The story of Chimney Rock is entwined with the story of Napa Valley's Stags Leap District, home to some of the most elegant Cabernet Sauvignon produced on American soil. But the winery's beginnings hark back to the original owners' love of Bordeaux. When the late Hack Wilson and his wife Stella retired after a long career in the beverage industry, they decided to fulfill a life-long passion and began searching for a winery. Their search started in South Africa, their home, and continued in France. In 1970 they came close to acquiring Chateau Phélan-Ségur in Saint-Estèphe. But the owners decided not to sell, and the search continued. As it did, friend and wine expert Alexis Lichine advised the Wilsons to "Look everywhere, but buy in Napa Valley, for Napa is to California as Bordeaux is to France." In 1980, a 180-acre estate located on the Napa Valley's Silverado Trail and occupied by a golf course called Chimney Rock, captivated the Wilsons and they decided to make it home. By this time, the Stags Leap area was already gaining worldwide attention and acclaim for its Cabernet Sauvignon.
Inspired by the chiseled rock formations in the nearby eastern hillsides, the Wilsons decided to keep Chimney Rock as the name for the winery. They plowed under nine holes of the golf course and planted the 75 acres to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Fume Blanc.
In 1987, a year after releasing their 1984 vintage, the Wilsons joined forces with Doug Fletcher, former winemaker at Steltzner Vineyards and Martin Ray Winery. A steward of the land and a meticulous winemaker used to working with only outstanding quality grapes, Doug set about working from the ground up at Chimney Rock. The winery produced its first estate vintage in 1989. That same year, the first winery building, with its massive allegorical frieze of Ganymede, cupbearer to the gods, was completed. In addition to his winemaking and vineyard expertise, Fletcher is noted for his development of the "Fletcher Lyre" and "Balanced Vine Viticulture."
The 1990s: Change and Focus
In 1990, the hospitality center was built in Cape-Dutch style reminiscent of wineries in South Africa, resplendent with gardens and a welcoming fireplace. It was then, Chimney Rock produced its first Elevage, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. In 1991, Doug produced his first Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.
Then, the root louse phylloxera was discovered in Napa Valley. This presented an unlikely opportunity. Phylloxera actually set the stage for more of Fletcher's trademark "from the ground up" approach. He eventually had the entire vineyard replanted. Today, Chimney Rock is one of a handful of wineries producing all Stags Leap District estate-grown Cabernets. Like all Chimney Rock reds, these wines do not "demand" aging. They are ready to enjoy today, yet they also have the tannic structure required for great longevity. They will age gracefully for 10 to 15 years.
The New Century
May, 2000 marked a compelling new era at Chimney Rock, as the winery formed a partnership with the Terlato family (owners of Terlato Wines International), representing three generations of expertise in the wine business.
In close collaboration, the Terlatos and Doug Fletcher developed and implemented a master plan for expansion. This included orchestrating the selection and planting of an additional 50 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon on the remaining half of the estate's original golf course. Using sophisticated soil analysis, Doug identified six different vineyard blocks and matched those with four appropriate rootstocks. He also worked with the Terlatos to design and construct a new larger winery facility. This state-of-the art building allows for more investment in select French oak barrels and the space to conduct Chimney Rock's fine-tuned winemaking process of handpicked, small-bin production, with select grapes going from harvest to press within moments.
"In the vineyard we strive to grow the most intense fruit possible. In the cellar, our goal is to preserve the same intensity of flavor," notes Fletcher, VP of Winemaking for Terlato Wine Group. "In our new facilities, we have the luxury of flexibility. This means that our winemaking decisions are never compromised by limited resources, instead, we have the space and facilities to treat each lot individually and maintain our commitment to producing hand-crafted artisanal wines."