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The Napa Legends Making Iconic Wines You Can Actually Buy

For decades, a famous ad campaign asked, “What Becomes a Legend Most?” Over the years, it featured stars like Judy Garland, Maria Callas, Marlene Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor and Lauren Bacall. More recently, it showcased Janet Jackson and Gisele Bündchen. All were pop culture icons of their era, celebrated for their talent, charisma and longevity.

Wines also achieve legendary status for their quality, charisma and longevity. These are the opposite of cult bottlings. They connect through a good story that built greatness over time. They capture our imagination, ignite an air of aspiration and forge an emotional tie that’s about more than what’s in the glass. These are nine legends of the Napa Valley.

Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard Merlot

Considered Napa’s most significant first-growth site for Merlot, Three Palms Vineyard put pioneering Duckhorn Vineyards on the world stage. The story began with 800 cases of the first Three Palms designate in 1978, made by Tom Rinaldi, the founding winemaker. It sold for $12.50 per bottle, a hefty sum at the time.

Founder Dan Duckhorn’s inspiration from the beginning was Château Pétrus, a famous Bordeaux from Pomerol made with 100% Merlot. With Three Palms, he felt he could contend. At the warm, eastern edge of the valley below Calistoga, the vineyard is indeed blessed with three palm trees, planted in the late 1800s by San Francisco socialite Lillie Coit.

Though on the valley floor, it’s coveted for its lean, rocky and alluvial soils, where the roots have to dig deep for water and nutrients. Volcanic stones strewn about contribute structure and intensity to the wines, which buzz in dense, dark black and red fruit, dusty tannin and iron-like earthiness.

Most of the vines were planted in the 1990s. Duckhorn took over farming of Three Palms in 2011 and began to buy all its fruit after Provenance and Sterling wineries moved out. In 2015, Duckhorn bought the 73-acre vineyard outright.

The 2016 Three Palms Vineyard Merlot (94 points; $110) reflects its balanced power. It shows flavors of chocolate-covered plum, baking spice and dried herb around a structured core that’s robust and mineral-driven.

2014 Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and 2016 Rubicon
2014 Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and 2016 Rubicon / Photo by Jens Johnson

Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

This wine was born in the 1960s. Joe and Alice Heitz started Heitz Cellars in the eastern hills of St. Helena. In Oakville, Tom and Martha May also bought a vineyard, and the two couples became friends. The first vintage was made in 1966. The retail price was $9.

Joe was thought of as a winemaker’s winemaker, not a marketing powerhouse like his friend, Robert Mondavi. He came to California from Illinois, where his parents and grandparents made homemade wine for which young Joe would gather wild grapes. He went on to study enology at University of California, Davis.

After he worked at Gallo and Beaulieu with André Tchelistcheff, Joe took a job teaching at Fresno State and helped launch its enology department. Eventually, however, he couldn’t resist starting a place of his own.

That place was along Highway 29, where a small Heitz tasting room still stands, alongside a tiny plot of Grignolino. The main Heitz property is east on Taplin Road, where a stone winery dates to the 1890s.

Joe was a trailblazer. His decision to make a 100% varietal Cabernet Sauvignon in the 1960s was unusual; most still made blends. He opted for French oak early on as well.

Joe died in 2000 at age 81. Alice and children David and Kathleen continued to run the winery after his passing, and the Gaylon Lawrence Jr. family owns it now.

“He was one of the first to grasp the single-vineyard concept, to recognize these wines were something very special,” said Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in Heitz’s obituary in the Napa Valley Register.

The 2014 Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (100 points; $275) spent three years in 100% French oak, one year in neutral oak and 12 additional months in bottle before release. It has years to go to unfurl its core of eucalyptus, mint and cedar, signature touchstones of the wine.

Inglenook Rubicon Cabernet Sauvignon

Set in Rutherford in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains, Inglenook’s story began in 1879, with a Finnish sea captain named Gustav Niebaum.

