Napa Diary Day 8: Rock ‘n Roll at Cliff Lede

Napa Diary Day 8: Rock ‘n Roll at Cliff Lede

The winery has had a roll call of famous consultants since it was founded in 2002 when Cliff Lede left his construction business, Ledcor, to go into wine production. Bordeaux was his passion as a wine collector. David Abreu planted the vineyards, Michel Rolland consulted on winemaking, Philippe Melka was winemaker. Today Cliff’s son Jason is involved, with Christopher Tynan as winemaker.

Cliff Lede has two major plots in Stags Leap: the 40 acre Twin Peaks Vineyard surrounds the winery on the west side of the Silverado Trail; the 20 acre Poetry Vineyard is higher up on the other side of the Silverado Trail. There’s also a 20 acre vineyard at Diamond Mountain in Calistoga. The winery is state of the art, with an optical sorter, gravity feed operations, tronconique tanks for fermentation. It’s just up the road from the tasting room; the road is called Abbey Road after Cliff’s other passion, rock-‘n-roll.

The tasting room is part of a hospitality center that has displays of contemporary art.

Focus is on Cabernet Sauvignon and blends, with several cuvées from different vineyards. The style for the Cabernets has backed off a bit. “Until 2016 we were more into big powerful wines, now we are picking a bit earlier, not restricting yields quite so much, and getting lower alcohol, more towards elegance,” says winemaker Christopher Tynan. The Stages Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, which is the largest production run in reds, has all five varieties. It comes almost entirely (95%) from the estate, mostly from the main vineyard plus a little from younger vines at Poetry, and a little fruit purchased from neighbors. There’s about 7% new oak and it ages on gross lees for 22 months. It’s supplemented by smaller cuvées from Diamond Mountain, Howell Mountain, Songbook (a blend from Thorevilos and Madrona Ranch), and Beckstoffer To-Kalon. Claret and High Fidelity are Bordeaux blends.

Going from the Stags Leap cuvée to single vineyard blocks, the black fruit aromatics become darker. Beckstoffer To Kalon is relatively understated for the vineyard, promising elegance as it ages. “For Beckstoffer To Kalon we are always the first to pick the vineyard,” Christopher says. The flagship Poetry Cabernet Sauvignon (100% varietal) is always the least accessible of the Cabernets when it is young. Brooding and reserved, it promises long aging. When will Poetry be at its peak? “We don’t know yet,” Jason says, “but the reckoning is that you should wait ten years before starting Poetry.” The first vintages of Poetry were more approachable and fruit-forward; recent vintages seem to be more tightly structured.

The largest production run is the Sauvignon Blanc, a blend from Rutherford and some other vineyards, including some Sémillon, aged two thirds in barrique. It has frequent battonage and offers a smooth palate with stone as well as citrus fruits. A separate range, called FEL, comes from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from a 42 acre vineyard Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley to the north.

Oenotourism is encouraged by a range of tastings (vineyard blocks are named after rock-‘n-roll songs, and classic rock plays in the tasting room), and the Poetry Inn is a boutique hotel above the Poetry Vineyard.

An updated profile will be published in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.

Tasting Notes

2019 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc (Sauvignon Blanc 85%, Sémillon 12%)
Attractive fresh nose is poised between perfume and herbaceous. Balance on palate is smooth and silky. Ripe fruits shows stone as well as citrus fruits and aromatics at end add complexity. Very successful, especially considering the scale of production. 14.1%   90 Drink -2024
2018 Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 76%, Cabernet Franc 2%, Malbec 3%, Merlot 13%, Petit Verdot 6%)
Faintly piquant, faintly pungent nose promises development to come. I get a sense of pungency from Merlot. Typical for the area: rich but not overwhelming. Tannins are ripe and round, palate is smooth and pretty much ready to drink, black fruit aromatics are coming out. This is very good for the scale of production. 14.9%   90 Drink -2028
2018 Stags Leap District Magic Nights Cabernet Sauvignon (92% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Petit Verdot, 3% Merlot)
Each year there is a special cuvée blended from two plots. 2018 is Magic Nights, a blend of Nights in White Satin (the eastern part of the main vineyard) and Magic Bus (a lower block at Poetry). Darker black fruit aromatics than the Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, trending towards black cherries and blackberries, but not too obvious. More sense of structure here with tannins just showing a faint bitterness and drying finish. Quite a fresh impression and nothing too overt. I would give this another year.   91 Drink 2022-2034

