It’s hard to imagine a time when a drive up Soda Canyon Road would lead you to a dead-end with nothing but wilderness beyond—thick mountain shrub brush, snakes and mountain lions and volcanic-basalt boulders the size of small houses. But that’s exactly what Dr. Jan Krupp encountered in the early 1990s, when a unique real estate opportunity presented itself. The deal would lead to a decade-long, herculean effort, to conquer 750 acres that would eventually become the beginnings of the iconic Stagecoach Vineyard, as we know it today.
TOP OF THE PEAK
I met Dr. Jan Krupp at the Soda Canyon Store in April. At age 70, slim and tan, sporting clever shades, he’s an unassuming, soft-spoken force-of-nature who, as of that week, was taking piano, fly-fishing and yoga lessons. We started up Soda Canyon Road in his pickup.
“In 1994, I bought 40 acres and planted [Krupp Estate] vineyard and thought I’d have that and my practice the rest of my life,” he said, “but growing grapes was more fun than my medical practice.”
Dr. Krupp credits a professor at Stanford with turning him onto wine. He also took classes at U.C. Davis and Napa College, read innumerable books, and would eventually learn most of what he knows from the people who would become his clients—winemaker rock stars like Paul Hobbs, and Caymus’s Chuck Wagner; and later from consultants like Ann Kraemer, Bob Gallagher, Aaron Pott (who made wines for Jan), and today wpoinith Stagecoach’s viticulturalist, Gabrielle Shaffer—with several influences in between.
Hoping for something beyond his first 40-acres of vines, in 1991 he happened upon an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle for 750 acres, spread across a few miles, at 1,200 to 1,750 feet up the Vaca Mountain range. “Jess Jackson, Bob Miner, Warren Winiarski, all looked at it,” but all turned it down Krupp explained, as we careened passed the first rows of Stagecoach vines, the summit of Atlas Peak drawing nearer. The reason? No one had been able to find water in that part of Pritchard Hill, “and there were too many rocks. So, I took it on, naively.”
Krupp hired a team of geologists who identified five potential water sources. Braving the harsh landscape, they drilled down 300 feet in each spot—nothing, nada.
“But then we contacted Jonathan Newman—a water witch,” Krupp continued. First, he told Krupp where to find an underground river. And in the very spot, 430 feet deep, there was indeed a fairly deep river. Krupp returned to the original five wells to continue digging down to 500 feet. They did, and miraculously, each well contained water—plenty of it.
Then, the problem was getting in and out. There was no “road,” to speak of. And the process of building the one that exists today would surely have deterred most—but not Jan. After negotiating with 28 neighbors, and some 135 notarized legal documents later, a road was built—but it led straight to the middle of nowhere.
When he found the property, it was nothing but mountain shrub brush—the “thickest briar patch you’ve ever seen,” and there weren’t any surrounding vineyards. But for the next five years, the Krupp brothers (Jan and his brother Bart are partners in Stagecoach), spent seven days a week clearing 125 acres and removing boulders, while planting 100 acres of vines each year.
At last estimate they figured some two billion pounds of rocks had been removed—some crushed for gravel to build their roads, some sold, and most stacked—the famous rock piles of Stagecoach—a visual reminder of the effort it has taken to conquer Mother Nature.
By the turn of the century, about 530 acres had been planted, mostly to Cabernet Sauvignon, and a substantial amount of other Bordeaux varieties, as well as some Syrah, Chardonnay, Marsanne, Viognier, Roussanne, Petite Syrah, Grenache and Sangiovese.
As of today, Stagecoach covers 1,400 acres with 658 acres planted to vine. The price to plant those vines has varied considerably through the years. Initially, costs ran Krupp around $30,000 to plant certain blocks—lately, it’s a staggering $250,000 per acre.
“We try to put those [quarter-million dollar] blocks in the hands of some of the world’s best winemakers, and try to charge an appropriate amount for the work that has gone into them,” Krupp explained. With that kind of overhead, a $20,000 per ton price tag for truly coveted grapes is easily understood.
