one thing that sets those of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars apart, and that is charm.

Reporting from Day-twah,


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© George Heritier March, 2007