DR Stephens Estate is a beautiful vineyard property located in the hills of the Vaca mountains east of the town of St. Helena – just below the Howell Mountain sub appellation. This location is peaceful, secluded and while only minutes removed from the valley floor, feels much further removed from the often heavily trafficked Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. The family also owns Hunnicutt Winery – a short drive from the D.R. Stephens estate. Tastings are held at Hunnicutt and are for serious wine enthusiasts. A visit to the winery is sometimes with one of the family members.
Donald (Don) R. Stephens, his wife Trish and son Justin were the founders of D.R. Stephens. During the 1960s, Don attended Hastings Law School at the University of California Berkeley – incidentally Serranus Clinton Hastings, the namesake of this law school used to own property in Rutherford on what is now Staglin Vineyards. During his time in law school Don and some partners started The Cooperage on Union Street in San Francisco. This steakhouse and bar operated from 1965 until 1975; during its operation, Don gained appreciation for fine wine and especially for how Cabernet Sauvignon paired well with steak.
A prominent San Franciscan throughout his business career – in 1973 he founded D. R. Stephens & Company, a San Francisco real estate investment firm which is still in business overseen by two of his children. The company initially focused on residential real estate but today office buildings and other commercial real estate is an important part of their business. In 1977 Don was part of a group that founded the Bank of San Francisco; Don was their president and CEO before overseeing the sale of the company. Don passed away in February 2020.
Fast forward many years throughout a successful career to 1996 when he acquired 35 acres off of Howell Mountain Road (a short drive from the Silverado Trail) and soon planted 9 acres of this to vineyards. This property is called the OZ II (in reference the mythical land of OZ); they produced their first wine from the Moose Vineyard on site in 1999.
The family grew up in northern Napa Valley, just up the road from their current wine estate. Their original intent with the property was not to get into the wine making business but this property, while never historically planted to vineyards is mostly hillside and is perfect for growing Cabernet Sauvignon as they later discovered. Ric Forman’s winery and vineyard is a short drive away.
Founding winemaker, Celia Welch specializes in consulting for ultra-premium wineries and is well known throughout the valley for her attention to detail and high-quality wines. Celia is a well-regarded long time Napa based winemaker (been making wine in the valley for more than 30 years) – who has consulted for select premium clients over the years including Scarecrow. She also produces her own small label called Corra.
Born and raised in Medford, Oregon – her introduction to wine came early through her father’s passion for wine. He was a home winemaker and collector, and she grew up helping him make wine. Her first introduction to the Napa Valley was in the 1960’s during trips with her family. She graduated from UC Davis in 1982 with a degree B.S. degree in Fermentation Science at a time when a number of now prominent women winemakers were enrolled including Pam Starr and Heidi Peterson Barrett and others who work in Napa and beyond.
Continuing her education after graduating, she embarked in extensive travels through a number of wine regions including domestically in the Pacific Northwest, the East Coast and then New Zealand – finally working in the Barossa Valley in Australia. She then moved to the Napa Valley and worked at a number of wineries including Silverado Vineyards in 1987, was assistant winemaker at Robert Pepi Winery (now the home of Cardinale) and began her consulting career in 1992 for Staglin Family Winery.
Her focus of consulting is generally for premium producers who own their own vineyards (rather than labels who source fruit) – often (but not always) from hillside locations in the valley. And her work has been highly recognized throughout the industry – in 2008 she was named Winemaker of the Year by Food and Wine Magazine and has been inducted into the Winemakers Hall of Fame through the organization, Women for Winesense. She made the D.R. Stephens wines from 1999 through 2009.
Today the winemaker for D.R. Stephens is Michael Hirby. Michael has an interesting story of how he ended up working as a winemaker in the Napa Valley. He was in school at Colorado College (where he eventually graduated with a degree in Philosophy) when he found out one of his classmates owned a restaurant, interestingly named Primativo. With a restaurant name like that they were sure to have a nice wine list and Michael ended up working as their sommelier and gaining valuable insights and tasting knowledge of both domestic and international wines. He eventually moved to France to take a job at a winery but just before he was to start, he was informed there was no job available. Not exactly the kind of news you want to hear when you are already invested in taking a position overseas.
