Fay Vineyards, Stags Leap District
Photograph: Richards Lyon
Although trained as a mining engineer, after serving in World War II Nathan Fay wanted to farm. He and his wife Nellie came to Napa Valley from Visalia in 1951. He bought 205 acres in what is now Stags Leap District, tended its diverse crops and studied new varieties of grape to plant. Farm adviser Jim Lider recommended Cabernet Sauvignon. In 1961, Nathan’s Cabernet was the first significant planting south of Oakville.
In 1967, Nathan had the chance to buy additional acreage then in prunes. He asked his good friend and fellow home winemaker, Father TomTurnbull, to come in on half. Tom and his wife, Mary Jane, who lived in the St. John’s rectory on Stone Crest in Napa, bought their half, planted Merlot at Nathan’s suggestion—he said it caused less stress—and built an adobe house into which they moved after eleven years of making every brick of it themselves.
Nathan planted more Cabernet and Merlot on his new acreage and sold his grapes to Charles Krug, Phelps, Heitz (Heitz Cellars produced five vintages designated Fay Vineyard),Chimney Rock, and Carneros Creek as well as to avid home winemakers such as Earl Thollander. Nathan’s own homemade wine had inspired Warren Winiarski to buy land and make wine next door to Nathan. In 1986, Nathan sold most of his vineyard to Warren and a patch to Joe Phelps. He and Nellie continued to live in their house on Warren’s land. In 1988 Father Tom Turnbull died and in 1995 Nellie Fay passed away. Nathan and Mary Jane married in 1996, and Nathan moved into the adobe; he and Mary Jane looked after her vineyard and he oversaw Turn bull home winemaking until his death. Stags Leap District Winegrowers, in Nathan’s honor, annually fund a graduate student in viticultural research in the Viticulture and Enology Department at UC Davis. In 2006 Mary Jane donated Nathan’s farming journals to the Napa Valley Wine Library.
Dick says Nathan introduced him to the art and joy of grape growing and winemaking by giving Dick his first taste of homemade wine, a 1978 Cabernet that “spoiled him from the start, never to become“unspoiled.” Dick spent several sessions interviewing and photographing Nathan.