The pedigree of winemakers who have long-term contracts for grapes from the Atlas Peak AVA and Pritchard Hill areas of Stagecoach Vineyard reads like a list of célébrités vignerons: Aaron Pott, Dave Phinney, Heidi Barrett, Helen Keplinger Jean Hoefliger, Kirk Venge, Mark Herold, Pahlmeyer and Chappellet.
And it goes on and on, as does Dr. Jan Krupp’s destiny to conquer still-unconquered parcels of land, which explains why he recently acquired property above the highest planted areas on Pritchard Hill, and is in the process of obtaining permits to grow grapes. If modern science made it possible, it seems as though Krupp would try to plant vines in some ethereal, undiscovered cloud-based terroir. And if anyone could do it—he probably could.
Looking down, Oakville Ranch and Dominus Estate are in sight just across the valley; Screaming Eagle and Dalle Valle Vineyards are clearly visible, as is the top of a hill owned by Chappellet Winery. Looking west is like staring into a storied Cult Valley with Continuum Estate, Colgin Cellars and Ovid Napa Valley, a striking diminutive contrast to their giant reputations, but perfectly etched into a sea of green and sun-scorched rugged terrain. And then Jan Krupp pointed out Antinori’s Antica, formerly Atlas Peak Winery, visible with lake and vineyards. This was still early April, and Atlas Peak itself was a shimmering peak of emerald green grass, all a-glow in a bright springtime sun.
Standing there, it was hard to imagine a time when Stagecoach Vineyard was nothing but mountain shrub brush. And the terrain is striking: vines are planted in length rows oriented in every possible direction: east-, west-, north- and south-facing, at different elevations, and with varied vine spacings. The soils only reach a depth of about one foot to three feet, and every block is equipped with drip irrigation.
With around 100 clients, “We mostly put our feet up around here,” joked Shafer, when I asked if they have much work to do to keep the place maintained. “It’s a well-organized chaos.”
She pulled out a detailed map of the entire vineyard and all its blocks and pointed to the place where the proposed Pritchard Hill AVA would be, which follows along a creek. Shafer said that because the vineyard is isolated and not abutting other vineyards, it feels a bit like being stranded on an island. Pointing to Atlas Peak on the map she explained that the vineyard is divided into the following 4 sections: Atlas Peak, Pritchard Hill, Bordeaux , and Heart of Stagecoach.” With that, we set out into the vines . . .
BUD BREAK TO HARVEST
“There are a lot of variables,” said Shaffer, but typically by the end of February shoots emerge; bloom occurs in early May, lasting three or four weeks for the entire ranch; véraison starts in mid-July in “early years, or around the first of August in cooler years.” One constant is that Stagecoach fruit typically reaches phenolic ripeness a full 10 to 14 days after fruit on the valley floor has ripened.
And for all the work in a year, harvest is usually a jam-packed six weeks. Picks range from ten tons per day, to all hands on deck for a whopping 250 tons in one day, all depending upon the ripeness of the grapes—and all the work is done by hand.
“We do all the farming, manage all the blocks, and the winemakers and wineries are involved at many varying levels,” explained Shafer.
With piercing green eyes, Shafer possesses a Hemingway-esque brevity to her explanations, and isn’t one to wax poetically about her vines. This year marks her sixth harvest at Stagecoach. Originally from Minnesota, she made her way west in 2008 and began working for an Importer. Her first winemaking gig was under the venerable Gary Wooton and his Croze label. Then she landed at Miner Family where she began purchasing fruit from Stagecoach.
Since most of the plantings occurred between 1996 and 2000, the average age of Stagecoach vines is 17 years, but a small percentage has been ripped out and re-planted because of Leaf Roll and Red Blotch or other diseases.
When first planted, Krupp spaced his vines to account for 990 vines per acres, but over the years he’s planted closer together and today a typical acres sees roughly 1,850 vines planted, varying slightly depending upon aspect and facing.
An average acre of Stagecoach vines will yield typically 3.3 tons per acre, but is wholly dictated by vintage. In 2015, for instance, Shaffer said they were lucky to get two tons per acre.
All told, “We’ve measured 27 miles of actual vineyard roads internally,” Shaffer said and again pointed to the vineyard block map.
