Chimney Rock Winery was founded in 1981 by Sheldon ‘Hack’ and his wife Stella Wilson (both now deceased). Hack enjoyed a lengthy career as a businessman in a variety of ventures including owning and operating a number of Pepsi-Cola plants in Africa, was president of New York-based Rheingold Corp and later operated restaurants and luxury hotels.
Already successful in business, Hack went to Bordeaux in the 1970’s seeking to purchase vineyard land but then he was turned on to the Napa Valley (as an up and coming wine region). This was in the late 1970’s, a slower time in the valley and a period when there were only approximately 40 Napa wineries at the end of the 1970’s who are still in business today. Currently there are approximately 1,100 unique producers in the valley by our count. And Napa had just been recognized for it’s role in the Paris Tasting of 1976.
The Wilson’s purchased 180 acres including an 18-hole golf course (with a coffee shop and cafe) on the east side of the Silverado Trail in what is now the famed Stags Leap District. Hack had 9 of the golf courses’ 18 holes removed to plant grape vines (perhaps leaving 9 holes to satisfy his enjoyment of playing golf). Vineyard workers probably still a few golf balls somewhere in the vineyards.
In 2000 Hack sold part of Chimney Rock to the Terlato Family (based in Chicago) and several years later completed the final sale of Chimney Rock to the Terlatos. The Terlato’s removed the final 9 holes of the golf course and expanded the vineyard operations and production. Today approximately 100 acres are planted to red wine grapes on the estate with the about 80% of the vines planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and the remainder to Merlot, Petite Verdot, Cabernet Franc and a small amount of Malbec. The entire vineyard is separated into 28 distinctive blocks. The Stags Leap District is known for it’s red wines; you don’t find many white wine grapes growing in the region.
While their property is entirely in the Stags Leap District there are remarkable variations in soils and temperatures at any given time throughout the estate. This is especially noticeable in the northern part of the property where vines are growing directly next to the rocky outcrops of the Palisades where it is often warmer then the cooler southern part of the property which is more open and further removed from the Palisades (and the two ends of the property are separated by only 1/2 a mile).
Their vineyards and winery are certified Napa Green (in the vineyards, this involves minimizing erosion, water usage and conducting habitat restoration and in the winery involves minimizing water usage and reducing waste). The winery uses solar energy to power much of their operations – the top of their 25,000 square foot barrel winery and cellar is covered with solar cells. And in an interesting use of recycled water, the city of Yountville supplies recycled water to several wineries in the area including Chimney Rock (which they then can store as needed in several ponds on site) and use for drip irrigating the vines.
All of the vines needed to be replanted in 1990 due to phylloxera – but winemaker Elizabeth Vianna calls this “a blessing in disguise” allowing their vineyard management team to better match root stocks and clones to specific parts of their property – and of course use phylloxera resistant root stock. Winemaker and viticulturist, Doug Fletcher (began his career with Chimney Rock in 1987) oversaw the replanting. He also pioneered the use of a specific open lyre trellising system – now called the Fletcher Lyre. Chimney Rock uses this trellising on some of their blocks – essentially it ensures that grapes on both sides of the vine ripen simultaneously despite different exposures. On one of their east west row orientated blocks, the cordons on the north facing side are trained to be slightly higher then the cordons on the south facing side of the vines.
And in addition to their Stags Leap District estate property, the Terlato’s also own 60 acres on Mee Lane in Rutherford with nearly 9 acres planted to Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris.
Their original winemaker for the first two vintages (1984 and 1985) was industry veteran Philip Togni. Philip is one of Napa’s most treasured winemakers – now into his 90’s he is still very much involved in every harvest for his own winery on Spring Mountain. The first few vintages were made at Bouchaine in Carneros as the winery on site was not completed until 1989.
Part of the original barrel room was modeled after South Africa’s Groot Constantia, the oldest wine estate in the country. While no longer used for production it is now used for various club member events and select tastings. A larger facility was constructed later – with plenty of space – containing more tanks then needed and a sizable barrel room.
Elizabeth (born and raised between Brazil and the east coast of the United States) came to Chimney Rock as a harvest intern in 1999. She was studying Biology at Vasser College in New York on a pre-med track when she discovered wine and changed career directions. She moved to California and enrolled in U.C. Davis, ultimately earning her Master’s degree in enology. Interestingly enough the woman that hired her at Chimney Rock, gave up a career in wine for medicine. Elizabeth also spent a few years working at Napa Wine Co alongside noted women winemakers Heidi Barrett, Pam Starr, and Celia Masyczek.
The fruit for their reserve wines are typically sourced from similar blocks in the vineyard each year – the “sweet spots” if you will. What is always neat is to see how noticeably different the wines are from each other in aromas and flavor based on the various micro climates throughout the property. In part, differences in vintage (weather) and time of aging also play roles in this.
Chimney Rock has the luxury of only using free run juice in their wines (no pressed juice). Elizabeth wants to extract as much color and flavor from the grapes as possible and often runs maceration extending some 30 to 45 days (depending on the wine, vintage etc).
During our first visit we tried a vertical of the 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon through the 2003 vintage. A couple of the older vintages were almost sold out including the delicious 2001 (they have a loyal following and a rather sizable mailing list). This wine has very ripe fruit aromas which turn into notes of mocha and chocolate as it opens up. The palate follows with flavors of blackberry and cranberry anchored by fairly well integrated tannins.
