Vol 7: Secrets of Stags Ridge Vineyard

“Stags Ridge is a winning recipe,” 

~ Don Dady, Seven Apart Founder

The Journal | Vol. 7

Like most good stories, this one starts with a few glasses of wine. And then a few walks through a vineyard. As a lover of fine wine and a seasoned businessman, Seven Apart founder Don Dady had always wanted to return to his roots and find the right piece of land to craft world-class wines. The perfect opportunity came about in August 2018 in the form of a very special vineyard located at the apex of Atlas Peak – an appellation that sits on the highest elevation in Napa’s wine region. This is the story of Stags Ridge Vineyard.

Great Wine Starts In The Vineyard

“I knew that to make great wine, you’ve got to begin with great fruit. You can make bad wine out of good fruit, but you can’t make good wine out of bad fruit. Everything starts with the vineyards,” opens Don. “I had been looking for the right property for some time when I heard that a winery called Beau Vigne was up for sale.”

Situated in a region called Atlas Peak, Beau Vigne had access to two vineyards in one of Napa’s most sought-after appellations. Located at the very top of Beau Vigne’s property was a vineyard called Stags Ridge. Located right along the back of the Vaca Mountain Range, Stags Ridge is named after the thousands of male deer that have inhabited the neighboring land. According to Don, the vineyard neighbors Pritchard Hill and has an enviable terroir, with four key contributing factors that offer a leading edge: 

  1. Peak Location: Located at the very top of Atlas Peak, this vineyard is some of Napa’s most prime real estate. Defined by big, round tannins, the mountain fruit lends itself to producing wines of a complex structure and velvety texture.
  1. A Cut Above The Rest: Only 3% of the wine grapes grown in California are grown at altitudes above 1,000 feet in elevation, making this vineyard a particularly attractive one. At 1,400 feet elevation, Stags Ridge vineyard is situated above the morning fog line. This aspect provides access to rich yet delicate early morning sun that encourages the grapes to ripen to optimal sugar levels.
  1. Maritime Climate: The vineyard faces the Pritchard Gap, which is an opening to the San Francisco Bay. Every afternoon around 3 pm there is a refreshing maritime breeze that flows-in on the San Francisco Bay. This breeze cools down the vineyard and helps balance the sugar levels and acidity of the grapes.
  1. Sought-After Soil: Only select parts of Napa’s vineyard growing areas contain intense and nutrient-rich basaltic red volcanic soils. The soil composition is a direct result of volcanic eruptions, which tend to be shallow and rocky. This volcanic soil offers the perfect growing conditions for world-class Cabernet Sauvignon, which are complex, complicated, balanced, elegant, and much less tannic.

Don didn’t need any more convincing. Stags Ridge was the exact opportunity he had been searching for. In 2018, he purchased Beau Vigne Winery, which included the treasure that is Stags Ridge vineyard. By November  2019, Don had completely rebranded the winery and Seven Apart was born. First on the task list was refocusing the winery’s attention to extracting the best performance from the Stags Ridge vineyard.

The Winning Recipe

The truth is that Stags Ridge’s reputation did precede itself. Having previously been operated as a small, family-run business that produced wines at a custom crush facility, the results were astounding. Almost all the wines produced from Stags Ridge earned mid to high ninety-points from Robert Parker. In fact, in 2013, Stags Ridge produced the elusive 100-point winning wine. With this knowledge, Don knew he was taking a calculated leap of faith. 

 “For me, as we had these walkabouts in the vineyard, I found that the fruit would surprise me as it had these big, round tannins and that the concentration really came from the soil. In fact, the soil is more like a cobblestone street. There are giant rocks scattered throughout – some so large, that we couldn’t install trellising into the ground!” shares Don. 

For Don, a long-time devotee of Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Ridge offered a unique chance to experiment and refine. When esteemed winemaker  Andy Erickson, of Screaming Eagle fame, joined the Seven Apart crew, the team decided to make three different Cabernet Sauvignons from the same vineyard. These are the Shale, the Summit, and the Basalt Cabernet Sauvignon. According to Don, it’s the same rootstock, the same year, the same vineyard manager, and the same winemaker, yet depending on what part of the vineyard the grapes are selected, you get three distinctly different expressions of wine. 

“Stags Ridge is a winning recipe,” he adds. 

In It For The Long Run

While surrounding Napa appellations such as Pritchard Hill have really made a name for themselves, Atlas Peak is still a burgeoning region. According to Seven Apart General Manager Yannick Girardo, this is the most exciting part. 