Flush with cash after he amassed a fortune on the Alaskan seas, Niebaum bought the Inglenook property and land next door for $48,000. He sensed a great potential for wine grapes there. In time, he owned 1,100 acres and began to study winemaking. His vast library of books on viticulture and enology now belong to the University of California, Davis.

The first harvest took place in 1882. Pretty quickly, Inglenook began to win international awards for its wines. Built in 1887, the Inglenook Chateau featured the state’s first sorting tables and bottling lines, and accommodated gravity-flow techniques for wine production.

Niebaum died in 1908, and winemaking at Inglenook continued off and on. In 1919, Prohibition forced Niebaum’s widow, Susan, to stop wine production, though she maintained the vineyards and sold grapes to neighbor Beaulieu Vineyards for sacramental wines.

Things resumed upon Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, with Carl Bundschu hired to take over winemaking. He mentored Niebaum’s grandnephew, John Daniel Jr., who eventually took over and brought Inglenook back to prominence through 1964, when the property was sold and the brand’s reputation torn asunder.

But in 1975, film director Francis Ford Coppola established the property as Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery. Three years later, he created the first vintage of Rubicon, a Bordeaux-inspired red blend named after Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon river, considered the point of no return in Rome’s civil war.

André Tchelistcheff came on to consult, and the vineyards began on the path of organic certification. In 1996, Coppola was able to buy the Inglenook Chateau and adjoining vineyards to create one of the world’s largest contiguous wine estates.

Coppola renamed the property as Inglenook in 2011, and he hired Philippe Bascaules of Château Margaux to direct winemaking as well as design a 50-year replanting cycle for its 235 acres of vines.

The 2016 Rubicon (93 points; $210) blends 93% Cabernet Sauvignon and 7% Cabernet Franc into a cellarworthy, classically styled wine of great restraint and structure.

2016 Insignia and 2017 Black Chicken Zinfandel
2016 Insignia and 2017 Black Chicken Zinfandel / Photo by Jens Johnson

Joseph Phelps Insignia

The first high-end proprietary Bordeaux-style blend in the Napa Valley, Insignia was born in 1974, a red made with a backbone of Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon and 6% Merlot. A brainchild of Joseph Phelps and his founding winemaker, Walter Schug, it was intended to represent the best grapes they could find and show off the power of blending.

At the time, Phelps possessed no grapes of his own, and the two men weren’t on the same page.

“In the beginning, we did not set out to create a trophy red wine,” Schug explained in The Best We Can Be: The Life and Wisdom of Joseph Phelps, by Paul Chutkow. “At that point, we were trying to get Americans to understand varietals… So, I wasn’t too happy with making blended wines.”

In the 1960s, Phelps was running one of the largest construction companies in the U.S. when he won a bid to build a winery in the Napa Valley. He had long been an avid drinker of European wines, and this project exposed him to Napa’s potential. In 1973, he bought a 600-acre former cattle ranch in St. Helena and started to plant vines.

As he readied the 1974 Insignia for release in 1978, two years after the famed “Judgment of Paris” and Napa Valley’s new prominence, Phelps priced the wine at $20. That was much higher than many Napa Cabs on the market, which showed his belief in its quality.

Today, Joseph Phelps farms 390 acres of wine grapes across eight family-owned and run estate vineyards. Winemaker Ashley Hepworth has made Insignia entirely from estate-grown grapes since 2004. She pulls the best lots of all five Bordeaux varieties, though not all five make it into the wine every year.

The 2016 Insignia (98 points; $300) blends 84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot and 3% each of Cabernet Franc and Malbec. It’s beautifully complex, savory and intended for aging.

Robert Biale Black Chicken Zinfandel

Bob Biale’s family began to farm Zinfandel in Napa in 1937, just north of the city in what’s now the Oak Knoll District. Prohibition and the Great Depression had just recently ended, but their effects still weighed on much of the rural population in California.

