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Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

Written by JW. Posted in California

I’ve a real soft spot for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. An eye-opening spell there in the late 80s as a cellar rat was inspirational. The denim-clad, cool-as-hell winemakers swaggered about the stainless steel and the French barriques in their freshly minted wine cellars with an insouciant Californian air that belied their competitive ambition. The place was run with steely determination by founder Warren Winiarski, a political theorist at the University of Chicago, who moved west to become a winemaker in the mid 1960s, establishing the property in 1970. The small boutique winery became synonymous with the seismic Paris tasting of 1976, an event fictionalized in Bottle Shock [starring the late, great Alan Rickman]. The Stag’s Leap 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon, from a vines just three years old, was voted best red by a panel of French judges. In a blind tasting, the wine felled mighty Bordeaux châteaux Haut-Brion, Mouton-Rothschild, Léoville-Las-Cases and Montrose, not to mention domestic competitors Ridge and Heitz. The tasting put Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and the Napa Valley on the map.

I’ve written previously about the climatic and geological advantages Napa has [God Bless the Fog – there’s a clue] as well as its jewel-in-the-crown viticultural district Stag’s Leap. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars itself is to this appellation what the eponymous Château Margaux is to its own appellation over in Bordeaux. Recently I opened a couple of older bottles from the property from the 2001 vintage. The first from the vineyard that originally inspired Winiarski to establish the property – the Fay Vineyard – and the second from the estate’s original terroir Stag’s Leap Vineyard – or ‘S.L.V’ to the Napa cognoscenti – the dirt which bore the fruit that beat Bordeaux back in 1976.

The tasting was not without some trepidation. There was a reported ‘lull’ in the quality of the wine here post 1980s, in particular a problem with ‘earthiness’ associated with the wine yeast Brettanoymces. I’m no brett fascist – I’m very comfortable with some undergrowth, earth and a bit of cowhide. Still I also know a ‘brett bomb’ when I smell one and neither turned out to be that. If anything the most striking thing was how much time these two wines needed in a decanter to open up. Both were muted to begin with, but they only got going a couple of hours after they hit the air. Worth remembering if these are in your cellar.

There was an elegance to both the Fay and SLV bottlings, a sophistication and balance that felt Francophone, yet the fruit is darker and more intense. The richer extract and warmer flavours brings Bolgheri to mind more than Bordeaux. Both Fay and SLV 2001 have aged well too. There were plenty of secondary aromatic characters but the fruit was in good shape. Ignore the fool who continues to claim that California wines don’t age well. In the end the Stag’s Leap Vineyard pipped Fay. It had greater depth and complexity. Neither of these wines are a snip of course, [they started off life on the shelf at £60 and £80 respectively] but they didn’t disappoint.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Stag’s Leap Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2001

Deep core; redder at edge; warm looking; initially some olive, cigar tobacco and blackcurrant notes; wonderfully mature; these aromatics opened up beautifully over an hour or so; the blackcurrant and olive tapenade notes became more pronounced; real gloss here; the wine on the palate had nice amplitude and balance; plenty of depth with the blackcurrant flavours taking on notes of earth and spices. This wine has the balance for cellaring another 5-7 years. Great stuff! 94+ Tasted Dec 2016.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Fay Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2001

Warm black red colour; still has depth; more overt initially than the SLV; real glossy blackcurrant tones with some spicy notes; sweet ripe blackcurrants tones again on the palate; finesse here; doesn’t quite develop the aromatic complexity of the SLV over the duration of the tasting but remains expressive and bold; palate has depth and texture; lots of material but nicely balanced again; long finish. Drinking very nicely now, this will hold another 3-5 years I’d imagine. 91. Tasted Dec 2016.

Two years ago I had the opportunity to take a tour round Stags’ Leap Wine Cellars, some twenty-seven years since I topped barrels and dragged hoses around the place. The property and its situation remains as beautiful as I remembered it.

A new $7 million visitors centre is a fabulous addition. It overlooks the vineyard and the rocky promontory of Stag’s Leap itself. It is one of the most impressive tasting rooms I’ve come across. Warren Winiarski himself left here in 2007. The property was sold for a whopping $185 million dollars – a pretty good return on Winiarski’s sweat and toil. It was bought by a consortium that included Antinori in Italy and Château St Michelle in Washington State. They have renovated the winery and undertaken a number of improvements to the barrel cellar. I’m told the ‘brett’ issue is a thing of the past.

During my stint in ’87, John Gibson was the winemaker under Winiarski, but Françoise Peschon and Lynne Penner [now Lynne Penner-Ash] were working there as winemakers too, both of whom went on to great things, Françoise being the winemaker at Araujo Estate for 14 years, and Lynne earning a great reputation for producing Pinot Noir up in Oregon.

On my trip to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in January 2015, I had a look at the 2010 releases including the Fay, S.L.V and Cask 23 bottlings. Things looked good to me under the [relatively] new ownership. This property produces wonderfully balanced wines with plenty of depth and style, but still with that European concern for balance and digestibility. I’ve included the photos [courtesy of Eli Cane] of the trip and the notes are below. Hopefully I’ll make it back soon, to taste the much talked about 2012, 2013 and 2014 Napa vintages. Visit yourself, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Fay Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010

Deep looking; glossy blackcurrant aromatics; quite lush but also with some spicy complexity; palate full but  balanced; nicely handled mid-palate with good texture. Good length. Tasted Jan, 2015. Drink now – 2030. 93+

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Stag’s Leap Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010

Deep colour; beautiful blackcurrant and olive aromatics; cedar and spice; tapenade notes; enticing; palate has depth and weight but also balance compared to some Napa Cabs. Plenty of layers here. Good life ahead of it. Super-second quality. Tasted Jan, 2015. Drink now – 2030. 94+

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Stag’s Leap Vineyard, Cask 23, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010

Deep colour; complex and deep nose; blackcurrants; olives; some mocha from the oak [nicely interwoven]; lush and balanced blackcurrant fruit tones with a concentrated core of fruit; very layered and tightly packed. Looks a very good vintage to me. Has plenty of matter and ripe tannin. Tasted Jan 2015. Drink now-2035. 95+ 

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