Chimney Rock Winery lies in the Stags Leap District, Napa Valley’s smallest and most acclaimed sub-appellation, and was founded by an entrepreneur who thought—and live—large.
Founder Sheldon “Hack” Wilson, was born and educated in New York City. After World War II in the Army Air Forces Bomber Command, he moved to South Africa, making a fortune owning 23 Pepsi-Cola plants in 19 African countries over three decades. Then, in the 1960s and 70s, he entered the beer brewing (served as president of the New York-based Rheingold Corp.) and developed hotels in New York, Los Angeles and Acapulco.
Liking wine and golf in equal parts, Wilson bought the 18-hole Chimney Rock Golf Course on the Silverado Trail in the Stags Leap District in 1980. He split his two loves by keeping nine holes and planting cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc on the other half. It was a good foursome for wine lovers.
Wilson built Napa Valley’s only Cape Dutch-style house and winery on the 180-acre parcel. He hired the highly respected winemaker Philip Togni—an early pioneer in quality cabernet in Napa–who produced Chimney Rock’s first wines in 1984. Togni continued at Chimney Rock until 1987, when winemaker Doug Fletcher arrived from neighboring Steltzer Vineyards.
In 2000, Wilson sold 50 percent of Chimney Rock to the Terlato family, then owners of Paterno Imports and Rutherford Hill Winery (today Terlato owns a portfolio of wineries here and abroad). Wilson died the following year, and Terlato purchased the other half of Chimney Rock Winery in 2003.
At about the same time, Elizabeth Vianna, a Vassar College graduate, was working as a toxicologist at New York’s Cornell Medical Center, and envisioned becoming a doctor. But after tasting a glass of the 1985 Chateau Sociando Mallet at Christie’s pre-auction tasting, she changed careers and coasts.
Vianna earned a master’s degree in enology at the University of California at Davis. While a student, she worked the 1999 harvest at Chimney Rock. She did a post-grad stint at the Napa Wine Company, a custom crush facility, before moving to Chimney Rock in 2002, and becoming the winemaker in 2005.
Last month, Vianna—now six years as the winery’s general manger—returned to New York City where I joined her at Cellini Restaurant for a tasting of Chimney Rock’s current vintages.
We started with the 2014 Chimney Rock Elevage Blanc Napa Valley, a blend of 54 percent sauvignon gris and 46 percent sauvignon blanc. Sauvignon gris, historically known as fie gris, is an obscure grape thought to be a mutation of sauvignon blanc. It is making a revival in Bordeaux’s Pessac-Leognan, Graves, and St. Emilion appellations. You’ll find it in the white wine blends of Chateau Haut-Brion (the most expensive dry white wine in Bordeaux) and the prestigious Chateaux Smith Haut Lafitte and Pape-Clement, among others.
(French regulations require sauvignon gris be blended if it is labeled with a specific appellation; if made and bottled on its own, the wine must be given the generic Bordeaux or Vin de France designation.)
Chimney Rock planted its sauvignon gris in 2002 in the nearby Rutherford appellation, and the first vintage of Elevage Blanc was in 2004. For the 2014 Elevage Blanc, Vianna fermented and aged the wine for six months in equal parts new and used French oak barrels and stainless-steel tanks, then in bottle for one year.
Chimney Rock’s 2014 Elevage Blanc with Cellini’s grilled Octopus Mediterranean salad
Considering that two-thirds of the wine was oak fermented and aged, I was pleasantly surprised by the absence of an aggressive oak aroma in the 2014 Elevage Blanc. Instead, the sauvignon gris contributes melon and pear aromas to sauvignon blanc’s citrus scent. And sauvignon gris’ rounder, fuller texture and mouthfeel dominates sauvignon blanc’s normal crisp acidity. Vianna has handled the blending of these two grapes with remarkable success. It is Bordeaux-like with the added body and richness of Napa wines, and was delightful with Cellini’s grilled Octopus Mediterranean salad appetizer. 90 points. Retail price has a wide range of $36 to $52 (for the curious, Chateau Haut-Brion Blanc is $850).
Chimney Rock named its top red wine “Elevage,” the French word that defines the wine’s transformation during the aging period after fermentation to the onset of bottling. Chimney Rock’s Elevage has been one of Stags Leap District’s elegant and age-able wines. My cellar contains six bottles of it from Napa Valley’s great 1994 vintage.
Elizabeth Vianna with the red 2013 Chimney Rock Elevage.
Eighteen months aging in all new French oak barrels and one year in the bottle fused the Napa Valley appellation 2013 Chimney Rock Elevage Stags Leap District’s composition of 53 percent merlot, 33 percent cabernet sauvignon, nine percent petit verdot and five percent cabernet franc into a dark chocolate, black-cherry, blueberry-scented wine with black-fruit flavor, refined tannins, and a harmonious finish. 91 points. Retail is from $67 to $105.
The Stags Leap District appellation requires a minimum of 85 percent cabernet sauvignon, and the 2013 Chimney Rock Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District is a blend of 89 percent cabernet sauvignon nine percent merlot and 2 percent petit verdot.
Attractive aromas of mild toasted oak, black cherry and blueberry are combined with the the wine’s medium body wrapped with tasty blackberry and black-tea flavors and integrated tannins. This wine delivers the elegance and length that’s Stags Leap District’s calling card. 90 points. Retail prices range from $60 to $100.
Vianna with Chimney Rock’s 2013 & 2014 SLDs
Napa Valley’s 2014 vintage was the third consecutive excellent year. It was slightly cooler than 2013 and developed earlier. While it was another drought year (a nearly five-year crisis now resolved by this winter’s rainstorms and floods) the vineyards received enough rain in February and March that year to carry the vines to a small, but high-quality harvest.
The 2014 Chimney Rock Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District arrives with 87 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent merlot, and petit verdot and cabernet franc filling in the final three percent. It shares the aroma and flavor profile of the previous vintage, but delivers more suppleness on the palate. The 2014 vintage offers an upfront ripeness that is immediately likeable. If you have to drink one of Chimney Rock’s cabernet sauvignon SLDs today, make it the 2014. 89 points. Retail is $59 to $100.
For the last decade, Vianna has sent us elegant, balance wines. Her restrained use of oak, absence of noticeable alcohol, and avoidance of raisin-y overripe grapes makes Chimney Rock wines perfect food partners. I don’t know about her golf game, but when it comes to wine, she aced it.
Top photo courtesy of Chimney Rock Winery
Other photos by John Foy