Behind the bottle: Stags’ Leap Winery Cabernet Sauvignon

Napa Valley’s famous estate has recently released the 125th anniversary vintage of its Cabernet Sauvignon. What went into making the first, and how has the estate and the wine - plus the iconic deer featured on bottles - slowly evolved over the years?

Words by Adam Lechmere

stag's leap winery cabernet sauvignon
The 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stags' Leap Winery, the wine's 125th anniversary vintage

For one of Napa’s oldest and most singular estates, Stags’ Leap Winery can be hard to pin down. To say it’s not as well-known as its near-namesake Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, which shot to fame at the Judgement of Paris in 1976, is an understatement. That fact doesn’t bother its owners (the multinational Treasury Wine Estates, owners of Penfolds) nor its winemaker, the veteran Christophe Paubert. At least, they say it doesn’t, although it must be a source of constant annoyance that it’s almost impossible to search ‘Stags’ Leap Winery’ without getting hundreds of pages of its more-famous neighbour.

There’s always been something elusive about Stags’ Leap Winery

But then there’s always been something elusive about Stags’ Leap Winery, hidden away in the corner of the Stags Leap AVA (you have to get used to that peripatetic apostrophe: it was how the then owner Carl Doumani and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ Warren Winiarski settled their argument in the 1980s about who should be allowed to use the Stag’s Leap name). The story of the old stone mansion on the hill is one of fortunes made and lost, of Great Gatsby parties, of tragedy, dereliction, and ultimately, revival. Stags’ Leap Winery today is one of Napa’s treasures, celebrated as a champion of Petite Sirah in a region that has long since been taken over by Cabernet Sauvignon, loved for its eccentricities and its colourful history.

stags leap winery
stags' leap winery manor house

The first vintage of the Stags’ Leap Winery Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was the 1981. The 125th anniversary is marked by the 2018 Cabernet, referring to the first vineyards coming on stream in 1893. The estate itself was founded in the 1870s and went through numerous owners, one of whom – the party-loving Horace Chase – built the manor house and started making wine from the vineyards that had been planted 20 years before. The Chases were ruined in the 1900s after investing in a failed Mexican silver mine and the estate was sold in 1913 to Clarence and Frances Grange, also prominent in San Francisco society and also to be touched by tragedy – Clarence died after a riding accident, and many years later one of his sons killed himself at the property. The winery fell slowly into disuse and by the mid-1950s it was derelict.

It sparked briefly to life as the setting for a 1958 Rock Hudson movie, The Earth Is Mine, which shows the mansion’s decayed grandeur and the sombre magnificence of the great chestnut vats in the cellar. The film was panned by the critics, but there’s no doubt it captured the spooky essence of the old house that remains to this day: it’s an atmospheric place. Indeed, a persistent rumour (which the winery ‘does not consider credible’) has it that a former winemaker, Robert Brittan, once saw the ghost of a fashionably dressed young woman drifting along the corridors.

christophe paubert stags leap winery
Winemaker Christophe Paubert: 'This property has a soul'

Has present winemaker Paubert ever seen any of the ghosts that are said to haunt the old stone mansion? He laughs. ‘I don’t believe in ghosts. If you put one in front of me, I’d still not believe. But I do know this – this property has a soul.’

Today, under the auspices of Treasury Wine Estates, Stags’ Leap Winery makes 16 wines of which the Ne Cede Malis Petite Sirah is the flagship. The Latin tag ‘Ne Cede Malis’ is the winery’s motto, repeated in gothic stained glass in the entrance hall. It means ‘Yield to no misfortune’.

stags leap winery tasting
The winery's motto marks the manor's stained-glass windows

The origins of Stags’ Leap Winery Cabernet Sauvignon

Although wine was made at Stags’ Leap until the first decade of the 20th century, its history as a winery proper begins with the flambouyant Carl Doumani, a Los Angeles restaurateur and developer who bought the derelict estate in 1970 and set about restoring it, in a programme that would take years. He revived vineyards and planted new ones, and made the 1981 Cabernet Sauvignon that saw the first review of a Stags’ Leap Winery vintage in Wine Spectator, which gave it 86 points.

