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Winemaker's Eden

At Stags' Leap, in Napa Valley, a new garden evokes the flavors and aromas of wine.

Three years ago, Robert Brittan, winemaker and general manager at Stags' Leap Winery in California's Napa Valley, had one of his many sudden inspirations. As custodian of the 240 acres of vineyards, gardens and wilderness that make up the 107-year-old Napa estate, Brittan was already hard at work, blasting new caves into the side of a mountain and replanting entire vineyards hit by phylloxera. But this time he was struck by something intimate and ordinary--the kitchen garden, bounded by low stone walls, visible from the Stags' Leap manor house. He knew he wanted a garden that was more than herbs and vegetables, but he didn't know exactly what it should be.

Brittan recruited the aptly named Napa-based landscape designer Jonathan Plant to be his partner. Plant, whose projects have included estate compounds and wineries with formal gardens, was in the midst of redesigning and restoring all the Stags' Leap gardens, but the kitchen garden seized his imagination as well. Together, he and Brittan devised what they called a winemaker's apothecary garden. It was to be a very private garden, befitting a winery without signs. It would be a sensory, not a medicinal, garden, in which each plant, from fruit tree to herb to scented-leaf geranium, evoked the aromas and flavors of Stags' Leap wines.

"All the red wines in the Stags Leap District have a briarlike component," Brittan says. "It's a vegetal smell, like the fragrance that's released when you walk through briars. I can try to explain that, or I can grab someone and walk them down to this garden and show them."

The 1,800-square-foot garden was quickly drawn up and filled with more than 100 plants, all set off by rustic stone walls and pathways that blended in perfectly. Brittan thought it was...okay. Still, he began tinkering. What if the garden's beds were raised to a height at which visitors could comfortably sit on the walls around them, with the fragrances literally at their elbows? Other Napa wineries were known for grand entrances, showstopping roses, displays meant to entice and impress the public--but the Stags' Leap garden would surround visitors in aroma and flavor, and, yes, it could look nice, too. However, after one short season, it was decided that the garden would, once again, be stripped to its bones and rebuilt.

At this point, however, Brittan was distracted by a few other things. He made room for a new Cabernet vineyard by moving a 100-year-old olive grove, discovering that, contrary to expert advice, such trees can be transplanted (though not easily). He had a local artist create a series of portraits at the winery and threw him a party to celebrate its completion. During the dancing, he noticed the floorboards trembling; he later determined that the manor house's foundations needed shoring up. Once in the basement, he had another brainstorm: a turn-of-the-century gentleman's billiard room! Why not? It was built. Meanwhile, in his spare time, Brittan continued making his cult-status wines.

All of which might explain why the apothecary garden I visited last May was only a few weeks old but fully planted, as if no expense had been spared. In fact, none had.

It's a garden that's best seen by sitting still. I walked down a path of stone pavers interplanted with what I thought was woolly thyme, but after sitting for a while I realized that the smell was wild and fresh--not at all thymelike--and the plant turned out to be Corsican mint. Thymes, at least six of them, were still waiting to be discovered. I found a shrub of cinnamon basil and a geranium whose leaves were not just scented but chocolate-mint scented, a reminder of the Stags' Leap Petite Syrah. With enough patient grazing and gazing, I located various espaliered fruit trees, gooseberry bushes, a fig tree, any number of basils, sages, currants and lavenders. And an eggplant, of all things, near a jasmine plant. And roses that smelled like oranges. I sat waiting for whatever scent came next--oranges that smelled like roses? It might be best, I decided, to visit with one's eyes shut.

When I opened them again, Brittan was standing near the sundial, eating raspberries and fava beans. "I love things that grow," he observed. "It's possible to be a winemaker and not grow anything, not even grapes, but I like being surrounded by the gardens. Hey, alpine strawberries!" he said excitedly, closing in on some ripe fruit. "What do they have to do with wine?" he asked, then answered his own question. "Who cares? Because they're very good to eat."

Brittan cares, of course. He says that the flavor evokes nuances of one of his prize Pinot Noir wines. If there was any ceremony to such talk, however, he ignored it. Instead, he stood completely still, crushing a silver-leafed, woody-stemmed herb in his hand--Russian sage? "For me everything is aroma," he explained. "Is this the smell of the zest of a lemon? That oily smell, like the orange in a Petite Syrah?"

With that, Brittan snapped out of it and went back to his vineyards. Putting decades of training for hanging around into practice, I ambled through the gardens and the grounds. I found a pristine tennis lawn and a swimming tank unchanged since the 1920s, a "moonlight garden" planted in white and silver, a black hollyhock (visited by black bees), a line of towering palm trees and old, fragrant roses everywhere, in a perfect state of near disrepair.

Later, driving through Napa, I was able to put Stags' Leap in perspective. Geographically, the estate is hidden in a valley, set up against cliffs. Philosophically, its gardens were never intended, as many in Napa are, to serve as upscale visual advertising. In fact, only 12 visitors per day are allowed by permit, and what they see first is not a garden but a group of work sheds. Which somehow makes sense. Everything worth seeing at Stags' Leap cannot be seen immediately, but has to be revealed slowly.

Plant has done larger, more imposing gardens for wineries, but he loves the accessible nature of the apothecary garden. In his mind, it is always on the verge of bloom, each plant just the right size, the stone paths worn by visitors, some old, some very young, all crushing leaves, eating berries, smelling, talking and tasting.

Robin Chotzinoff is the author of People with Dirty Hands: The Passion for Gardening (IDG Books Worldwide).

Published September 2000
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