While primarily a Cabernet Sauvignon house, Chimney Rock does make several lighter styled wines including a Sauvignon Blanc from their Rutherford vineyard and a dry rosé of Cabernet Franc. This has been made since the 1990s – Chimney Rock was certainly ahead of the curve on making rosé – we noticed the trend to make a dry rosé in the Napa Valley started somewhere around 2012.
The Elevage Blanc may be one of Napa’s most under rated white wines (and this is from a winery focusing on Cabernet Sauvignon!) White wines (from Napa in most cases) are created to be consumed rather quickly upon release. Not so with this wine; it is hand-crafted so that it can be aged – Elizabeth likes to drink this 5 years after release but it can certainly go much longer then that. She referenced their first vintage of this wine (2004) was still drinking well 13 years after the vintage date. Fruit for this wine comes from their Rutherford vineyard and is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris (a clonal mutation of Sauvignon Blanc – visually when fully ripe it has a pink yellow greyish color to the skin).
Elizabeth ferments the various lots of this wine with a number of different yeasts including native yeasts (8 different strains of yeast were used in the 2013 vintage). In doing yeast trials in white wines she has noticed some remarkable differences between the yeasts – mostly in terms of aromatics and the resulting texture of the wines. She hasn’t noticed the effects of different strains of yeast in red wines like what occurs in white wines. The wine making team uses battonage (stirring of the lees) for up to 8 weeks.
Elizabeth likes the aromatics that the Pinot Gris brings to the blend and as she puts it, “it tames the wild side of Sauvignon Blanc”. The 2014 vintage shows a hint of dessert spice, honeysuckle as it breathes and both tropical and citrus aromas (although the bouquet is not dominated by either end of these aromatic spectrums). Noticeable immediately on the palate is a pleasing weight – creamy, almost oily in nature; with that said the body is not overly viscous and there is a nice acidity to balance out the weight. Flavors of red apple and stone fruit show. This wine drinks very well by itself.
And as one of their long time employees says about this wine, “it is a white wine for red wine drinkers”. And of note, one of their earlier vintages of this wine appeared in the movie, Sex and the City.
The 2012 Stags Leap District Estate Cabernet Sauvignon shows aromas of ripe blackberry, dust nuances and a kiss of mocha. Good acidity, somewhat juicy on the palate – blackberry and black currant. Broad shouldered fairly robust tannins. An ideal steak wine. Perhaps not as much age ahead of it as the powerful 2013 vintage but still has a long ways to go (we tasted this wine 5 years past the vintage date).
The 2013 Ganymede Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (100% varietal) is very dark in the glass – showing dark and seductive aromas with notes of toasted cedar with notes of caramel – but mostly the bouquet is a showcase of the powerful fruit perhaps accentuated by what is generally accepted as a big vintage in the Napa Valley. The wine is full bodied on the palate with darker fruit flavors including blackberry and black cherry. This wine is very youthful and will benefit from some age. Powerful tannins anchor a very long finish.
The 2013 Tomahawk Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (named as an homage to the native Wappo Indians who would hunt on the hillsides of the Palisades – despite never using Tomahawks). This wine is 100% varietal and comes from the southern part of their property. Shows darker notes on the bouquet including hints of tobacco and as the wine breathes, dessert spices. Big, lush with powerful chewy tannins that linger for quite some time. But there is a noticeable mouth watering acidity. Ageworthy for sure.
Chimney Rock’s wines are built to age, Elizabeth enjoys drinking some of their Cabernet Sauvignons between what she calls the sweet spot of 10 to 12 years. These are generally big wines out of the gate and over time (based on the older vintages we tried) all the components become more harmonious. Chimney Rock’s older vintages show off very nicely including the 2006 Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2007 Tomahawk Cabernet Sauvignon – both of which perhaps still tasted a bit more youthful then their age would imply.
A variety of tasting experiences are offered; one of their most popular and in depth offerings is the Vineyard Odyssey Tour & Tasting. Guests (up to 8 people) are driven around the estate in a open air (with a roof) cart. The driver/wine educator offers insights into the property’s history, farming practices and stops at some of the most well-known vineyard blocks where you will try wine from that particular block at each of the stops (followed by a seated tasting).
Other experiences include their estate tour and barrel tasting (including a stop in their production facility), a private vertical tasting of select years of their Stags Leap District Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (vintages up to 8 years old), and the Palisades Preview Seated tasting (where guests enjoy limited production Palisades Society club wines. In 2017 they opened an east facing tiny gated space next to the hospitality center – called the Palisades Patio – offering great views of the nearby rocky palisades (for wine club members). Several private rooms are also available in the hospitality center.
Lunches can be reserved (there is no commercial kitchen on site) so they work with select caterers.
Due to their popularity the tasting room can often fill up quickly especially on busy summer and harvest time weekends – the hospitality staff is very sensitive to keeping enough space in the tasting room – and may turn away visitor’s if the tasting room is already filled to capacity. Recommendations are highly recommended, especially on the weekends.
Total production varies from year to year but is usually between 25,000 to 30,000 cases (with a large part of that production being their Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon). The Palisades Society offers several levels of club membership. One of the perks of membership is gaining access to limited production wines that are not distributed. Another highlight is every year they re-release an older vintage of wine. For more information, visit: www.chimneyrock.com