The first vines planted were all unilateral cordon-trained. Eventually, Krupp would transition to bi-lateral training and today cane pruning is in high fashion. “Cane pruning gives us better yields in light-yielding years and also protects very well against Eutypa,” explained Krupp. “When I started Stagecoach, unilateral was what all the viticulturist out of Australia and New Zealand recommended, and Beringer corroborated that, but we don’t like it as much and have discontinued that.” Krupp pointed out that because of a vine’s “apical dominance,” the unilateral training was a problem if the vine experienced disease or because it can, “fail right in the middle of the vine,” he said.
Stagecoach is above the fogline and enjoys more sunlight, but because of the altitude, it’s a different quality of sunlight said Shafer. Diurnal variation is a given, but typically doesn’t fluctuate as much as lower elevations. It’s never quite as cold at night, nor as hot during heat waves, unless a northerly wind brings extreme heat, and then it can cook.
“Some ripening goes on at night,” said Shaffer, “but without sugar accumulation in the dark hours and we’re pretty sheltered from the worst heat waves.”
Krupp believes that these climatic elements—the diurnal shifts with less extreme temperature swings and bright sunlight—are the factors that produce certain identifiable hallmarks of wines from Stagecoach. Put another way, the consistency of temperature allows the place itself to be at its most expressive.
Wines from the likes of Aaron Pott (Pott Wines and Blackbird Vineyards), Jean Hoefligger (Alpha Omega Winery), Chuck Wagner (Caymus), Mark Herold (Mark Herold Wines) and Jay Buoncristiani (Buoncristiani Family and, as of this year, Krupp Brothers, Jan Krupp’s own label), tasted blind, do reveal similar chalky, iron-like minerality and gorgeous violet or lilac floral notes, along with a characteristic sagebrush trait—all qualities that with a consistency of growing conditions, could in fact be viewed as earmarks (or hallmarks) of Stagecoach Cabernet Sauvignon.
Continuing along the dirt roads that follow the edges of vineyard blocks, I nearly hit the floor when I spied all the wild sage and bayleaf shrubs we kept passing. I told Jan that I often describe the wild-herb quality in Cabernet from Stagecoach as sagebrush. “Well, you nailed it, Jonathan! You got it right,” he said. High praise! It was the first time in my career of tasting wines that I felt that I had really identified an aroma and matched it to a place; and the one person who could pass such sound judgment corroborated it.
SOILS AND FARMING
To say that Stagecoach Vineyard has some of the rockiest soils in Napa Valley, might be an understatement. It’s extremely rocky, as evidenced by the Krupp’s side business of digging up, hauling and crushing billions of pounds of stone. Still, for all the rock, there’s some tufa, but not much. And though the terrain is extremely rocky, there is a varying degree of soil depths.
“We try to plant Cabernet in thinner soil blocks, reserving the deeper soils for Malbec, Chardonnay and other varieties,” said Krupp.
I turned the conversation from geology to farming principles and asked if they adhere to any hard and fast rules. “With 100 different winemakers there are a lot of different opinions,” said Shaffer. “We listen to their input on yield,” Krupp added, “and some give input on how to keep the vines healthy until they get the type of ripeness they are looking for. Some encourage late-season fertilizing to extend ripening. Some say, ‘Don’t ever do that.’ We do our best to customize while also putting in our knowledge and experience of our vines.”
Krupp tried farming organically in the past, but it cut into his ability to control rocks under vines, and pests, like the European grape moth. “Sometimes the organic pesticides are more harmful to the vines than the sustainable ones,” he said, half sorry, but with the resolve of someone who has tried and erred. “We do consider ourselves sustainable,” he said and explained that some of Gabrielle’s most frequent conversations are about water.
“With 600 planted acres, on any given day we can water 25 to 30 blocks, and if a heat wave is predicted, we really have to plan ahead rather than be reactive,” said Shaffer.
Jan asked if I wanted to see a new block that they were in the process of dynamiting so that eventually it could be planted. We jumped back in his truck and careened past a row of agave plants, not native to the vineyard, but planted by the workers who aspire to make tequila.
Gabrielle joked that Stagecoach tequila would just add to the already bulging burden of the Stagecoach olive oil they produce from the hundreds of olive tress on the property.