Bob’s grandfather, Pietro Biale, started the ranch but then died in a quarry accident in 1942. Bob’s father, Aldo, only 13 at the time, started to help his mother, Cristina, with the Zinfandel, prunes, walnuts and white-leghorn chickens.

Clandestine home winemaking soon followed, out of sight of government regulations. In an effort to keep his secret wines secret, customers who used the party line phone back then knew to ask for a “black chicken” if they wanted his jug wine. The winery likes to refer to these original customers as the coop cognoscente.

The name not only helped differentiate from the white chickens that they sold, but it also honored the wines of Chianti, where the black rooster is called a gallo nero.

Biale acknowledges those days with this crowd-pleasing wine, as well as a wide range of other Zinfandels made from old vines that hail from historic sites. The first “legal” release of Black Chicken was 2000, sourced primarily from estate vineyards in Oak Knoll District.

Aldo’s place in Napa Valley history is honored at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s Food and Wine Exhibition, where his old punch down stick and a picker’s box have been displayed. He died in 2009.

The 2017 Black Chicken Zinfandel ($91 points; $49) is bright in lifted red fruit, with focused tannins and an inviting texture.

2016 To Kalon Vineyard Reserve Fumé Blanc and 2015 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon
2016 To Kalon Vineyard Reserve Fumé Blanc and 2015 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / Photo by Jens Johnson

Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc

In 1966, when Robert Mondavi built the first large-scale winery in the Napa Valley after Prohibition, white wines, many of which were sweet, were enjoyed in a much larger percentage than they are now.

In his book Harvests of Joy, Mondavi recalls getting a crop of Sauvignon Blanc from a grower. He was puzzled over what to do with it, since so much being made in America at the time was of poor quality.

“So, I wondered, why couldn’t we find a way to reinvent Sauvignon Blanc and turn it into a success in America?” he wrote.

Inspired by the Loire Valley’s Pouilly Fumé, he took that Sauvignon Blanc and aged it in French barrels to produce a wine that was light and refined. He called his creation Fumé Blanc, and he made both a dry and a sweet version that first year, when it was priced at $1.79.

Mondavi always said that the unexpected success of his Sauvignon Blanc crowned an amazing first year of operation. It further convinced him that he should always listen to himself, to his heart, and have the courage to go his own way.

The 2016 To Kalon Vineyard Reserve Fumé Blanc ($55) is from the famous estate vineyard behind the winery, planted in 1868. Some of the fruit comes from the coveted I Block, home to head-trained, dry-farmed Sauvignon Blanc vines first planted in 1945. It’s believed to be the oldest Sauvignon Blanc vineyard in North America.

The 2018 Napa Valley Fumé Blanc (90 points; $24) is a delicious alternative blended with 13% Sémillon.

Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon

In 1973, a year after he bought a piece of land in the Stags Leap District, successful publishing executive John Shafer moved his family from Chicago to the Napa Valley. He had read everything he could about winemaking and grape growing, and his goal had been to find a dry, rugged hillside like the terraced vineyards of Europe.

He was shown a remote 209-acre site below the high-elevation rocky outcropping of the Stags Leap Palisades that had been on the market for three years. Thirty acres that dated to the 1920s were planted to both red and white grapes.

“But rather than view those steep, wild hillsides as a detriment, Dad was thrilled,” his son, Doug Shafer, wrote in the book A Vineyard in Napa. “The site was almost a photograph of what he had been searching for, chiefly, those south- and west-facing hillsides composed of thin layers of volcanic soil, ensuring that grapevines would struggle for survival, holding out the promise for producing rich, opulent, concentrated fruit.”

The first vintage of Hillside Select was in 1983. It was given that name after being known generically as Shafer’s Reserve Cabernet. The new title was more accurate, as it was made from the best of 14 hillside blocks with names like Rattler, Lookout, Firebreak and John’s Folly.

