Napa Valley’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars: 50 years of iron and velvet

The wines of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars are famous for their finesse, power and longevity. To mark its 50th anniversary, we take a deep dive into one of California's legendary estates, including the first-ever vintage of the great Cask 23

Words by Adam Lechmere

close up photo of a bottle of Stag's Leap wine
"The development through the years is clear": Stag's Leap Wine Cellars at 50. Photo by Facundo Bustamante

There’s an old black-and-white photograph of Warren Winiarski planting Stag’s Leap Vineyard (forever known as SLV)  exactly half a century ago. He’s on a tractor, a big Ford 4000, but he’s looking as bespectacled and bookish as he would have done a few years previously, when he was still a political scientist at the University of Chicago.

As Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars celebrates its 50th anniversary (actually last year, but, for obvious reasons, celebrations were muted and events delayed), Winiarski remains a notable figure at the winery that he founded and which he sold in 2007 to Ste Michelle of Washington State and Antinori of Tuscany. Now in his early 90s, Winiarski lives quietly in a beautiful hilltop house high above the winery. He doesn’t want his name used in connection with Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars these days; he’s simply known as “The Founder” in official documents and correspondence.

The Founder remains revered at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars not simply because of the winery’s legendary status – it became a household name on 24 May 1976 when its 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon triumphed in Steven Spurrier’s famous Judgment of Paris tasting – but because his influence as a visionary winemaker is as relevant today as at any time in the past 50 years.

Warren Winiarski in Stag’s Leap Vineyard
"Bespectacled and bookish": Warren Winiarski planting Stag's Leap 50 years ago
Warren Winiarski and Nathan Fay
Winiarski (left) and Nathan Fay, from whom he bought the neighbouring, eponymous vineyard

When he bought SLV’s neighbouring vineyard from Nathan Fay in 1986, for example, Winiarski soon realised it needed replanting (Fay had originally planted it in 1961). “It was a 66-acre hillside laid out very simply in long rows,” Marcus Notaro, the current winemaker, explains. “When you have a hillside like that you realise how different the top will be from the middle and bottom – the top gets ripe first, for example – and it quickly becomes interesting and complicated.

“When Warren replanted, you can see he was experimenting. The vineyard is subdivided into all these small blocks, and each one is an experiment: this block is a rootstock trial, this one a clone trial, others have different orientations, north and south, east and west; there are different planting densities, different trellising, soil tests. He was an academic, and all this was for him to learn, and we’re still learning from him today.”

Cork coming out of a Stag's Leap bottle
Wines spanning the half-century since Stag's Leap Wine Cellars was founded were opened for the tasting. Photo by Facundo Bustamante

To mark the 50th anniversary, Club Oenologique persuaded the winery to pull together a vertical tasting of back vintages. This sort of thing is always fascinating, especially when you’re going back to the beginning. Or almost – there are only about 11 bottles left of the hallowed ’73, so the first bottle we open is the first vintage of Cask 23, the 1974, of which 100 cases were made (there are about five dozen bottles left; one less now). It’s still a magnificent and hugely pleasurable wine, and one of the remarkable things about it is that it’s made from four-year-old vines. “The reality is that young wines make exciting wines,” Notaro says, because they are naturally very low-yield.

Notaro chose 18 wines from 1974 to 2017 to show the evolution of the winery, the winemaking philosophy, the character of the SLV and Fay vineyards, and to demonstrate how Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is – in common with all great wine properties – a work in progress.

We are tasting the work of dozens of winemakers, from André Tchelistcheff in the early 1970s, through to Winiarski’s daughter Julia and many others that went on to important careers: Stag’s Leap was a nursery for winemakers as well as ideas. Various names stand out: the late Bob Sessions of Hanzell, John Williams of Frog’s Leap, John Kongsgaard, the late Dick Ward of Saintsbury, Andy Erickson, Paul Hobbs, Michael Silacci of Opus One, the maverick Abe Schoener – all at one stage were employed by the Founder.

Winiarski bought his original 16ha (44 acre) plot in 1970, called it the Stag’s Leap Vineyard and planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. He’d been excited by Nathan Fay’s Cabernets and he’d bought up what was then a prune orchard next to Fay’s 27ha vineyard below the Stag’s Leap Palisades. Then, when Fay put the plot up for sale in 1986, Winiarski naturally snapped it up. And that is how the vineyards stand to this day. SLV’s soils are predominantly volcanic, while Fay’s are alluvial; the former provide grapes with concentration and intensity (successive winemakers have referred to them as “fire-like” elements), while Fay’s soils provide rounded, softer, richer berries. As Notaro says during the tasting, you could say that SLV is darker fruit while Fay tends to show red fruit. Cask 23 aims to bring out the finest characteristics of both vineyards; there are various parcels which regularly go into Cask 23, though it’s not made every year (there’s none of the famously damp 2011 vintage, for example).