We drove up to a Euclid truck, and Jan stopped the engine. A Euclid is the size of two elephants plus one, and we watched for a while as boulders were hauled to an incredible rockpile.
Krupp said that this was a new section that had been cleared has been pre-sold. One block will go to Sequoia Grove and one to Williamson in Sonoma, and a third was in negotiation.
I joked that I might want to buy some Stagecoach fruit to make a wine—why not? Well, not so easy. Unsurprisingly, there is a waitlist for Stagecoach fruit and not just anyone can call up and place an order. “We like to see a track record,” said Krupp and added that if the brand is backed by a notable winemaker, “that certainly helps.”
There’s also a waitlist for certain grapes, like Malbec, which is suddenly back in demand—under Jan’s own label, Krupp Brothers Winery, a Malbec is produced strictly for their wine club.
What about rootstocks?, I wondered.
“We mainly use 110R rootstock, which makes up just over half of the vineyard—we like it because it’s the most drought-tolerant of the rootstocks,” said Krupp. Deeper soils have a variety of rootstocks ranging from 101-14 and 3309 and Riparia where “we’ve wanted to hold back vigor,” explained Krupp.
We got back in the car and headed to the “Heart of Stagecoach” adjacent to the Pritchard Hill section.
As we sped past scrub brush, Shaffer pointed out a Syrah block and nudged Jan to share a story about one particular pick for Fess Parker. He demurred with a laugh.
So, Shaffer indulged me with the story.
“One year, Jan forgot to schedule their pick,” she said. “All the crews had gone home and a big truck shows up to retrieve the fruit—that hadn’t been picked!” So they rounded up everyone still on the mountain and Shaffer, along with their foreman and vineyard manager, some guys on the irrigation crew and Jan, all picked until it was done.
I asked whether they had heard how that wine fared among critics. “93 points!” Jan said without hesitation, and added, “Maybe we should pick more often,” with a good chuckle.
We passed by the only block of Grenache in all of Stagecoach, but more is being planted. “We sourced good bud wood,” said Krupp, “the Alban clone from the Central Coast. Orin Swift gets Grenache and a lot of Syrah from us, and that goes into his Machete wine. They also buy a lot of Bordeaux varieties.”
Before pulling up to the Pritchard Hill blocks, we passed parts of the ranch where vines go to Caymus and Kendall Jackson—side by side.
It really dredges up the question of nature vs. nurture (i.e., whether the winemaker and production aspect is part and parcel of terroir or otherwise). How can a wine from Caymus and wine from Kendall Jackson, produced from vines growing side-by-side, taste so different? Any winemaker from Burgundy reading this would chew my ear off and spout out expletives about soils, berry concentrations, Brix levels, barrel aging, on and on—and I get all that. Still, being there, eyeing the vines and thinking about the duality of styles, I wondered if the terroir debate would ever be settled in my lifetime. Probably not.
If the Stags Leap District is ground zero for Cabernet Sauvignon in America on lower terrain and valley floor sites, Pritchard Hill is quite possibly the mountain home for Grand Cru American Cabernet. Krupp pointed to blocks that go to Arkenstone, and a Merlot block treasured by Duckhorn and Black Stallion Winery. We passed Cabernet vines that go to the venerable Kirk Venge. And we tugged at leafs on vines of Petit Verdot destined for Chappellet. “Philip Corallo-Titus [winemaker at Chappellet] once said that, ‘If Petit Verdot was this good, why would anyone grow Cabernet?’ and Michel Rolland has said marvelous things of Alpha Omega’s wines,” said Krupp, proudly eyeing these prized vines.
As we looked on at the first blocks Krupp planted in 1995 and 1996—currently being re-planted because of leaf-roll—Krupp said that he looked forward to two annual tastings—a Cabernet Sauvignon-focused tasting and one of other varieties—they hold when wines from Stagecoach are tasted with the winemakers who produced them.
It’s what gives him a sense of what is possible when his fruit is put in the hands of the most gifted winemakers; and its equally exciting when a newcomer, or up-and-comer produces a “wow” wine.
We walked up to two great Cabernet blocks that go to Hess and Caymus’s Special Select.