It was Doug, as winemaker in 1982, who first realized the wine’s potential.

“I still remember standing in the barrel room, taking a sample of wine from one of the Sunspot barrels,” he wrote. “My first immediate thought was, ‘Okay, here we go.’ The wine had an attractive, perfumey aroma. In the mouth, it had richness and concentration and even softness at this youthful stage.”

Winemaker Elias Fernandez has made Shafer since 1984, and continues today.

The 2015 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon (96 points; $310) spent three years in barrel. It’s brawny in dark, concentrated fruit, Christmas spice and dusty crushed rock. It’s velvety and grippy with years to age.

red wine
2016 Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon / Photo by Jens Johnson

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon

Robert Mondavi Winery’s first winemaker, Warren Winiarski, founded Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in 1970, when he planted Cabernet Sauvignon in a prune orchard underneath the Palisades within what’s now the Stags Leap Wine District.

Winiarski visited Nathan Fay’s Cabernet Vineyard, planted in 1961, and tasted a homemade wine that Fay made in 1969. Winiarski bought the land next door and called it Stag’s Leap Vineyard, also known as S.L.V.

In 1976, his 1973 Cabernet from S.L.V. placed first at the famed “Judgment of Paris,” tasted against a set of first-growth Bordeaux and California Cabs, which ignited Napa Valley Cabernet’s place in the world.

His goal from the beginning was to make a wine that would present as “the iron fist in the velvet glove.” He sought a wine with classic structure and elegance, rather than extractive and tannic, soft enough to be enjoyable in its youth.

In 1986, Winiarski bought the Fay Vineyard. The first vintage of Fay Vineyard Cabernet came out in 1990. The Cask 23 Cabernet produced by the winery is a selection of the best from both Fay and S.L.V.

The wine was named for the large wooden vessel in which a selection of S.L.V. was set aside to age in 1974, at the suggestion of André Tchelistcheff. Aged today in small French oak barrels for 20 months, it remains intended for aging, with a long finish and complex texture.

The 2016 Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon (95 points; $295) is a cohesive, refined expression of woody spice and toasted oak with mocha, mixed berry and licorice flavors wrapped in rich opulence and plush tannin.

2016 Stony Hill Chardonnay
2016 Stony Hill Chardonnay / Photo by Jens Johnson

Stony Hill Chardonnay

Believed to be home to the first Chardonnay grown in California after Prohibition, Stony Hill was first planted in the 1940s by Fred and Eleanor McCrea on Spring Mountain. In 1952, the rocky hillside property became more than just a hobby for the owners when they built a commercial winery on site, and Fred began to make Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Gewürztraminer and Sémillon.

It didn’t take long before the Chardonnay, made in an elegant, mineral-driven style, was being likened to Chablis and awarded gold medals consistently at state fairs. The mineral backbone is derived from the site’s volcanic mountain soils and limestone rock. Dry farming has also influenced Stony Hill’s wines, as it forces the roots to dig deep for water.

Original cuttings for the Chardonnay came from the Wente vineyard. A major replant occurred in 1986. Fermentation is done in neutral oak. The wine is then aged in more neutral oak, most of it well over 10 years old. Stony Hill also avoids malolactic fermentation to highlight acidity over richness.

Half of its 4,000-case annual production remains Chardonnay. In 1977, Fred’s assistant, Mike Chelini, took over winemaking, a position he still holds today.

In 2018, the Hall family of Long Meadow Ranch purchased Stony Hill. Ted Hall said that his family had admired Stony Hill for “producing terroir-driven, ageworthy wines with low alcohol, beautiful acidity and minerality.” The two families have also long shared a commitment to organic and sustainable farming.

The 2016 Stony Hill Chardonnay (96 points; $54) is a study in nuanced structure and ageability, with crisp, focused acidity and a core of green apple, lemon verbena and wet stone.