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FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000

Cabernet Rancher

Nathan Fay was among the grape growers who heeded the advice of Davis scientists on the best varieties for California’s climate regions.  He bought a ranch in the Napa Valley in 1953 and in 1961 he planted the first Cabernet Sauvignon vines in what became the Stags Leap District of the valley. At the time there were only 800 acres of Cabernet in the entire country and Fay’s seventy acres represented a major increase in U.S. production of the classic French varietal.  Since Fay’s first planting, Cabernet Sauvignon has become the premier red varietal in the various appellations in the Napa Valley including Stags Leap and Oakville.

At the time I put my vineyard in [1961] the University at Davis was encouraging the ranchers to put in the better varieties like Chardonnay and White Riesling and Cabernet and Pinot Noir . . . I didn’t know anything about viticulture and enology. . . . All I did was to do what the experts were telling me to do and it worked out very well.

—Nathan Fay, Napa Valley grape rancher, interviewed in 1997

Budding knife

Like many growers in Napa and Sonoma, Nathan Fay chose to bud his own plants in the field, rather than rely on “bench grafts” propagated in a nursery. During the twenty-five years that he tended his vineyard, Fay used this knife to bud some 4,000 to 5,000 plants. Gift of Nathan Fay.

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Picking knife

Nathan Fay used this knife to pick grapes on his Napa Valley ranch. Its short, curved blade and lightweight handle are typical of knives used during the annual harvest of wine grapes in the area. Gift of Nathan Fay.

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Wine bottle, 1974

Nathan Fay sold his grapes to other winemakers and was never interested in commercial wine production himself. Still, he and his family and friends harvested, crushed, and pressed small quantities of grapes every year for their own wine. Gift of Nathan Fay.

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“I tasted that wine and it began . . . “

In 1969 winemaker Warren Winiarski asked grape rancher Nathan Fay for advice on irrigation machinery. During that discussion, Fay poured a glass of his homemade Cabernet, and Winiarski was hooked. Learning that the thirty-five acres of land next to Fay’s ranch were for sale, he bought them to grow his own Cabernet.  He replanted that land, naming it SLV for Stag’s Leap Vineyard.

Warren Winiarski and Nathan Fay in the Fay vineyard, about 1986

Warren Winiarski and Nathan Fay in the Fay vineyard, about 1986

Courtesy of Warren and Barbara Winiarski