As an appellation, Stags Leap District AVA has always stood apart, and not just because of the reflected glory of Winiarski’s win in Paris. Created in 1989, it’s tiny, a mere mile (1.6km) wide and three miles (5km) long, and it’s home to some great names: Clos du Val, Shafer, Silverado among others. When Jean Phillips sold Screaming Eagle she bought a 46ha plot in Stag’s Leap District which she renamed Wildfoote Vineyard. Every winemaker in the world claims unique properties for his or her region, and they’re no different in Stag’s Leap, where the Palisades, the craggy range that marks the eastern boundary of the AVA, have a peculiar inward curve that circulates cooling winds from San Pablo Bay in the south.

Stag's Leap winemaker Marcus Notaro
"We're simply trying to express the place": Stag's Leap winemaker Marcus Notaro

“There’s a strong cooling influence in the evening here,” Notaro says. “This is what gives what I call soft power to the wines.” That would be the famous “iron fist in the velvet glove” that Stag’s Leap winemakers from André Tchelistcheff onwards have lauded in the wines. It comes out again and again in our notes: “powerful, with a velvety mouthfeel” on the 1990 SLV for example, and the “gorgeous perfume” and “brisk, juicy tannins” on the 1974 (an astonishingly fresh wine), or the 2016 Cask 23 with its opulent, “lush, dark fruit” and bright tannins “freshened by excellent acidity”.

“The flavours out here get ripe before the wines get super-high in sugar, and we harvest them with the most beautiful natural acidity,” Notaro says. “Warren recognised and tried to bring out the character of the vineyards at the beginning. We are simply trying to express the place as he did.

“The characters I look for in SLV are dusty cocoa powder, almost graphite notes, blackcurrants and violets.” Fay, whose soils are older and retain moisture better, “has a different personality – soft power in structure but more on the floral side, with perfumed red fruit.” Cask 23 aims to bring out the finest characteristics of both vineyards. “It’s a wine about complexity, showing the darker fruit of SLV and the red fruit of Fay – and then on the palate, the perfect balance of flavours, intensity and tannins.”

All great wines are blends, not only of grape varieties or vineyards or regions, but also of winemaking philosophies. Winemakers imitate and learn from their predecessors and their peers, and in the case of the mid-20th-century Napa pioneers, those they admired were more often than not European.

Back to the beginning (or almost): the 1974 Cask 23 was the first wine of the tasting. Photo by Facundo Bustamante

Winiarski always had an affinity with Europe. When he decided to sell Stag’s Leap he turned first to his friend and Napa neighbour Piero Antinori (who owns Antica on Atlas Peak, high above Stag’s Leap), who couldn’t afford the $175m asking price so he brought in Ste Michelle, with whom he had a long association. Notaro therefore is part of a long tradition. He was winemaker at the Antinori/Ste Michelle collaboration Col Solare; Antinori’s renowned winemaker and CEO Renzo Cotarella is his mentor, and he learned much of his winemaking style from Antinori himself. He considers himself an instinctive rather than a technical winemaker: “I always pick on taste, not on numbers.” But that’s not to say he’s wedded to old-fashioned ways of doing things. When the new owners took over in 2007 they immediately invested heavily, in air-conditioning the caves for example (they were too warm), buying top-of-the-range equipment like Mistral sorters. A new winery, too, is on the drawing board. “I still want a simple approach,” he says, “but I want to be very flexible so no matter what the challenge, I can try to make a great wine in every vintage.”

The development through the years is clear. You can see how the wines gain an additional polish after Notaro joins for the 2013 vintage. You might say the wines have been dialled up slightly: the black fruit takes on a new vibrancy, the tannins are sprightly rather than brisk. For me, the apotheosis of great Napa winemaking is reached on the 2016 Cask 23. “A triumph,” I note, and a triumph of continuity as well: you can see its ancestry in wines like the 2000 Cask 23. “This is the way I want my wines to age,” Notaro says. “These wines kind of get into the zone and then they just…hang out.”

Fay vineyard
The Fay vineyard’s soils provide rounded, softer, richer berries, giving a more red fruit profile to its wines

Back in 2012 I spoke to Cotarella about their ambitions for Stag’s Leap five years after they’d taken it over. He said they were still trying to understand the place, and he likened their work to that of a goldsmith (il orefice). “You need a very refined approach.” One of the things Notaro loves about the winery is its compactness. The two vineyards slope up gently to the foothills of the Palisades. Looking up at this forbidding escarpment with the vines in front of you and the winery buildings on the wooded knoll behind, you get a sense of how contained it all is.

“The beauty about having estate vineyards so close is that I can get to them all the time.” That way he can keep his eye on the particular blocks that shine year after year, and give them the attention they need. It’s a very precise business, and that is just the way the Founder liked to work. “Warren was always very meticulous in his approach,” Notaro says. Through five decades and as many winemakers, a multi-million dollar sale, new owners and investment, the philosophy of winemaking remains the same: attention to detail.