“Don and the entire team love a good challenge, and we all believe in the potential of Atlas Peak. The fruit is top quality, and the vineyard is on this big, volcanic mountain with vines that are only around 22 years old. In my mind, they are just starting to produce their finest yields. You can only begin to imagine what’s to come!”

As it stands, there are three varieties grown on Stags Ridge: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. The vines have been growing there since 1999, and nothing has been replanted since. This element of practically untouched territory in some of Napa’s most prestigious and sought-after land is what makes Stags Ridge such a gem. It can only get better. 

“One of the characteristics of the vineyard is that obviously, the root system doesn’t go as deep as it should as you’re peeling away this volcanic layer right underneath,” explains Yannick. “So irrigation is something we are focusing on improving. Andy and the vineyard team are busy setting up a double irrigation system to ensure that any vines that were previously lacking in water can now be properly irrigated.” 

It’s small changes and improvements such as this that will, with time, produce the most beautiful fruit. 

Don adds: “Wine is a slow game. It requires patience.” 
While Stags Ridge is still in its early days, for a businessman and wine lover, there’s no doubt that Don’s return on investment will be priceless.  

Vol 6: 2020 Harvest Update

“As for this harvest, what is there to say?” 

~ Yannick Girardo, Seven Apart general manager, on the tumult of 2020

The Journal | Vol. 6

2020. The year that wrecked everyone’s nerves. It’s been complicated, with the positive note of our allocation release mixed with the stressors of the pandemic and wildfires. Thankfully, everyone at Seven Apart is safe and healthy, and for that we are grateful. We hope the same for you and your friends and family.

Working in a Pandemic…

“The vines don’t stop,” said Seven Apart Winemaker Andy Erickson earlier this year. “We had to spread people out, but the work got done.” Armed with safety and health adaptations, we were able to execute a successful growing season, and felt positive with promise of what the vintage could be. 

“We were really optimistic for this year and the fruit quality was amazing.” says Yannick Girardo, Seven Apart general manager. “In Stags Ridge Vineyard, on Atlas Peak, we installed some new irrigation throughout to better monitor the water needed for each vine, and we also started farming organically.”

We’ve also enjoyed the momentum of our first ever allocation release for 2018 Expedition, which took place in October. We sold out completely, and the excitement of sharing Seven Apart with wine enthusiasts across the world was truly rewarding.

…and Wildfires

But this was also a year of disaster. First, the LNU Lightning Complex fire burned across much of northern California’s wine growing region. It approached Stags Ridge Vineyard, dangerously close but without causing an immediate impact. With a bit more than two months left in the growing season, our team felt confident that we could avoid smoke taint. But unfortunately, there was more to come.  

In late September, the Glass Fire sparked near St. Helena. It spread to over 65,000 acres, damaging nearby structures, including wineries, homes and restaurants. With it came lingering smoke over Stags Ridge Vineyard, forcing us to make the hard decision to forgo the harvest of this fruit.

“As for this harvest, what is there to say?” says Yannick. “With these conditions, we won’t be able to make wine from this vineyard for this vintage. It’s a disappointment, because Andy and his team were enthusiastic about the potential.” 

Yet there is good news from Base Camp Vineyard, with this year’s harvest presenting “full of dark fruit, aromatic, classic Napa profile,” according to Andy. All the micro fermentations came back clean, which means that the winemaking team was able to monitor for smoke impact, and found none. 

Andy estimates that the 2020 production will amount to around one-third of what would be a typical year’s harvest for our properties. Though the yields for Seven Apart will be much lower this year, Yannick says: “It will be some great wine that was clean, and not damaged by fire.” 

Still, Andy encourages a sense of perspective. “Damage from the fire is much more localized,” he says. “A lot of vineyards in Napa were not near the fire and are going to produce some beautiful wines this year.” 

…and Wildfires

It’s a reminder of the precious nature of our vineyards, making the anticipation for upcoming releases especially intense. 2019 Expedition—a blend of fruit from both Base Camp and Stags Ridge Vineyards—will be available this fall. 

And there is more to look forward to in 2021, with the gradual release of three exceptional wines, all 100% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from Stags Ridge Vineyard. Crafted to show the expression of this special spot, Summit, Shale and Basalt are micro-production, extremely limited in quantity and aged from 30 to 36 months before release. Those registered for Seven Apart’s allocation list will be kept up to date when these wines become available.

