Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

Collector’s Corner

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

General Articles

King of Grapes: Cabernet Sauvignons Rise to Power

While Napa Valley is known for the magnificence of its Cabernet Sauvignons, its reputation was not always inextricably bound with what has become known as the “king” of Vitis vinifera grapes. In fact, the story of how Cabernet Sauvignon came to be the dominant grape variety in Napa Valley (nearly a third of the valley’s acreage is planted to Cabernet today) is one that involves over a century of perseverance by the growers, winemakers, and winery owners who believed in its potential here.

Historical records show that while Cabernet Sauvignon was grown in Santa Clara County as early as the 1850’s, the variety didn’t gain a foothold in Napa Valley until the mid-1880’s. Several prominent figures from the history of Napa Valley winemaking used Cabernet Sauvignon to make “clarets” – red wine blends that often included Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot or even Zinfandel – fashioned after the great wines of Bordeaux.

But the onslaught of phylloxera in Napa Valley vineyards in the late 1800’s threatened Cabernet Sauvignon’s survival, and it wasn’t until Frenchman Georges de Latour planted 20 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon (probably the largest planting of the variety in California 1) that interest in the grape was revived. The Oakville Experiment Station, established for vine, climate and soil research, and a new agricultural college run by the University of California pressured growers and wine producers to shift their focus to varieties other than Zinfandel and Mission grapes; in the early years of the 20th century small plots of Cabernet Sauvignon began to dot the valley.

Prohibition dealt all grape varieties in Napa Valley a fatal blow in 1918. And though repeal in 1933 brought about renewed efforts to champion the cause of “noble” varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, most growers stuck with grapes they knew were easy to grow and most importantly, easy to sell. America’s taste during the 1940’s and 1950’s ran mostly to sweet, even dessert-like wines, and by the 1960’s Cabernet was still less widely planted than Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Carignane.

That slowly changed over the course of the 1960’s and 1970’s as America’s tastes broadened and new entrepreneurs recognized the potential of Napa Valley. One of these newcomers was Nathan Fay, who in the early 1950’s bought 205 acres – including a prune orchard – in what would become known as the Stags Leap District. Fay, who had a deep appreciation of the role Cabernet Sauvignon played in the wines of Bordeaux, replaced his prune trees with Cabernet Sauvignon vines in the early 1960’s. The decision paid off. By the end of the decade Fay was selling his fruit to producers such as Mondavi, Krug, and Heitz – who in turn became known for their Cabernet Sauvignons. And of course it is Fay’s vineyard – which we continue to call by his name – that in more recent years has taken its place as a cornerstone of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars highly regarded Cabernet Sauvignon program.

While Cabernet Sauvignon started to take off in the 1970’s, it was the 1976 ‘Judgment of Paris’ that ultimately sealed the variety’s fate in Napa Valley. In this famous blind tasting which pitted California Cabernets against first-growth and other renowned wines of Bordeaux, the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon was ranked the #1 wine. A scandal amongst the French judges who could scarcely believe the results, the Paris Tasting served to legitimize what Napa Valley growers and winemakers had long known to be true: that Napa Valley could produce Cabernet Sauvignons that rival – and even outperform – the world’s finest examples of the varietal.

In the 35 years since the Paris tasting, Cabernet Sauvignon has had no serious rival in Napa Valley. In the 1980’s America’s love affair with white wine spawned significant plantings of Chardonnay, and the phylloxera scourge of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s brought some speculation that Cabernet Sauvignon would give way to Rhone varieties, but in the end, Cabernet Sauvignon has firmly held its ground. For the time being – and with good reason – Cabernet Sauvignon remains the undisputed “king” of Napa Valley.

  1. Heintz, William, California’s Napa Valley: One Hundred Sixty Years of Wine Making, San Francisco: Scottwall Associates, 1999, p. 234.

Additional Source: Sullivan, Charles L., Napa Wine: A History, San Francisco: The Wine Appreciation Guild, 1994.