Flanked by her bosses at a table set for lunch, Celia Masyczek swirls her glass of 2002 D.R. Stephens Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Don and Trish Stephens observe as their winemaker raises the glass to her nose, inhales, and then takes a sip, her first of the vintage since its bottling. “You become so attached to the wine,” says Masyczek, who had sampled the 2002 from the barrel countless times before tasting this just-bottled version at Napa’s Bistro Don Giovanni. “The ’01 has more muscle; it’s more rustic,” she concedes after a pause. “But this has a little more polish. This is gorgeous.”
Masyczek’s enthusiasm is understandable. As the laudable successor of her 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon—a powerhouse red that earned D.R. Stephens widespread acclaim in just its third vintage—the 2002 promises to advance the estate’s ascension into Napa Valley’s upper ranks.
The D.R. Stephens story is by no means unprecedented in the region: A successful Bay Area entrepreneur (in this case, the founder and CEO of the Bank of San Francisco) fulfills a longtime dream by purchasing a plot in Napa Valley, building a weekend home on the estate, and planting its hillsides with Cabernet Sauvignon vines. This gentleman vintner, however, had no intention of making wine. “We knew we would plant the vines, but we didn’t know we’d get in the wine business,” says Don Stephens, the banker and real estate investor who owns the estate with his wife, Trish, an interior designer. “But then I was at a cocktail party, and [former Mondavi chairman] Mike Mondavi offered to cover my costs of planting the property and buy my grapes. I figured if he was willing to do that, I probably shouldn’t sell them.”
Stephens’ shrewd business instincts include knowing when to ask for help. For every critical task, he has enlisted a seasoned pro: former Sterling president Cary Gott to consult him on the business of wine, vineyard manager Jim Barbour to cultivate his property, and Staglin Family Vineyard veteran Masyczek to make the wines. “D.R. was incredibly successful right out of the shoot because Don assembled a strong team from beginning to end,” says Masyczek. “He also had a nose for a good site. I don’t know if it was kismet or good advice, but he found a phenomenal site.”
Masyczek, who joined the team in 1999 to blend and bottle D.R. Stephens’ inaugural vintage, produces the Cabernet Sauvignon entirely from grapes grown on the Stephens’ estate at the base of Howell Mountain. She also makes a D.R. Stephens Chardonnay, for which, beginning with the 2003 release, she sources grapes exclusively from Hudson Vineyard in Carneros. Although the 2003 is a wonderfully fruit-forward example of the coastal region’s capacity for Chardonnay, D.R. Stephens remains defined by its Cabernet.
As Masyczek acknowledges, the D.R. Stephens Estate Moose Valley Vineyard, Napa Valley 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon (“Moose” is Trish’s nickname) does not pack the powerful wallop of its predecessor. Soft tannins support tastes of plum, dark chocolate, toasted oak, and berries (most notably black and blue) in a wine that is perfectly suitable for immediate consumption. Its concentrated flavors, however, should ensure that the 2002 remains noteworthy for years to come. “I wasn’t sure if the ’02 would still seem as intense and complex and magical as the day I bottled it,” says Masyczek. “I was really happy to see that, yes, it is an exceptional vintage.”
D.R. Stephens’ 2003 Carneros Chardonnay ($45) and 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon ($100) extend the estate’s string of extraordinary bottlings.
D.R. Stephens Estate