We hope that you’ll all have a bottle or two from Napa, as we drink in solidarity with our winery neighbors and friends. We look forward to sharing Seven Apart with you as soon as that’s possible.

Vol 5: Nothing Less Than State of the Art

“The Seven Apart facility is everything you’d want to make wine.”

~ Andy Erickson, Seven Apart winemaker on the new winery

The Journal | Vol. 5

“I love wines from great places, and this is one of the greatest places on Earth,” says Seven Apart winemaker Andy Erickson. “With this vineyard, it must be really spectacular.” 

Though many winemakers agree that superb wine is made in the vineyard, it doesn’t stop there. While the essential markers of terroir for Seven Apart wines originate in Stags Ridge Vineyard and Base Camp Vineyard, after the grapes are harvested, they head on to their next phase and that takes place in the winery.

Taking Care of Everything

Seven Apart founder Don Dady deemed a world class winery to be essential after taking a look at the prized Stags Ridge Vineyard on Atlas Peak. Creating a wine brand around this location, as well as the Base Camp Vineyard seven miles down the mountain, meant that everything on the table needed to be reconsidered with a premium eye. 

“We built a state of the art winery,” recalls Don. “Precise. Automated pumpover tanks, optical sorters, and excess capacity.” This provides Andy with “a lot of flexibility,” according to Don, which is important to give the winemaking team the ability to make the best wine possible, with no limits on equipment, space, and timing.

“While everything starts in the vineyards and as we know, we can’t control Mother Nature,” says Seven Apart general manager Yannick Girardo. “Should we have an amazing year, we have little room for error once the grapes are coming in and being processed on site.”

When the grapes arrive at the winery, they are sorted to shift out berries that are too small, damaged, or otherwise imperfect. This is done by the winemaking team, with the help of machines such as a sorting table that shakes, working like a sieve to weed out unwanted materials. In addition to this mechanical means of ensuring grape quality, Seven Apart also uses an optical sorter—one of the most advanced pieces of technology available to the wine business today. This machine employs high-speed digital photography to determine which grapes are perfect, and which grapes aren’t up to snuff. Yannick says that this gives the team “an ultimate last cleanup before getting the best quality of grapes possible into each tank.” 

The automated pump over that Don mentioned is also quite modern. As red wine ferments, the winemaking team must employ a method to bring the juice from the bottom of the tank, dispersing it up and over what’s called the “cap” which is comprised of the solid substances from the grape, such as the seeds and skins. The cap floats to the top, and because it contains the compounds that contribute to aroma and color, the juice is pumped over it in order to absorb all of that essence. The automated system performs as programmed by the winemaking team, taking care of this effort on schedule as requested.

Energy Efficiency

The winery is also equipped for energy efficiency, utilizing solar power and water management. “It’s been an amazing savings since we have glycol, chiller, and the humidifier on 24/7,” says Yannick. Keeping the winery and tank temperatures at an appropriate level is a priority, and the Seven Apart winery leaves nothing to chance. “We have a master control panel that monitors all our fermentation tanks,” shares Yannick. “We can adjust the temperature at any given time, and it also monitors CO2, triggering the alarm at the winery should it sense a high level.”

Keeping a winery clean and sanitary generally requires intense water usage. “In order to monitor our savings and water consumption, we have decided to use a Blue Morph UV light to sanitize our tanks,” says Yannick. “It avoids the excess water and chemicals to clean each tank.” 

The production building is divided into three sections totalling 4,040 sf: the barrel room, laboratory, and mezzanine. A roll up door divides this section from the tank/fermentation room, another 1,900 sf space which includes 13 tanks ranging from 660 to 3,000 gallons. There is also a large crush pad, which is a zone for the winemaking team to process grapes as they come into the winery during harvest.

All of this comes together as a toolbox for Andy to make the best wine possible, saving manpower and energy. “Everything is really self sufficient,” says Yannick. “This helps tremendously on saving time for a lot of steps that are usually required throughout winemaking.”

Vol 4: The Treasures of Napa Valley

“Stags Ridge Vineyard is sort of hidden, yet sort of in the middle of everything.” ~ Andy Erickson, Seven Apart winemaker, on the richness of a Napa Valley vineyard site.

The Journal | Vol. 4

You’ve seen the legendary sign: Welcome to this world famous wine growing region. While Napa Valley is certainly well-known, it’s also exclusive and keeps many treasures. Only 4% of California’s wine production comes from our region, which is actually quite small (about an eighth of the size of Bordeaux) and exceptionally varied. 

