By Virginie Boone
Nathan Fay is the most important Napa Valley grape grower you’ve likely never heard of. I hadn’t really, until a few years ago, when I was invited to walk the Fay Vineyard and taste some of the Fay Vineyard wines at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. My guides were founding SLWC winemaker Warren Winiarski and current head winemaker Marcus Notaro.
The Stags Leap District, of course, I do know. One of the most important appellations in the Napa Valley, it is home not only to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, but such other historic wineries as Shafer Vineyards, Chimney Rock, Clos du Val, Pine Ridge, Chimney Rock Winery, Silverado Vineyards, Stags’ Leap Winery and relative newcomers like Cliff Lede Vineyards, Odette and Realm Cellars.
For decades producers have been drawn in by the Palisades, the steep, jagged volcanic outcrop of the Vaca mountain range that borders the Napa Valley’s eastern side. Incredibly important to the region, it captures airflow from the San Francisco Bay and helps reflect the heat and light of the afternoon sun.
These factors allow the region to grow ripe, opulent Cabernet Sauvignon while enjoying maritime cooling; the Stags Leap District combines some of the Napa Valley’s warmest days with its coolest nights.
That coolness is crucial in helping to preserve acidity and freshness. It also promotes pretty aromatics like violets and softens tannins. Stags Leap wines offer finesse and an ability to age within a context of intense concentration and velvety texture. Volcanic soils contribute structure. Winemakers who work with Stags Leap grapes often describe this simultaneous entanglement of power and grace as “iron fist in a velvet glove.”
But Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon might not exist without Nathan Fay.
In 1961, Fay was the first to plant 15 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in what is now recognized as the Stags Leap District, but back then was just an area in the southern reaches of Napa Valley he was told would be too cold to grow Cab.
Fay persisted. His was the first significant planting of Cabernet Sauvignon in the valley south of Oakville. In 1967 Fay and his friend and neighbor Father Tom Turnbull planted 30 acres more. Turnbull was the rector at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Napa for 27 years.
In time, Fay expanded his vineyard plantings to 90 acres and sold Cabernet grapes to Charles Krug, Heitz Cellar, Carneros Creek, Sequoia Grove, Robert Mondavi, and Vichon, as well as many home winemakers.
Heitz made five vintages of Fay, from 1975 through 1979. That last vintage was 10 years before the Stags Leap District was recognized as an American Viticultural Area in 1989.
A former prune ranch with a soil combination of fine Bale gravelly clay loam and volcanic alluvium, the 66-acre Fay Vineyard is what inspired Warren Winiarski to grow Cabernet next door, at his S.L.V. property, planted in 1970 from Fay cuttings. This is where he grew the winning 1973 Cabernet of the famed 1976 Paris Tasting.
“I really have to thank Nathan Fay for being the lonely guy out here for so long,” Winiarski told the Napa Valley Register after winning the Paris Tasting. “When he planted grapes in the early ‘60s, there was no Cabernet Sauvignon south of Rutherford… No one knew about our special air currents in the afternoons and how they help produce quality fruit.”
Winiarski notes that the only grapes planted in the area pre-Fay were Zinfandel, Alicante Bouschet and Petite Sirah, and even those were pushed up against the hillsides because Stags Leap was dairy and prune land.
It was Fay’s own 1968 homemade wine that Winiarski tasted that convinced him of the site’s incredible potential. Winiarski told the Napa Valley Register in 2001 that Fay’s Cabernet “was the epiphany… expressing the most sensual and beautiful characteristics of Cabernet” that he’d ever seen.
The growing reputation of these Fay Vineyard Cabernets prompted the ever-generous Fay to give cuttings from his vineyard to others in the valley, as well as his counsel on planting grapes.
“Fay’s warmth and generosity helped him as the unofficial ambassador for the Stags Leap District,” John Shafer, founder of Shafer Vineyards, told the Wine Spectator in Fay’s obituary. Fay died in 2001 at the age of 86 of Parkinson’s disease.
“He was a perfectly delightful guy and everybody I ever met who met Nathan Fay thought the world of him. He was a very giving guy.”
Fay mentored legendary winemaker John Kongsgaard when he was making his first wines at Luna Vineyards, in addition to Dick Ward and David Graves of Saintsbury, Charles Myers of Harbor Winery in West Sacramento, Chimney Rock’s Doug Fletcher (for whom the Fletcher Lyre asymmetrical trellising system is named), and Silverado Vineyards’ first winemaker, Jack Stuart.
An avid outdoorsman who revered nature, Fay was ahead of his time in many ways. In a 1989 story in the Napa Valley Register he said, “We have to be aware of the changes that are happening in our climate. We don’t know what the greenhouse effect will have on agriculture here.”
Fay was born alongside a twin sister in 1914 and grew up in Piedmont, California. He began pursuing a mining degree from Michigan College of Mining and Technology but took an offer of construction work in Los Angeles in 1932 and never returned. He later went to night school for accounting and became an accountant for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park.
Fay served in the Army in Europe during WWII, where he met and married local Nellie Adlard in England. The Fays came to the Napa Valley for Nathan to sell International Harvester farm equipment. In 1953 they bought Stags Leap Palisades, 205 acres of fallow pasture land that had been prune orchards and hay/clover fields.
Nellie was a longtime violinist with the Napa Valley Symphony Orchestra. The Fays were married for 51 years until her passing in 1995. Fay’s second wife, Mary Jane Turnbull, was the widow of Father Thomas Turnbull.
In 1986, with Fay suffering from Parkinson’s, Winiarski bought all but a few acres of the Fay Vineyard. It has been a single-vineyard designate for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars since 1990.
In 2021 I tasted through five vintages of Fay Vineyard: 1990, 1995, 2010, 2015 and 2018. The older wines still sang, revealing warm-climate and cool-climate characteristics in one glass, supple in red berry character, perfumed, velvety in texture and well-structured, embodying the Stags Leap District’s well-earned reputation for wines that express, “an iron fist in a velvet glove,” testament to a man who listened to his own heart.
Fay influenced an entire industry and region, his name still invoked in reverence by present-day winemakers. The Nathan Fay Graduate Fellowship Fund at UC Davis is established in his honor.
Raise a glass to this humble, generous pioneer and the tremendously successful legacy he left behind.
Virginie Boone has written about and reviewed the wines of Napa and Sonoma for more than a decade, primarily for Wine Enthusiast Media, and is a resident of Sonoma County. She began her writing career with Lonely Planet travel guides and has written about wine, food and travel for Food & Wine, The Press Democrat, Sonoma Magazine, Pix.wine and others. She is the author of a weekly column for the Sonoma Winegrape Commission called “The Good Stuff,” which explores timely local topics in the worlds of agriculture and wine. She is a frequent speaker on California wine and a founding member of Les Dames d’Escoffier Sonoma County. Boone earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California at Berkeley and a Master’s in Journalism from Stanford University. More about her can be found at virginieboone.com.