It’s always fun to meet a winemaker who has insight into the soul of her vineyard and AVA, knowing every vine, the soil and realizing that ultimately every year will be different. That knowledge comes with many years of farming the same land with the same team and taking each vintage with all the knowledge and learnings along the way. That was exactly what I found after spending an evening with Winemaker Elizabeth Vianna from Chimney Rock Winery.
Chimney Rock is a small winery in the Stag’s Leap district. It was founded in 1984 by a Pepsi Executive, Hack Wilson. Hack originally wanted to buy in Bordeaux but was advised Stag’s Leap District had some special qualities that were similar. Hack and his wife, Stella, saw the vision for the area, which wasn’t an AVA at the time, and purchased an 18-hole golf course. The first nine holes became a vineyard, and the winery was built to mirror a type of South African architecture that Hack discovered when he was working for Pepsi.
After Hack realized his children didn’t have the passion for the business, the Terlato family became partners. Hack died in 2001, and in 2004 the Terlato’s became owners of Chimney Rock. They then moved forward with planting the final nine holes, rich in volcanic soils. In 2000, there was a label change from the Wilson’s home to the vineyards on the property. Sadly, the original home burned in the 2017 fires.
In the almost 40 years of making wine (the winery celebrates that anniversary next year), the winery has only had three winemakers. The original winemaker for the first two vintages (1984-1985) was well-known winemaker Philip Togni. Doug Fletcher followed for the next 22 years, a meticulous viticulturist who planted the right vines in the right places after Phylloxera destroyed some of the original vineyards. Elizabeth is the third and has been there for 17 years.
Elizabeth’s story is fascinating. She was born in Brazil and grew up between the East Coast of the USA and Brazil. Her dream was to go to med school to become a pediatrician and she started in premed at Vassar College. It was at that point that she began to discover wine, which was helped when a friend’s dad, who had a deep cellar, let her taste some special bottles.
She decided her career passions had changed to learning to make wine (especially cabernet) and she studied viticulture and enology at UC Davis, where she later earned her master’s degree in enology. She joined Chimney Rock as a harvest intern in 1999 and Elizabeth spent a few years working at Napa Wine Co alongside noted women winemakers Heidi Barrett, Pam Starr, and Celia Masyczek. A super interesting side story is that the former assistant winemaker decided she wanted to deliver babies and Elizabeth was promoted to that position. Seventeen years ago, she was named winemaker at Chimney Rock.
Currently there are 103 acres planted (40 hectares), the majority of which are Cabernet Sauvignon, but also some Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and a small production of Fiano. Chimney Rock has estate vineyards in Stag’s Leap and vines of Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris in Rutherford.
Elizabeth talked about “the six pairs of hands” on her team that make wine. It’s a team that has an average tenure of 15 years, a consistency in style, a connection to the vineyard and an understanding of the changes they need to prepare for each season. The connection to the close-knit Napa winemaking community also makes a difference.
She spoke about the influence of music in her winemaking and her life. “Love and sense of music aesthetics made me understand wine”. It’s the emotional response to wine and music. The winery recently had famous cellist Sara Sant’ambrogio participate in an event to pair wine with the music being played.
‘My job is to let the vineyards speak,” Elizabeth said. ‘I want to get to know the vineyards and tell their tale in a particular vintage. Balance is important to retain varietal character. Hang time got away from Napa winemakers when that mattered to certain critics — now they are moving back toward balance.” And this isn’t just about other wines, she talked about some of her own experience where they put certain vineyards last for picking. One year of shifting timing led to some of the best wines they make. “Mother nature brought us back to center,” she said.
We had the opportunity to take a journey through Chimney Rock’s past by trying wines from their first vintage until the most recent. Wines that told the tale of evolution of wine in Napa – through different winemakers, microclimates, alcohol levels and circumstances that Mother Nature crafted.
We tried wines beginning with 1984 and ending with 2020 (for the Elevage, the white proprietary blend made with Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris.). We also tried the Chimney Rock Stag’s Leap District Cabernet from 1984, 1985, 1992, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2012; the 2019 and 2020 Elevage; and the 2018 Chimney Rock Tomahawk Cabernet, which is made from a single vineyard.
I’m not going to give tasting notes for a few reasons. There were some favorites (1984 and the 2018 Tomahawk for sure, which drank beautifully), but what we discovered is the diversity of the microclimates, the weather and trends in the industry all contributed to what made these wines special each year. The personality of each one we tried was different and unique. It’s what made it so fun).
And I’m excited where Elizabeth directs the winery in the future.