Soil + Climate

Though the valley floor is only 30 miles long and just five miles across at its widest point, our local vintners have access to half of the world’s 12 recognized soil orders and more than 100 soil variations. And while Cabernet Sauvignon is the valley’s signature grape, responsible for more than half of the overall crop value, the region is home to dozens of varieties thanks to this generous soil diversity.

A Mediterranean climate, which only 2% of the planet enjoys, provides warm and dry summer days that often creep into the 80s or 90s. Overnight, cool fog from the Pacific Ocean moves in, which can drop temps into the 50s or even 40s. But as the sun crosses the sky, the fog burns off and the process begins again. 

Because Napa Valley grapes ripen in the sun, and cool off overnight, they experience a long growing season capable of retaining acidity and balancing sugar. Very little rain falls during the growing and harvest season, allowing for vintage to vintage consistency and little moisture-related disease pressure.

The area is so distinct, and so precious as a wine grape growing region, that The Napa Valley Ag Preserve, the first of its kind in the U.S., was established here in 1968. Active land-zoning protects nearly 90% of the region from development such as urban sprawl and industrial growth.

Looking Back, Way Back

150 million years ago, the Napa Valley was born from plate tectonics and volcanic activity, mixing up a parent material of bedrock and soil, which was eroded and exposed over the years.

With the formation of the San Andreas Fault, two mountain ranges were born. To the west, the Mayacamas Mountains separate Napa from some of the coolest influences of the Pacific Ocean. To the east, the Vaca Range helps shield the heat of the Central Valley. And let’s not forget the Napa River, which starts gently and grows as it rolls southward.

So how is this bountiful diversity categorized for the wine lover? The key is the sub-appellations, or sub AVAs. Napa Valley itself has been an American Viticultural Area (AVA) since 1981, California’s first and second for the U.S. as a whole. 

Peppered inside Napa Valley are 16 “nested” appellations: Atlas Peak, Calistoga, Chiles Valley District, Coombsville, Diamond Mountain District, Howell Mountain, Los Carneros, Mt. Veeder, Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley, Oakville, Rutherford, Spring Mountain District, St. Helena, Stags Leap District, Wild Horse Valley and Yountville. 

Of these, Seven Apart occupies two: Atlas Peak and Stags Leap District, both exceptionally capable of producing a string of award-winning wines year after year.

How Seven Apart Fits Into Napa Valley

Stags Ridge Vineyard is on Atlas Peak, the most prominent point in the Vaca Range. Icons such as Acumen, Alpha Omega, Antica, Chapellett, Duckhorn, Elan Vineyards and Stagecoach have been drawn to the appeal of fruit from this high elevation environment, with cool bay breezes and remarkably thin soils. 

These thin soils force the vines to struggle, resulting in a tighter yield comprised of small, highly concentrated grapes. It’s a truly distinct area from the valley floor, expressed by complexity and purity derived from the volcanic soils “If you drive to the top of Atlas Peak, you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere,” says Seven Apart winemaker Andy Erickson, who describes Atlas Peak wines as dark, dense, and aromatic.

The second Seven Apart parcel is Base Camp Vineyard in the Stags Leap District, known for wines of silky texture and supple tannins. In the rolling foothills where Silverado Trail meets Soda Canyon Road on the base of the Vaca Range, mixed volcanic soil promotes deep root growth to pull nutrients and water from below the surface. 

Wine lovers around the world often associate Stags Leap District as one of the most famous in Napa Valley. At the Judgement of Paris in 1976, French judges blindly awarded the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon first place, an accolade that elevated it above several French producers, including Mouton-Rothschild and Haut Brion. When the event was restructured ten years later, Stags Leap District rose to the top again, with first place going to the 1972 Clos Du Val Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Other icons here are Silverado Vineyards, Shafer, Cliff Lede Vineyards, Pine Ridge, and Chimney Rock…and now Seven Apart, led by winemaker Andy Erickson, a name synonymous with superb Napa Valley winemaking.

Vol 3: Vineyard Views

“As mother nature provides different challenges every year, our vineyard practices are being modified.” ~ Vineyard manager Victor Fuentes, on realizing the potential of Seven Apart Vineyards

The Journal | Vol. 3

Many of the world’s greatest winemakers say that wine is made in the vineyard. This adage is a nod to the philosophy that farm and field directly impact the final product. Victor Fuentes, the vineyard manager here at Seven Apart, has years of experience balancing the challenges and potential of world class vineyards.