Mike ultimately stayed in France longer and eventually found his way back to the USA and to Napa. He arrived in the Napa Valley without knowing anyone, having housing lined up or a job but fortunately discovered Behrens & Hitchcock Winery high on Spring Mountain. During his time there, he served as their assistant winemaker learning valuable wine making information from owner Les Behrens before branching out on his own. Later he became winemaker at Realm Cellars. Besides running his own winery, Relic and making the wines for D.R. Stephens, he is also winemaker for several other boutique wineries.
And Mike Wolf overseas their vineyard operations. Mike was born in New York City and grew up just outside of the city. Viticulture was not a part of his formative years – he graduated with a history degree at Alfred University. He first moved to California in 1972 – to Mendocino County as a farm worker helping manage pears, prunes and grapes. Eventually he oversaw vineyard operations at Juliana Ranch in Pope Valley (one of Napa’s larger vineyard sites) and in 1994 took a job managing 500 acres for Beckstoffer Vineyards. He branched out on his own in 1997 and formed Michael Wolf Vineyard Services. One of his early clients was Vine Hill Ranch.
Today Mike oversees approximately 500 acres in the Napa Valley and has managed or is managing vineyards for BOND, Harlan Estate, Lewis Cellars, Meteor Vineyards, Scarecrow, and Vineyard 29. And he has also worked with some of the top winemakers in the valley including Celia Welch, Philippe Melka, Bob Levy and Andy Erickson.
In 2015, Mike was awarded Grower of the Year by the Napa Grape Growers Association.
Initially the focus of D.R. Stephens was on their estate Moose Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – and a non-estate Chardonnay. While they produce the Moose Valley Vineyard designate Cabernet Sauvignon every year, the source for their Chardonnay has changed over the years. They have produced Pinot Noir in the past. Today, D.R. Stephens also produces limited quantities of an estate Sauvignon Blanc. Several rows in the Moose Valley Vineyard were budded over from Cabernet Sauvignon to Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon – certainly not a varietal transition common in Napa Valley.
They used to produce a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Walther River Block; Roger Walther was one of Don’s good friends who purchased his little piece of Napa Valley in the mid 1990s. 1.6 acres of vines are located in Rutherford; the first vintage that D.R. Stephens made from this site was in 2006. The DRII, a second label used to be produced from estate fruit as well as from select other Napa Valley vineyards.
Today they make two Cabernet Sauvignons including a wine from their estate Moose Valley Vineyard. The D.R. Stephens Moose Valley Vineyard is aged predominately in new French oak and does go through fining or filtration. All grapes are harvested by hand, de-stemmed and then re-sorted ensuring that only the ripest berries remain. These berries are then fermented on the skins before pressing.
The 2005 D.R. Stephens Moose Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is 100% varietal; this vintage is very dark with aromas full of freshly picked ripe blackberries. The palate bursts with ripe cherry and dark chocolate. The tannins are gentle and delicate with a finish full of vanilla and tobacco lingering well after you swallow.
NOTE: this review has been identified as needing a *major* update including current vintage tasting notes.
Their wines are well placed within Napa Valley, usually found at the higher end restaurants and resorts including Auberge du Soleil and Meadowood. Cases of their wine have received some of the highest bids at the annual Premier Napa Valley – a mid-winter auction mainly for trade to benefit charity organizations. And sometimes DR Stephens hosts wine river cruises in Europe.
Note that their mailing list is currently full – but you can join the waiting list for eventual access to their allocation list. And tastings for serious wine enthusiasts are hosted at HUNNICUTT Winery, where the D.R. Stephens wines are made. For more information about DR Stephens, or to sign up for one of their membership options, visit: www.drstephensestate.com