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Nathan Fay's commitment to Cabernet pioneered a great wine region
By Daniel Sogg
On a fall day in 1961, 47-year-old Nathan Fay took a chance that changed Napa Valley when he started planting Cabernet Sauvignon vines on his property in Stags Leap.
That may not sound like a risky decision today, now that Cabernet covers more than 12,000 acres throughout the county, including 700 in the Stags Leap District alone.
But when Fay put in those first 15 acres, Cabernet was anything but king in Napa. Old estates such as BV, Inglenook, Louis M. Martini and Charles Krug had proven that the valley could make outstanding Cabernet, but their total production represented little more than a drop in the bucket. In 1960, Napa grew less than 400 acres of Cabernet. In Stags Leap, there was none.
The conventional wisdom of the day held that Cabernet didn't belong on Fay's property. Steep, rocky hills on the district's eastern edge funnel cool Pacific winds that whip through the area. Cabernet needs plenty of heat to ripen, so there seemed little reason to plant it outside the valley's warmer districts several miles to the north in Oakville and Rutherford.
Few people now question that California Cabernet has the ability to produce great wine. Fay had the vision and the courage to believe, despite the skepticism of his more pragmatic colleagues, that the right circumstances for the grape existed in Stags Leap.
"My neighbor had a 2-acre patch of Alicante Bouschet, and he'd reliably get 26 tons [of grapes]," says Fay. "So it was kind of hard to get growers to change and get 3.5 or 4.5 tons from Cabernet."
Today, the Alicante is gone. The tide changed in 1976, when a Cabernet Sauvignon made from Stags Leap grapes took first place in a historic blind-tasting in Paris. Fay's conviction that the district was meant for Cabernet has been validated, and Stags Leap is now home to outstanding wineries like Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Stags' Leap Winery, Shafer, S. Anderson and Pine Ridge. It has joined Oakville and Rutherford as a source of some of Napa's best-known and highest-quality Cabernets.
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"All this happened without a sense of mission," says Luna winemaker John Kongsgaard, who made his first wines with Fay walking him step by step through the process. "That's the charming thing about it. Nate was just an innocent, friendly, 'aw, shucks' kind of guy humbly pouring his wine for his social buddies, and he started a revolution."
Fay didn't come from a winemaking family. He grew up in Piedmont, Calif., near Oakland, where his father was a civil and mining engineer. Halfway to his own mining degree from Michigan Tech, Fay got an offer in 1932 to do construction in Los Angeles. Jobs were hard to come by at the height of the Depression, so he loaded up his Indian motorcycle at Christmas and headed back west.
But Fay loved the outdoors and kept thinking about agriculture. "I just wanted to get into some kind of farming, but didn't really care if it was peaches or pears," he says. "Anything but vegetables."
After returning from World War II service in Europe, Fay bounced around, spending time as a National Park ranger and selling International Harvester farming equipment with his brother-in-law. But it was tough to prosper in Napa selling agricultural machinery. With so many different crops in the area, it was difficult maintaining an inventory of the right equipment. Besides, when someone bought a tractor in the 1950s, they usually would make it last 20 years.
"I decided to quit fooling around with different jobs here and there for a year or so at a time," Fay recalls. "I was interested in wine and wine grapes because, after analyzing things like dairies or what not, I saw grapes were doing better. I decided a vineyard was a good deal."
In 1951, Fay had purchased 205 acres of fallow pastureland between the Silverado Trail and the rocky hills called the Stags Leap Palisades. He'd settled in the heart of one of Napa's most scenic districts. These palisades, which reach an elevation of over 2,000 feet, provide a dramatic backdrop for the region's postcard-perfect beauty.
Two miles east of Route 29, the valley's main thoroughfare, Stags Leap has always been quiet and relatively unpopulated farm country. Fay's neighbors had orchards of prune, cherry and other fruit trees. There was also a smattering of vines, but nothing so finicky as Cabernet Sauvignon.
Farmers needed moneymakers, and the surest way to pay the mortgage was with orchards and low-end grape varieties that cranked out huge crops. Cabernet had little allure for anyone wanting maximum return with minimum hassles. Not only is Cabernet a high-maintenance late-ripener, the traditional, dry-farming methods used to cultivate it usually produced no more than 4 or 5 tons per acre, two-thirds less than the most prolific varieties.
Before making his decision, Fay surveyed an assortment of Napa grapegrowers and bounced his ideas off Jim Lider, a University of California farm advisor who thought Cabernet might be worth a shot. Still, Lider was a dissenting opinion, and most of the growers thought Fay was about to waste his time and money.
But Nathan Fay had his mind made up. He knew that the variety was the backbone of the great reds of Bordeaux, and there seemed no reason to aim low. "I wanted Cabernet, and nobody was going to get me out of that," he says.