It was here that I noticed the varying degrees of vine orientation and asked about that. “Ideally we’d be 15 degrees off of north,” said Krupp, but we were standing on a pretty righteous slope, to which Jan pointed out that they had to do 40 degrees off of north-south for that orientation, and pointed out the cross arms added to help with shading on the side that can potentially “cook,” as he put it.
Given the option of seeing some Mourvèdre or Atlas Peak, I opted for the later and we climbed in Jan’s truck once more. The Sangiovese was determined to be the best spot by winemaker Marco DiGuilo, who has produced wines from those grapes for Atlas Peak (now Antica) and Swanson Vineyards.
As we passed a block of vines with very light-colored leaves, Krupp said they were Sangiovese vines—the grapes of which are sold to a winery in Vancouver, Canada.
Demand for Sangiovese has tanked in Napa, but others have asked for Mourvèdre, which Jan doesn’t think would ripen well, and also for Tannat, a variety he believes would be too tannic grown up on Stagecoach.
As Atlas Peak neared, we made one other stop to see some Viognier vines in their L2 Viognier Block. Originally planted to Sangiovese, it was all grafted over to Viognier. Black Stallion Winery and Jeff Cohn Cellars takes grapes from this block, as does winemaker Ehren Jordan (for Quill Wines). Krupp believes that Viognier in America will come to be defined by these wines and this block.
When we pulled into the “heart of Stagecoach” situated in the Atlas Peak AVA we took stock of two of Krupp’s most prized blocks: M6 and M5.
“’Her Majesties Secret Service’ is a wine that Aaron Pott makes,” Krupp explained, “and he also takes some fruit from this block for Blackbird—Krupp Brothers get half of M5 and we make our own best Cabernet Sauvignon from it.”
As for the budwood—that comes from Weimer nursery in upstate New York, and as that infamous story goes, Wiemer took budwood clippings from Château Latour, proving just how far those pioneering vignerons and their suitcase clones have traveled.
With 110R Rootstock, there’s a hefty amount of Seas’ Clone Cabernet, which came from Mr. See, of San Francisco’s iconic See's Candy, who owned Silverado Winery.
He pointed to a few vines and said, “Arron Pott asks for just one cluster per shoot and no wings, which creates the texture he wants.” We all agreed that was fine, given Pott’s winemaking prowess and impeccable wines, which are texturally something of an island unto themselves, much like the way Shaffer views her residence on the island of Stagecoach.
I was suddenly curious to know if we might crunch numbers to determine how many bottles of wine could be produced from a typical row, with a typical harvest. Krupp took stock of his M5 block and determined that at 2.5 tons per acre, each row would yield roughly 500 pounds of grapes, which would translate, roughly, to 170 bottles of wine per row.
When we climbed out of Jan’s truck, some 1,700 feet up, the actual peak of Atlas Peak a mere stone’s throw, the view of the Mayacamas Range was, simply put—astonishing. The surrounding vines were all Cabernet Sauvignon, which, again, makes up about 55 percent of the entire Stagecoach Vineyard.
Standing in quiet awe of the scenic vineyard-scape below, Krupp momentarily interrupted the silence, half saying to himself, half saying to Shaffer and he was “told by the realtor that grapes would never do well in this part of the vineyard—that you could excavate rocks for patios and such. The week after we bought it someone offered us double, and my brother tried to get me to sell it, but I refused.”
Planted in 1998, most of the vines are unilateral cordon-trained. There’s a longer duration of heat here because it’s more sheltered from the Bay breezes, which Krupp says makes for quite a difference in temperature. “The fleshier wines produced here come from this side of Stagecoach.”
“It’s a treat to taste the wines and to see what people have done with them,” Krupp said. “For example to taste the Grenache that Aaron Pott made, and to see our Grenache experiment actually made sense.”
“What’s the future of Stagecoach?” I asked. “More Rhône varieties?” Demand is up, Krupp admitted, but is sure that for the time being his main emphasis will continue to be on Cabernet Sauvignon. “That’s what Napa does better than most of the world,” he said.
We climbed back into Krupp’s truck and began our descent. About halfway down, still quite far from the road Krupp built that leads to the main gate, Jan slowed and pointed to a well. “That’s the well the water witch found,” he said. “That well made the whole thing possible.”