Napa Valley AVA
90-Points - Wine & Spirits magazine
The owners of Napa Valley’s Stonehedge Winery can trace their family’s wine culture back some 6,000 years, that’s if you care to give or take a few decades.
6,000 years? You read correctly.
It seems that Shahin Shababi, 39, and his brother Shahbaz, 33, owners of Stonehedge Winery, were once residents of the city of Shiraz in Iran, more properly called the former capital of the fabled Old Persian Empire. Shiraz, according to ancient legend, is the actual home region of the grape that bears its name, a grape that was transported to France’s Rhone Valley in the 9th Century by missionaries. Since the French do not pronounce the ‘z’ in Shiraz, the grape has come to be known as Syrah in today’s wine world.
The Shababi’s moved from Iran to France in the 1970’s and five years later to the United States. Paul Shababi, the boys’ father, started a successful wine import business in Southern California named Pacific-Wilshire Imports that lasted until 1993.
Several years prior, Shahin Shababi and his family began making plans for another family venture called Stonehedge Winery. Their expertise gleaned in the import business led them to believe that the wine market was ready for an entity that could bring attention to what they all consider their native grape, the emerging Syrah varietal. Their former business included contacts with a large number of prominent growers and the decision was made in the late 1980’s to return to the family’s roots in winemaking and begin marketing wines under the Stonehedge label.
The winery’s first release came in 1994, and consisted of 12,000 cases of Napa Valley appellation wines. Stonehedge Winery has grown at a rapid clip and today accounts for around 100,000 cases, making Stonehedge a really formidable winery by anyone’s standards. Its’ wines are also exported to a large number of countries and are a particular favorite in Japan, Canada and the United Kingdom. Through all this remarkable growth, Stonehedge has remained loyal to Napa Valley fruit and utilizes about 20% from the region for various wines it produces.
But, according to Shahin Shababi, Stonehedge’s ultimate mission involves the grape that started it all, the venerable old world Syrah.
“We are a very small company,” he expressed from his offices in Napa Valley. “And we always attempt stay focused. We have established a ten-year plan to attempt to elevate Syrah to the status of Zinfandel and some of the other varietals in California. We want to be to Syrah what Rosenblum or Ravenswood is to Zinfandel.”
To that end, Stonehedge has announced the imminent release of a number of small production wines that will be called their Signature Vines series. These wines will be carefully selected and will contain either all or high percentages of either Syrah or Petit Syrah. At the present time, almost one-quarter of Stonehedge’s production involves the aforementioned varietals in one form or another.
This project will be a singular challenge for Shahin Shababi in his job as president of Stonehedge, a role he describes as completely hands on. He acknowledges that he utilizes his marketing degree from UCLA when traveling for the winery, but also points out that he also selects the vineyards for Stonehedge’s use and must constantly interface with his growers to insure really highest quality for his grapes.
The family was recently bolstered by the discovery just north of his birthplace in Shiraz of a 6,000 year-old wine artifact, namely a masonry wine holder or cup that was carbon dated and proved positively that the pre-Islamic inhabitants of the region were serious wine growers and consumers.
“The old religion known as Zorasterian, was named after the prophet, and was heavily involved in the growing and selling of wine. It totally embraced the concept of wine as part of life,” Shababi explained further. “You will still find a great deal of vineyards in the area today, but the Islamic attitude toward alcohol is certainly not very tolerant.”
We take the view that Iran’s loss is most certainly Napa Valley’s gain thanks to the remarkable record that Stonehedge Winery has achieved during its relatively short lifespan. What’s more, when Shahin Shababi’s plans for the elevation of Syrah and Petit Syrah reach fruition, we know that Stonehedge will achieve even loftier goals.
We eagerly await the completion of the project and Stonehedge’s great new wines.