By Sunny Brown on April 2, 2007
Category: Winery of the Month
Everything has to start somewhere and at some time. It is easy to think of Napa Valley as an everlasting Mecca of wine- a place that has churned out famous juice after famous juice for centuries like Bordeaux, Burgundy and Chianti. It is easy to forget that so much of this fame and fortune has occurred so very recently. Once famous for black bears and prunes, Napa is now at the forefront in all things wine.
It is also easy to overlook many of the hardworking folks who have left an indelible mark upon this land and the wines therein. There are so many great people with great stories that don't get the headlines that they deserve. Dick Steltzner of Steltzner Vineyards is one such man.
Since purchasing a bit of land in the heart of Napa in the 1960s, Dick has accomplished a few things for Napa Valley. Nothing major, of course. Small stuff, like planting and managing some of the most famous vineyards in California, being instrumental in the creation of one of Napa's most famous AVAs, and cranking out fantastic wines for over twenty years now. Big whup.
I kid about the magnitude of his accomplishments, but you would never know sitting next to Dick that he has accomplished so much. Always humble, he prefers to talk about his wines and his family and the vegetables he grows during the summer. He is also in the running for the title of "Reminds the most people of their grandfather," a ceremonial title only of course.
Though he received a Masters Degree in Art, it seems that farming has always been in his blood. In 1965 he began a vineyard management company, and with a little help from the Wente Brothers he was soon responsible for some of the best vineyards in Napa: Diamond Creek, Clos du Val, Spring Mountain- the list went on and on. Ready for another challenge, in 1977 Dick made his first 500 cases of wine and by 1980 Steltzner Vineyards was off and running.
A true family-run operation, Dick and his wife Christine have poured countless hours into the expansion of the family biz, and are now joined by their children as well. Justin works with Dad out in the vines, while Laura works the hospitality side of the winery, and Allison is the General Manager and National Sales Manager. She is also in the running for title of "Person you most wish was one of your cousins so that family get-togethers would be more fun." Another honorary title.
When pressed as to why each of the Steltzner children have come back to work with their folks, Allsion offered this: "Growing up in the vineyards and being part of the winery our entire lives it was very natural for all of us to come back here to work. The nature and lifestyle of the wine business is very much a part of who we are."
Today Steltzner Vineyards produces 20,000 cases per year of some of the finest wines in Napa, all made entirely from vines that the Steltzners own and manage. They place an intense emphasis on vineyard site, clonal selection and sense of place. They want the wines to taste of the soil that they sprang from.
But one should expect nothing less from a man who has been farming the land in Napa since 1965. Steltzner Vineyards is located in the Stag's Leap District, a small sub-appellation in the heart of Napa just to the east of Yountville and south of Oakville. Though famous now, Stag's Leap only received official status as an appellation in 1989, an event very much tied to the work of Dick Steltzner.
"John Shafer and my father worked very closely to make it happen," says Allison. "Because he farmed there since 1965 he was passionate about the distinct wines that were coming from this area. Joseph Phelps' first Insignia was all Steltzner fruit grown here in the Stag's Leap District. Our first vintage in 1977 had Stag's Leap on the label. We had to take it off in the early '80s, but we got to put it back on once the AVA was established."
So what makes the Stag's Leap District so special? Some would say that it is unique soil types, as some areas boast heavy loam, while others gravel, and some even volcanic deposits. According to the Stag's Leap Winegrowers Association, Stag's Leap was the "First AVA approved based on the distinctiveness of its soils." Or it could be that the bare rock of the Palisades heats the district during the day, but then cool air rolls in from the Pacific at night.
Any way you look at it the wines are spectacular, characterized by Allison as having a unique blend of "silky tannin structure and amazing fruit," though I suspect that she may have other influences as well: "As you drive in the valley the Palisades are a striking rock formation that when I see it I always feel like I am seeing it for the first time."
Dick's years of work in the vines have led to a strange habit. On more than one occasion he has smuggled home vine buds or clippings in his suitcase from various parts of the planet. One of my favorite stories in the wine industry is when Dick recalls sitting at the breakfast table after catching a redeye flight back home and reaching into his pocket only to find a tender young vine wrapped in a wet paper towel. I guess when you spend as much time with grapes as he does sometimes you forget that you have a grapevine in your pocket from another part of the world.
Steltzner Vineyards is now reaping the rewards of his crafty acquisitions. Though they emphasize the Bordeaux varietals, they also grow a few oddballs, at least by Napa Valley standards. They make an excellent Sangiovese, as well as a Malbec that according to Allison "Said 'bottle me alone' when we tasted it." There is also in the lineup the only Pinotage that I have ever liked.
Allison is now involved in the winemaking as well, albeit after a somewhat dubious start. While Dick was away Allison was presented with an abundance of Syrah on the crush pad. Being an enterprising young lass this quickly turned into the Steltzner's first ever rosé. It was met with mixed emotions from Dad. "'I don't make pink shit,' was his quote," says Allison. "Though now it is his favorite wine during the summer."
And so the Allison line of wines from Steltzner was born, and today also includes a Sauvignon Blanc and a traditional Syrah. Even in what the winery terms as a second label quality is number one. "I work very closely with our winemaker Tim Dolven and really go for a distinct terroir-driven style," describes Allison. "The fruit handling and sourcing are very critical. I am out visiting with the growers and walking the vineyards making sure we execute correctly."
As for the wines themselves, the 2005 Sauvignon Blanc from Lake County is fresh and crisp, with a harmonious blend of fruit, acidity and minerals. Steltzner was also one of the few wineries that championed the quality of the Oak Knoll District, one of Napa's newest sub-appellations located just to the south of Stag's Leap. The cool climate creates a perfect growing environment for Chardonnay, as portrayed by the deliciously rich yet impeccably balanced 2004 Steltzner Chard.
The 2005 Allison Rosè of Syrah is a fun and fresh reminder of what makes rosè so great. It sports a bright nose that reminds me of a mix between cranberry sauce and sangria, with plenty of spice and orange zest, while the palate is fruit forward yet with a touch of the slightly bitter cherry pit quality that is hallmark to a good rosè. All this and a refreshingly dry finish to boot.
Another reason I love the wines of Steltzner so much is their outstanding value. They hail from some of the best turf on earth, yet are priced well below the competition. I can say without reservation that the 2004 Steltzner Napa Valley Claret is one of the best values in California wine. A blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, the Claret invariably offers year in and out bright fruit, finessed aromas and subtle oak on a silky and easy to enjoy frame.
The 2004 Cabernet Franc has a nose that is as close to a glass of kirsch as a glass of wine can get. The palate is supply and fleshy, with nuances of sweet red fruit and distinct tannins before a long, mineral-laden finish. The 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon is a big and bold red with aromas of dill, red currants and dust and flavors of dry red fruits, juicy blackberries and firm tannins on the finish. A couple of years in the cellar will do this wine wonders.
And last in the line up is the 2002 Barrel Select Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine created from the best that Stag's Leap has to offer. This wine has an absolutely fantastic nose that is filled with aromas of rich black fruit, scorched earth, roasted espresso beans and a touch of an Amarone-esque raisiny note. The palate has a super silky and velvety feel, with lots of barrel spice, lush dark fruits and a long and chewy finish.
So often in this industry we get caught up in the seriousness of it all. We are too busy trying to impress each other with tales of '47 Bordeaux or using words like "pencil shavings" to describe a glass of wine. It is refreshing to meet people like Dick and Allison, who take a good natured approach to this industry. It is, after all, wine that we are talking about here. No matter how successful you are or how hard you have worked to get there, it should still be fun, right?