“I think people make too much fuss over winemakers,” said Christophe Paubert, standing in front of an elegant fireplace at Napa’s Stags’ Leap Winery on a recent fall evening.

Some might find his words counterintuitive, given his vocation. Paubert is Stags’ Leap’s winemaker.

He’s not the only one of his kind who advocated for minimalist techniques during a recent visit to Napa and Sonoma. It was a refreshing refrain in a region where heavy-handedness was once the name of the game.

Stags’ Leap Winery: Old World Philosophy in the New World

Paubert hosted a tasting for me and a group of fellow writers, as part of the 2017 Wine Bloggers Conference last month.

He proudly espoused a philosophy of “showing the fruit, being respectful of the terroir.”

His wines bear that out.

Stags' Leap winemaker Christophe Paubert
Stags’ Leap winemaker Christophe Paubert speaks about terroir at a tasting for the 2017 WIne Bloggers Conference.

“This wine wouldn’t be as beautiful without the oak,” Paubert said about his 2014 Block 20 Estate merlot, “but I don’t want the oak to show.”

Indeed, I found it hard to believe the wine saw 50% new oak.

None of Paubert’s wines resemble the big, jammy fruit bombs that proudly defined the Napa style not so long ago.

The 2014 Twelve Falls Estate Red – a blend of cabernet, petite sirah, and merlot – sees even less new oak than the merlot and has aromas of soil mixing with its dark fruits.

Stags' Leap Glasses w Bottles
Tasting at Stags’ Leap Winery

The lovely and complex 2014 “The Leap” cabernet was showing floral notes.

The most unique wine we tasted was a field blend from a small vineyard block that was planted in 1929.  It’s called “Ne Cede Malis,” Latin for “Don’t give in to misfortune” – the family motto of Stags’ Leap founder Horace Chase. These are the oldest vines on the property – mostly petite sirah, mixed in with fifteen other varietals, including muscat and even gewurtztraminer.


Stags Leap NeCedeMalis Vineyard Block
“Ne Cede Malis” vineyard block. Credit: Stags’ Leap Winery

“Petite sirah doesn’t need a winemaker,” Paubert said. “It makes itself.”

He only used 25% new oak on the 2014 Ne Cede Malis. The resulting wine is vastly more elegant than many petite sirahs – earthy, floral, and lightly fruity, rather than dark, jammy, and sticky.

Paubert grew up in Bordeaux, the son of a cellar master, so he was no doubt raised with the Old World reverence for terroir. But it isn’t just European-born winemakers espousing these ideas. The non-interventionist theme continued at our group’s next Napa destination, where the winemaker was raised on California’s Central Coast.

Etude Winery: Grapes Fit for Terroir

Etude Winery and its winemaker Jon Priest focus on pinot noir. The grape lends itself well to a focus on terroir, as anyone who’s been seduced by the mysteries of Burgundy can tell you.

Etude Winemaker Jon Priest
Winemaker Jon Priest at Etude Winery

“We think of ourselves as wine growers rather than winemakers,” said Priest, who hosted our happy group for a lovely pairing dinner.

Before the pinots, he introduced us to several of his whites – a pinot gris inspired by the wines of Alsace, a Carneros pinot blanc, and an estate chardonnay.

Then he proudly showed off three pinot noirs from three different sites, pointing out the subtle differences among them.

Etude Glasses
Tasting at Etude Winery in Carneros

“The effort is made more in the vineyard than in the winery,” he said.

A Lighter Touch

The idea of respect for terroir and an unapologetic espousal of minimalism came up at almost every winery I visited in Napa and Sonoma.

Admittedly, it was not an entirely random sample.

I prefer the Old World style of winemaking and the properties of the resulting wines  – subtle, nuanced, and evocative of place. Left to my own devices after the conference, I visited wineries I knew I liked or those recommended by people who know my palate.

Still, I found it striking that these wineries wore their non-interventionist philosophies as badges of honor.

There will probably always be a place for the big, jammy, high-alcohol, heavily oaked California wines that gained popularity in the 1980s. But I’m also glad to see this unabashed variation, creativity, and experimentation with a lighter touch.

“Let the fruit speak for itself,” proclaimed John Jordan of Sonoma’s Jordan Winery a few days later.

Cheers to that.


2 thoughts on “Talk of Terroir in California Wine Country

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