Meeting and becoming a friend of Nathan Fay is one of the highlights of my Napa Valley career.
A volunteer on the board of directors for the Napa Valley Symphony Association, I first got to know his wife, Nellie, for she was truly a drum-beater for all things symphony.
My first visit to the Fay home was at Nellie’s invitation. While I can’t recall the occasion, I am sure it was an invitation to dinner, for Nellie was an awesome cook. In the late 1960s, people in the wine business entertained at home as quality restaurants were few and far between in the Napa Valley.
There would be many dinners in the Fay home over the years that Nellie and I worked for the symphony. And there was wine as well. Nathan not only grew grapes, he was a font of information on winemaking around the world. He also was happiest when he was pulling a cork on a bottle of his own wine, wine he made in a tiny cellar adjacent to Cabernet Cottage — a modest guest accommodation at the edge of Fay vineyard.
I soon learned that it was Nate who had first planted cabernet sauvignon in the Stags Leap area. Valley winemakers and growers he consulted in 1960 scoffed at the idea of planting cabernet in this cool climate area east of Yountville. In fact, many advised Nathan not to do it — that he’d be sorry when the fruit wouldn’t ripen.
But Nathan had purchased land in the shadow of the Stags Leap palisades with the idea of planting grapes. He’d studied the prevailing winds, the range of temperatures from spring to fall — in general, the microclimate of this region just east of Silverado Trail. And not one of the naysayers could provide hard, cold facts to dissuade him.
Nathan Fay started planting cabernet sauvignon in Stags Leap in 1961 — it took him a couple of years to complete the project.
It wasn’t long before he was rewarded with outstanding fruit that would be snapped up by some of the established vintners here at the time.
Then came the 1968 harvest. Many maintained it was THE crush of the century. Wearing his usual broad, inviting smile, Nathan readily admitted 1968 was a textbook harvest. In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Nathan held back for his own purposes more grapes than the feds allowed for home winemakers. But I never asked him.
Nathan Fay’s 1968 cabernet sauvignon was downright remarkable — a wine of great depth, incredible flavors, one that hit all the marks for a stellar cabernet sauvignon.
This was the wine that inspired two of the valley’s foremost vintners to set up shop in Stags Leap District. Over dinner at the Fay home, both Warren Winiarski and John Shafer had “eureka” moments when they tasted the ‘68 cab. Both men decided Stags Leap was where they wanted to grow grapes and make wine.
Nathan inspired more than Winiarski and Shafer. A man with a heart of gold he was more than generous with his time and advice — as well as wine. Many a young UC Davis student hung out at Nathan’s winery, enjoying his wise counsel and company. Familiar faces included John Kongsgaard, Dick Steltzner, Volker Eisele, Christian Mouiex, Tim Mondavi and wine guru Darrell Corti.
I took a crew of eager grapepickers to harvest 26 riesling vines in the Fay vineyard in 1976. We were exhausted when we finished, only to have Nathan remind us it was a drought year with little more than half of the usual crop. Nellie revived us with a great lunch, accompanied by generous pours of Nathan’s wine. I suspect that scene was repeated often over the years with other eager beavers.
Nathan was a big fan of German rieslings. Nathan first introduced me to great German wine. Our group of ragtag pickers decided it would be nice to provide something special for Nathan and Nellie to enjoy. I volunteered to find a bottle of wine that they would like. I did a little homework and found in San Francisco a 1953 trockenbeerenauslese, one of those heavenly dessert wines made in great vintages, of which 1953 was one. Well, the look on Nathan’s face when he opened the gift box proved we’d made the right decision.
So, too, was the decision right to pay tribute to Nathan Fay with the opening of a new visitor center at Stags Leap Wine Cellars. Winiarski, the founder, had added the Fay vineyard to his vineyard stock when poor health kept Nathan from cultivating his vines. In 2007, Winiarski sold his wine brand, winery and estate to a joint venture partnership of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Marchesi Antinori.
The new partners concurred with Winiarski’s vision for the estate, erecting a $7 million outlook and visitor center to accommodate and enchant guests. They paid tribute to the Stags Leap visionary by affixing his name to the spectacular new facility.
Nathan would have been both humbled and proud. I can see his smile from here.