Last week Nicki Pruss of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars was in Dallas. She presented a powerful, but eclectic assortment, of her wines at the restaurant with the best wine list in Dallas, Pappas Bros Steakhouse. Luckily, I was an invited guest at the dinner which showcased her wines.
Pruss has a big responsibility. As winemaker at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, she has the weight of a massive reputation on her shoulders. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars was one of the California wines included in the 1976 Judgment of Paris: the first time the major grape categories of France and California wines competed against each other in a blind tasting by French experts. The shocking ending: California won! The event was so significant Hollywood produced a movie, Bottle Shock, that contained more drama than facts of the actual event.
In reality, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars was voted the best red wine in the world for its 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon, Cask 23 which is now recognized as the Stag’s Leap District AVA. The tiny winery, drawing its grapes from a 44-acre block purchased for $200,000 in 1970, received global attention.
In 1998, founder and owner, Warren Winiarski hired Nicki Pruss. She had responded to a job advertisement pinned on the Napa County College of Viticulture & Winery Technology for a Grape Tester. Her job, for four months of the year, was to take daily samples from various parts of the vineyard of the grapes as they ripened. From June to September she measured sugar levels, malic acid, cluster and berry weight, and submit her findings to winemaker Michael Silacci who determined when to go into wine country’s equivalent of Defcon I and rustle up the forces to harvest the grapes (increasingly at night).
From that lowly but vital line position, Pruss worked her way up to wine maker in 2005. She has been at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars ever since, even surviving a change of ownership in 2007 when Winiarski retired and the estate was sold to a joint venture of Marchesi Antinori Srl and Chateau Ste, Michelle.
The 1994 ‘Cask 23’ Estate Nape Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was the heir to the 1973 wine that won the Judgment of Paris. At 18 years of age it was brawny, intense, and far more complex than most 18-year-old wines. The nose has a dustyness which is more common in Rutherford wines. There is an intense aroma of both red and dark fruit. There is a good tannic backbone. The finish is clipped and the mouth feel of the fruit slightly dried suggesting that this is a wine to drink now. Like all legendary wine houses, this wine is, above all, a style. You either buy into it or you do not, but it is important for all serious wine drinkers to know what Cask 23 represents.
In 1986 Winiarski purchased the neighboring Fay Vineyard, one of the best vineyards in California. The result is a line of FAY wines. The 1999 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars “FAY” Estate, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is particularly impressive. The nose has five-spice and cedar. The aromas explode with blueberries. There is unmistakable French oak and substantial body in the mouth.
Also impressive is the 2007 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Napa Valley Merlot, a wine for which the winery receives no love. However, I feel it is one of the best Merlots out of California. It has an open and extremely complex nose. There are hints of blueberries, mint, cedar, chocolate, and molasses. The dark fruit in the mouth leaps out of the wine. But it is not a fruit bomb. It is too complex and well-balanced. The finish hangs around seemingly forever. It is still very tannic, despite being five years old and made from Merlot. This is a wine that is simply massively structured.
The staff and Master Sommelier Barbara Werley at Pappas Bros. provided professional service throughout the evening. The wine arrived at the correct temperature and in peak condition.