When people travel for pleasure they like to get away from their everyday lives and concerns, at least for a while. In Napa Valley there is a place you can go that feels like it is a million miles away although it is just off the Silverado Trail.
No, it’s not Xanadu or Bali Hai. It is a winery called Stags’ Leap.
Stags’ Leap Winery (not to be confused with nearby Stag’s Leap Cellars) is in the Stags Leap District, whose reputation has been built on world-class Cabernet Sauvignon. And yet Stags’ Leap Winery was for many years known for its Petite Sirah, a wine it makes today along with a vibrant Cabernet Sauvignon and other varieties.
Away from the daily grind
The winery is tucked into a little valley behind some hills, and after you turn off the Silverado Trail you pass by the driveway of another lovely winery of note, Shafer Vineyards. But Shafer, which introduced its first wines during the Carter Administration, is a Johnny-come-lately compared to Stags’ Leap, which got its start in the second Cleveland Administration—that’s Grover Cleveland, our 24th president, inaugurated in 1893, for all those who may have cut that day’s class in American history.
As you drive into the 85-acre estate you pass through rows of walnut trees, reflective of a time when Stags’ Leap was a working ranch that grew not just grapes but nuts, olives and other fruit. On the south side of the road is a block of Petite Sirah vines that were originally planted in 1929 using the heroic phylloxera-resistant St. George rootstock. Stags’ Leap maintains this section as “a legacy” vineyard, cultivating these grapes for its current Petite Sirah wines but also as a link to its winemaking past.
The past is always present at Stags’ Leap but not in a stuffy or antiquated way. The feeling is more elegant and refined. It is one of the reasons you feel as if you’ve stepped out of the daily grind when you’re there.
A place to party
The road leads you to the Manor House, which celebrated its 120th birthday last year. It is a fine old two-story stone mansion with a castle-like corner tower and if its walls could talk, oh the stories they could tell. Built by a former United States Senator and his socialite San Francisco wife, it was a glamorous Napa Valley getaway spot for turn-of-the-century hipsters who liked to party like it was 1899. A downstairs room was converted during Prohibition into a speakeasy, a kind of unofficial nightclub where men and women could smoke, mingle, flirt, play cards, gamble on slot machines, shoot billiards, and drink wine and other spirits without fear of unwelcome legal intervention.
The Manor House scene boasted a stone winery and wine caves, a freshwater swimming pool, lawn tennis courts and two palm trees imported from the Canary Islands. The pool and lawn courts are gone, but the winery is still in place and the palm trees remain firmly rooted on the front lawn. (For modern revelers they have installed a bocce court, the kind of game you can play with a glass of wine in your hand.)
Ne Cede Malis
In what was once the grand dining room—it’s been converted into a tasting room and another room—there is a stained glass window with the family crest of the Chases, the winery’s founders, on it. The crest is red and blue and its Latin motto reads, “Ne Cede Malis.” This is drawn from Virgil’s Aeneid and in English it means “Don’t give in to misfortune.” In a nod to tradition Stags’ Leap prefaces its Petite Sirah label with the words “Ne Cede Malis.”
Grand as it was at the height of its glory, the Manor House and indeed the entire estate fell into a period of Wuthering Heights-style gloom in the middle of the last century; this may have been when stories started to surface about a ghost that lived there. Then in the early 1970s a white knight in the form of Carl Doumani bought Stags’ Leap and shook off the cobwebs, restoring Manor House to grandeur and reviving the vineyards and winery.
Doumani is no longer affiliated with Stags’ Leap and now owns nearby Quixote Winery. Stags’ Leap has become part of Treasury Wine Estates. As for the ghost, he did not make himself available for comment for this article.
Why the ghost stayed
When you sit on the grand covered porch of the Manor House, perhaps sipping on a Stags’ Leap Cab or that tradition-honoring Ne Cede Malis Petite Sirah, you look east across the lawn and across the vineyards to a sloping hill covered with trees. Beyond this hill are mountains. You cannot see the ribbon of asphalt that is the Silverado Trail, you cannot see the cars on it and you certainly cannot hear them. They exist far, far away, in a universe markedly inferior to the one you occupy.
Sitting there, it is not hard to understand why people have been visiting this spot for as long as they have. Nor is it hard to understand why a ghost would want to stick around and not leave. You don’t want to leave, either.
Stags’ Leap Winery, 6150 Silverado Trail, Napa. The winery is not far from Yountville yet located at the end of a private road. Best to consult the website for exact directions on how to get there. Open by appointment only. Tours are 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. daily except for major holidays; reservations required. $55 per guest. Tours are 90 minutes long and include a tasting of The Leap Cabernet and other wines. 800-395-2441.