As the decades passed, reviews became more positive. ‘Steadily improving as the winery builds more depth and richness into the wines,’ noted James Laube in his 1995 book California Wine; 20 years later, Lisa Perrotti-Brown at The Wine Advocate, among other critics, are regularly giving Stags’ Leap Cabernets 95 points and above. The 125th anniversary vintage is, according to our own review, ‘A wine in the classic Bordeaux tradition… lean and fresh and linear’.

stags leap winery vineyard

What goes into making Stags’ Leap Winery Cabernet Sauvignon?

‘We’re very traditional,’ Paubert says, a theme he will return to several times during our interview, always stressing the simplicity of vinification. The 2018 anniversary bottling is a blend of 80 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, with Merlot, Malbec, Tannat and Petit Verdot. The Cabernet comes from grapes from the southern part of Napa where it’s cooler, Paubert says. He uses innoculated yeast for a ‘fresh, quick, pure fermentation’ and then ‘it’s just fruit and yeast in the tank. I don’t add anything.’ The wine is aged in 35 percent new oak for 20 months. It’s very ‘simple and straightforward: don’t overdo anything, just show the terroir and the fruit and make it elegant’.

Paubert, who grew up in Sauternes and has worked at Chateau d’Yquem as well as in Chile, Spain and Washington state, has been at Stags’ Leap for 12 years. ‘I represent ten per cent of the winery’s history,’ he says with a laugh. His predecessors included Robert Brittan (who now has his own winery in Willamette Valley) ‘who was also a lover of expression’; Paubert sees his role as a continuation of the work that has gone on before. ‘There has been a strong style through the years – the wine is not an expression of the winemaker but of the land.’

This is important because it underpins everything Paubert does – or doesn’t do. He insists that very little has changed over the years of his tenure, and what changes he has made are slight – reducing the proportion of new oak, for example.

What comes across most powerfully is the deep affection Paubert has for the winery, and for its history. ‘I’m a steward of this place, and I have to protect what we have. Stags’ Leap has been here since the 1880s: it is who we are, it defines everything that we do. We have a direction because we know where we come from.’

stags leap label
stags leap new logo
For the winery's 125th anniversary, the label (left) is being replaced by an augmented reality version, in which a stag bounces through multicoloured woodland (right)

How did the design come about?

The history of Stags’ Leap is long, and there are many aspects of it that are lost in the mists of time. The leaping stag  is part of local legend: as the story goes, it jumped between the peaks of the palisades, the rocky outcrop that looms over the district, to escape its pursuers. The earliest-known use of it on a label was on the 1893 Mataro (pictured below). It shows just how far back this great winery goes: it can trace its history almost as far as Charles Krug (1861), or Buena Vista (1857), and it makes its near-namesake down the road look like a recent arrival. The famous stag has become stylised over the years, of course. ‘We refined a bit,’ Paubert says. ‘It looked like a dog with antlers so we updated it.’

stags leap winery mataro bottle
The 1893 Mataro, the earliest-known appearance of the leaping stag on one of the winery's bottles

What’s next for Stags’ Leap Winery?

It’s the sort of question that leaves a winemaker like Paubert – who has just spent half an hour explaining how very little has changed over the decades – nonplussed. ‘There’s no big news,’ he says. He mentions The Investor, a blend of Merlot, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon, whose first vintage was 2012. For the 125th anniversary the winery is making much of its new augmented reality label, in which a stag bounces through multicoloured woodland while a voice encourages watchers to ‘take the leap’ into the unknown, just as the legendary beast did. Otherwise, not much changes. To get an idea of the timelessness of the place, Paubert says, come and sit on a bench and look out over the vineyards. ‘It’s a bubble of peace in the valley, away from of all the craziness.’