Famed grapegrower Fay dies at 86

Famed grapegrower Fay dies at 86

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A pioneer grapegrower who gave the Napa Valley wine industry a material shot in the arm four decades ago, Nathan Fay lost a lengthy battle with Parkinson's disease on Wednesday. He was 86.With little or no encouragement from what there was of a local wine community at the time, Fay took a decided risk in 1961 by planting the first cabernet sauvignon grapes in the Stag's Leap District.The Oakland native wasn't born to a family of winemakers. Coming to viticulture late in life, Fay lacked formal training but he turned out to be a gifted grapegrower.Fay settled in the Napa Valley in 1951, purchasing slightly more than 200 acres along Silverado Trail in the shadow of Stag's Leap Palisades two years later. The first to admit he wasn't sure what to plant in the region, Fay sought the advice of those who had the experience of numerous valley harvests. Most thought planting cabernet in Stags Leap was a waste of time and money, as the climate was too cool for cabernet. Fay knew cabernet was the backbone of great French Bordeaux and stuck to his guns.Despite the fact that wines wouldn't be made from these initial vines for some four years, Fay continued planting cabernet until his experiment measured 90 acres.Fay sold his grapes to such clients as Charles Krug, Heitz, Carneros Creek, Mondavi and Vichon. He also kept a couple of tons for himself and made his own wines. He poured those wines for all who dropped by the home he and first wife, Nellie, built just east of Silverado Trail."Nate was just an innocent, friendly, 'aw, shucks' kind of guy humbly pouring his wine for his social buddies, and he started a revolution," noted Luna Vineyards director of winemaking John Kongsgaard, who made his first wines with Fay looking over his shoulder.One of those who heard about Nathan's cabernet was Warren Winiarski, a young winemaker whose interest was cabernet sauvignon. Winiarski tasted some of Fay's own 1968 cabernet. "That was the epiphany. It expressed the most sensual and beautiful characteristics of cabernet that I'd ever seen. I resolved to look for ground as close to Nathan's as possible."Not long after that memorable meeting, Winiarski wound up purchasing land next to the Fay property.By the early 1970s, area farmers heard about Fay's success. His grapes were sound, the early wines made from them getting good reviews from vintners. That was when he began giving cuttings to others in the valley.Even home winemakers heard about Nathan Fay's cabernet. The Fay home and small home cellar soon became a hangout for young students of wine, as well as others who sought counsel on planting grapes in a region that was beginning to recognize a natural affinity for grapegrowing."I can't even imagine the number of people who made wine from grapes picked from Nathan Fay's vineyards — how many people would call during harvest and ask if they could have half a ton of grapes," said Francis Mahoney, winemaker/owner of Carneros Creek Winery."Not only was Nathan intuitive in the vineyard, his winemaking ability was legendary," added the vintner who at one time bottled a vineyard-designated cabernet from the Fay vineyard."He was the sort of guy that once you met him you felt you had a close friend. People felt comfortable with him. That's why so many coming into the business sought his advice."I never heard him say anything against anybody. He'd tell people things that made them feel good. He always saw the bright side. That was contagious." In 1986, when Fay was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, Winiarski purchased all but a few acres of the prized Fay vineyards."Napa Valley owes part of its current vitality to Nathan, who showed what could be done by matching the right ground with the right grapes," Winiarski said Thursday of his friend and neighbor."He was an inspiration to me and to many others. But more than anything else, Nathan was a kind, gentle but firm and generous man whose friendship enriched everyone who knew him."Last spring, during a public tribute to Fay and his groundbreaking efforts in local viticulture, 13 wineries and numerous Stag's Leap growers contributed $10,000 to establish the Nathan Fay Graduate Fellowship Fund for graduate studies in viticultural research at UC Davis.Fay is survived by his wife, Mary Jane, of Yountville; a sister, Jane Bryan, of San Rafael; a nephew, Peter Bryan, of Napa; and a niece, Nancy Chambers, of Solana Beach. His first wife of 51 years, Nellie, died on Christmas Day, 1995.A funeral service is scheduled at 11 a.m. Wednesday at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Napa.

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