2018 Sunblock Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 76%, Merlot 13%, Cabernet Franc 4%, Petit Verdot 7%)
A blend of 4 varieties only just above the minimum for Cabernet Sauvignon, this has Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc from Madrona and Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot from Thorevilos. Some aromatic lift to the nose, spicy notes, hints of herbal pungency, more forward and overtly fruity than To Kalon, but also more obvious structure with some bitterness from the tannins. Blackberry and other black fruit aromatics are more obvious than To Kalon and this is certainly a big wine, very intense and concentrated. It needs at least another 3 years.   93 Drink 2023-2040 

2018 Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon
Aromatics come out on nose with a touch of piquancy. Very good balance between the black fruits, which are deep and black but not flashy, and the structure of firm ripe tannins, with little dryness evident on finish, which picks up in the glass. Faintly smoky as the aromatics evolve in the glass, a little flattening from the tannins, and then gravelly impressions on the finish. When the tannins resolve the fruits should show as quite elegant; this is relatively subtle for To Kalon, and it’s potentially the most subtle of the Cabernets. 14.4%   94 Drink 2022-2037

2018 Stags Leap District Poetry Cabernet Sauvignon
This is always the least accessible of the Cabernets when it is young. Quite stern nose shows some rocky impressions. Reserved on the palate, real sense of restraint, aromatics not coming out yet, touch of tobacco but otherwise stern on gravelly finish. Blackberry fruits in background. Coiled spring waiting to unwind.   94 Drink 2026-2045

Poetry 2014 Stags Leap District Poetry Cabernet Sauvignon

Some development shows with tertiary notes of gunflint. Smooth on the palate as tannins have begun to resolve, allowing fruits to come out a bit, but still quite tight. Blackberry fruits still see a little brambly. May be in a closed phase as the palate seems to have tightened up a bit by comparison with younger vintages.   94 Drink -2040

The Reality of Appellations in Napa

In Napa for the Barrel Auction this weekend, I spent Friday afternoon at a series of tasting events organized by the producers of several AVAs. My objective was to determine whether I could see any specificity to Cabernet Sauvignon produced in the  top three appellations of the valley floor: Rutherford, Oakville, and Stags Leap.

The Rutherford Dust group of producers takes its name from the supposed quality of Rutherford: a dusty note in the wines. Whether this is real or is a marketing ploy has been long debated. “The tannins of wines from Rutherford give the sensation you get by running your hand backwards along velvet,” was a description by one producer. Things started out well at the Rutherford Dust group tasting. The first three wines, Alpha Omega 2009, Faust 2009, and Grgich 2008 all showed a similar quality to their tannins. I would not describe it as dusty, more as a sort of slightly sharp tang to the tannins on the finish, but it was a distinctive tannic grip. Then inevitably came some wines to spoil the pattern, Hall Excellenz 2005 (massive tannins), Flora Springs Trilogy (tight and elegant), and then Rubicon Estate 2008 (firm and furry). But with the exception of Peju 2008 and 2001, whose wines were distinctly more aromatic than the others, there was a commonality, with firm tannins giving the wines a classic impression across several vintages.

Things also started well in Oakville, where the first few wines all seems to fit a pattern where taut black fruits were supported by fine grained tannins that reinforced the impression of elegance. Nickel and Nickel’s Branding Iron and Sullenger Vineyard 2008s, Ghost Block Estate 2009, Kelleher 2007, Far Niente 2009 all supported a view that Oakville plays St. Julien to Rutherford’s version of Pauillac. Bond St. Eden 2006 was much more reserved, but generally conformed to the elegant style.But then Harbison 2009, Plumpjack Estate 2009, and Paradigm 2008 all displayed a much softer style, with more overt, opulent black fruit aromatics extending from blackcurrants to cassis.

In Stags Leap District I got much less impression of consistency. Several wines were very soft, forward, and approachable, with soft black fruits on the palate, supported by nuts and vanillin on the finish, with tannins noticeable only as a soft, furry presence in the background. Clif Lede Poetry 2009 and 2004, Stags Leap SLV 2008 and 1997, Pine Ridge 2008 were nice enough wines if you would like something to drink in the immediate term, but I was left wondering how it represents Cabernet typicity as opposed to Merlot or Syrah to make wines that are so fruit-forward and lacking in tannic structure. Shafer One Point Five 2009 showed Shafer’s usual ripe, aromatic style, while Clos du Val 2007 and 1997 showed a more traditional approach, with good acidity supporting firm fruits and the tannins showing a structure halfway between the Rutherford grip and Oakville precision.

Where am I left? There may be a typicity that distinguishes the tannins of Rutherford and Oakville if you let it express itself; I reserve judgment about Stags Leap. In any of these appellations, however, you can make soft, forward, fruity, wines with lots of nutty vanillin to bump up the appeal, using appropriate winemaking techniques. Caveat terroir.