Years before cabernet was crowned king and Napa Valley conveyed considerable cachet, growers planted grapes like alicante bouschet, sauvignon vert, Johannisberg riesling, Napa gamay and petite sirah.

A lot of the fruit went into bottlings by home winemakers, while some made it into commercial offerings of established wineries, especially in the blends.

A favorite with old-timers, petite sirah was planted helter-skelter throughout the county. One of the oldest stands of petite sirah vines was located in front of the Manor House of Stags Leap Winery. When Carl Doumani bought Stags Leap Winery in the early 1970s, he was all smiles as petite sirah just happened to be his favorite wine. At Doumani’s direction, Stags Leap Winery produced exceptional petite sirah harvest after harvest for nearly three decades. Doumani sold the estate to Beringer Wine Estates in 1997.

Once he handed the Manor House keys to Beringer, Doumani shifted his focus a little to the north. Actually, he bought the property next door so he could continue his love affair with his favorite wine. And it came as no surprise that he named his new project Quixote.

Whether or not you feel Doumani possesses the traits of the fictional hero for which his winery is named depends on how well you know him.

As designed by the witty Viennese artist, architect, philosopher and environmentalist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, Doumani’s Quixote Winery does indeed capture the spirit of Miguel de Cervantes’ celebrated character. No two windows are the same and straight lines are nowhere to be found. Olive trees grow on the roof; blue tiling trickles in rivulets down the outside walls. The architect even took a saw to the parapet to make sure the roofline was suitably uneven. 

Doumani had long been a fan of Hundertwasser’s works. But getting this reclusive artist to design his winery was easier said than done. He eventually made contact through a mutual acquaintance, only to learn that the Austrian architect was a fan of Stags Leap District wines. Still it took Doumani a decade to realize his dream.

Not only did he wind up with a Hundertwasser-designed winery (the only Hundertwasser project in the United States, Doumani convinced the Austrian to do his Quixote label.


Remarkable wines

The wines crafted by Doumani, consultant Aaron Pott and winemaker Matt Reid are anything but quixotic; rather they’re sound, sure-footed, practical expressions of the Stags Leap winegrowing district, a region of the Napa Valley renowned for its silky cabernets.

And, as you might expect, Quixote petite syrah (he prefers the syrah spelling because “it’s prettier”) wine bottles have come with a screw cap closure since vintage 2001. “It’s the finest closure to date,” declares Doumani like a man delivering the last word on the subject.

Doumani and his team invited a group of wine writers to the winery a few weeks back to assess the 2008 vintage.

“I’ve been making petite syrah in the Napa Valley for 40 years,” Doumani said, “and this is my favorite since 1974.” This 100 percent estate petite syrah from 2008 (which all hands maintained was a challenging growing season with substantial losses due to frost) was fermented, aged and blended by Pott, noted Reid, who’s been a member of the Quixote cellar team since January 2010.

Reid and Pott talked about organically farmed small yields and tiny berries resulting in wines that are “softer and more generous” than in the past. On the other hand, Pott said the 2008 crush also produced a “true Rhone reserve” that he’s excited about. This wine will spend an additional year in oak and be released with another Don Quixote-referenced label, Helmet of Mambrino.

“Carl has unwittingly shown me the way to petite syrah,” Pott confessed.  “I have to say that it’s become a concentrated, dense black beast ... and I’m afraid to let it out,” he said of the inky reserve wine.

Pott said that when petite syrah has aged a bit it should be recognized as “one of California’s great wines, one of the great wines of the world. And Carl leads the way with this varietal.”

In describing the 2008 petite syrah, Doumani feels “it’s almost like a German chocolate cake with its combination of chocolate and cherries and creaminess.”

The Quixote team must have a lot of confidence in the new release  — the wines costs half again as much as the 2007 offering. At $90 per 750ml bottle, it’s the most expensive petite syrah on the market.

That said, it should be noted that this is a pretty spectacular wine. It’s robust, intense in both taste and color, has great balance of acid and fruit, and offers oodles of dark, ripe blackberries with a hint of olive on the finish. It can hold its head high, right up there with any of the valley’s prized cabernets.

But there’s not a lot of it, only 1,250 cases.

“We think so much of this wine’s ability to age that we’ve put 25 percent of the total production (300 cases) into magnums,” Doumani said. “We love magnums.”

As for the inky reserve petite syrah from 2008, no release date has been set, no decision made on bottle price. Petite syrah lovers should take note — it’s got everything the recent release has and then some ... and may then some more. Check in with the winery early next year to ascertain release date and then prepare to arrive at the winery on release day.

As for the recently released 2008 “pets” (as the old-timers used to call the grape variety), you should be able to find it on local restaurant wine lists and wine shop shelves. If not, the winery is located at 6126 Silverado Trail. I’m sure they’ll sell you some.

If you’d like to schedule a visit at this distinct property, call 944-2659 to make an appointment as they’re required.

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