“I started working with Stags Ridge Vineyard on Atlas Peak in 2009, just after finishing college. In that time, I’ve learned a tremendous amount from this property,” says Victor. “It has allowed me to gain experience in higher elevation farming along with understanding the nuances of the vineyard’s topography.”

All the labor in Seven Apart vineyards is done by hand, providing Victor and his team the opportunity to become intimate with the vines, soil, climate, and other aspects that make these growing sites outstanding. 

Victor says the Seven Apart vineyards have distinct features that make them special in his book. 

Stags Ridge Vineyard, Napa Valley

Planted in 1999 on Atlas peak, along the western slope of the Vaca Range facing Pritchard Gap, Stags Ridge bumps elbows with neighbors Pritchard Hill, Stagecoach Vineyard, Cordes Vineyard, and Soda Canyon Ranch Vineyard. These vines have a long heritage of producing top-scoring wines, and the Seven Apart team are the new custodians of this treasured spot, which they farm organically.

When it comes to single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, fruit from this area has been revered by such names as Phillip Titus at Acumen Napa Valley, Henrik Poulsen at Alpha Omega, and Heidi Peterson Barrett, John Schwartz, and Jim Barbour’s Au Sommet. Capable of garnering a collection of 90+-point wines, this is a sweet spot for some of today’s most unforgettable (and collectible) bottles from Napa Valley.

Stags Ridge sits above the fog line at over 1,400 feet in elevation, basking in full sunlight throughout the day. The altitude also allows for cooler daytime temperatures than on the valley floor, as well as warmer nights. 

The basaltic red volcanic soils tend to be shallow and well-drained, which Victor says “capture a true sense-of-place in every bottle of wine.” The vineyard site is about ten acres, 8.4 of which are planted with primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, and a small amount of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. 

Base Camp Vineyard for Cabernet Sauvignon

Base Camp is composed of mature, organically farmed vines which are believed to be around 15 to 20 years old. Over their life cycle, these vines have developed several unique qualities, Victor explains. Fruit concentration is one of them, which means slightly lower fruit yields but with more concentrated wine. Also, the roots of these vines run deep into the soil, which is a mix of sand, silt, clay and gravel, pulling nutrients and water from below the surface, which increases drought tolerance.

The site is about eight acres, half of it planted with vines, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon but also home to Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and several other varieties that are sold to neighboring wineries. 

“Following a desire to be good stewards of the land, we farm Base Camp organically, paying close attention to the details in our work to ensure the health of the vines while minimizing the impact we have on the surrounding environment,” adds Victor. 

Iconic Napa Vineyard, Iconic Napa Winemaking

Of course now Victor works in partnership with Seven Apart’s winemaker Andy Erickson, but he’s not the first iconic vintner to make wine with Stags Ridge fruit. Victor says that during his tenure with Stags Ridge, the vineyard has played an essential role in some of the most sought-after bottles of wine from Napa Valley. 

“I have had the pleasure to collaborate with high-caliber winemakers such as Dave Phinney, Kirk Venge and now Andy Erickson,” recalls Victor. “Working with these winemakers and coming to understand their perspectives on farming, coupled with my experience, has not only helped me to grow the best fruit possible but also bolstered my understanding of how that translates into the bottle.”

2020 and Beyond at Seven Apart

Victor shares that this year has brought new challenges, and that long term concerns are still at hand in Napa Valley. The health pandemic has caused his team to focus on the safety of the vineyard workforce. 

“We are meticulous on how our farming operations are being handled from social distancing, daily temperature checks, and continuous education,” explains Victor. He also says that the vineyard team continues to acclimate to slightly warmer temperatures, fires, and drought, meanwhile relying on new technology, gathering vineyard data to contribute to farming practices.

More about Victor

Victor is a Fresno State alumnus with a degree in Viticulture, the first in his family to complete college. His study experience includes summers in Mendoza and Valle del Maule in Chile. Victor’s first job out of college was with Vino Farms as a viticulturist, and after three years there he moved on to Regusci Vineyard Management where he became a vineyard manager and helped his team oversee 700+ acres in different regions of Napa and Sonoma.

Today, Victor works alongside his father Juan. Together they own and run a vineyard management company named after Victor’s mother. Victoria’s Vineyards, established in 2009, specializes in handcrafted wines with an attention to detail. Other winery clients include Lokoya, Cardinale, and Sebastiani.