According to legend, Napa Valley's Stags Leap district takes its name from a brave and seemingly lucky deer that eluded its captors with a dramatic leap across the towering peaks of this picturesque viticultural area over a century ago. No one really knows what became of the deer (although its descendants appear to be numerous), but it is quite clear what has become of the Stags Leap district. It is today one of the finest producers of Cabernet Sauvignon in the world, noted for sublime wines with the purest, berrylike fruit and uncannily gentle tannins.

The Stags Leap name can be confusing. "Stags Leap district" is an official American Viticultural Area (AVA), sanctioned by the U.S. government in 1989. A winery, e.g., Robert Mondavi, may use this appellation for a wine that uses at least 85 percent Stags Leap grapes. Stag's Leap Wine Cellars is the name of a winery, as is Stags' Leap Winery. The former, owned by Warren Winiarski, won the famous Judgment of Paris tasting almost 25 years ago by trouncing famous French wines in a blind tasting. The latter, established by Carl Doumani and now owned by Beringer, is best known for its glorious Petite Syrah and Chenin Blanc (sadly, but understandably, discontinued), though it also makes other very good wines, including Cabernet and Merlot. No other wineries may use "Stags Leap" or its apostrophic variants in their names.

In my recent tasting of Stags Leap district Cabernets and Merlots, Winiarski's Stag's Leap Wine Cellars finished on top, against tough competition. Stags Leap district prices are sky-high, but production is limited, and few appellations offer as much uniformity of style and quality. Here's how it went:

OUTSTANDING

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon "Fay Vineyard" ($100); Stag's Leap Wine Cellars 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon "SLV" ($100): Fay and SLV are adjoining vineyards that form the beating heart of the Stags Leap area. The Fay is magical, with an ethereal bouquet of violets and spice, gently layered berrylike fruit, and world-class persistence in the finish. SLV is slightly fuller, earthier and more structured. Two days after being opened, it was still coming on strong. There are bigger wines in Napa Valley, but none finer than these. (Forman)

Shafer 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon "Hillside Select" ($120): Incredibly rich and deep, with an almost portlike bouquet of minerals and ripe, red fruit. Edgy tannins now, but this will age like a great 1961 Bordeaux. (Palmer '61 comes to mind.) (Bacchus).

VERY GOOD

Robert Mondavi 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon "Stags Leap District" ($60; Forman): Quite Bordeauxlike, and even closer to Opus One than Mondavi Reserve ($110!).

Steltzner 1997 Merlot ($23; best buy; DOPS): Sweet oak and soft tannins, gobs of fruit in the middle.

Shafer 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon "Napa Valley" ($40; 74 percent Stags Leap; Bacchus): Very polished and, in some ways, more appealing than the massive Hillside Select.

Pine Ridge 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley-Stags Leap District ($55; unfined, unfiltered; Wine Source): Great deep fruit, but the stringy tannins suggest why gentle fining is no bad thing.

Chimney Rock 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon "Reserve" ($66; Forman); Chimney Rock 1996 "Elevage" ($49): Both are stylish and elegant, if a bit oaky.

Steltzner 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon ($36; DOPS): Big, deep and delicious, but rustic for a Stags Leap wine.

Stags' Leap Winery 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon "Napa Valley" ($40; Washington Wholesale); Stags' Leap Winery 1997 Merlot "Napa Valley" ($35): Great winemaking from Robert Brittan, who has produced two stylish wines.

Questions or comments can be addressed to wine columnist Ben Giliberti at washpostwine@netzero.net.