Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars – Judgement of Paris and missing founder

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is worth a visit for its celebrated history, and for fans of big Napa Cabs – for this very reason. Make sure you’re at the right Stag’s Leap, though, – a neighbor has an almost identical name.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, statue of the GreeterStory

Stag’s Leap (with the apostrophe inside) was founded in 1970 by Warren Winiarski, a celebrated Napa winemaker, whose Cabernet Sauvignon famously won in ‘the Judgment of Paris’. Curiously, Winiarski’s name is completely missing from the winery’s website, presumably because of some legal issues related to the change of ownership: in 2007, he sold the winery to Chateau Ste. Michelle (85%) and Marchesi Antinori (15%).

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, "Hands of Time" wall

Winiarski’s influence on the Californian wine industry and Napa Valley in particular has been quite profound. Not only is his bottle of 1973 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon, the Judgment of Paris winner, exhibited in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. A quick look at the “Hands of Time” wall at the winery reveals that a significant number of personalities, who have worked at Stag’s Leap in various capacities in different years, continue to shape the Napa Valley wine industry today. John Williams, the founder of Frog’s Leap; Michael Silacci, the winemaker at Opus One; and Rolando Herrera, who made wine at Chateau Potelle and Paul Hobbs and now owns Mi Sueno winery, have all worked here.

Visit

I first visited the winery during an annual ‘Morning in the winery’ event organized for Napa Valley residents. I was surprised to see such a big crowd of locals wanting to learn about the history, wines, and green initiatives of the winery that has been one of Napa Valley’s staples for so many years.

I returned later to do a tasting at Stag’s Leap relatively new hospitality center. Sipping wine at an outdoor terrace overlooking the vineyards and the Vaca mountains, to a soft background music, was very nice. Yet, visiting the winery and caves excited me more than just tasting the current lineup of wines.

The layout of the 80,000 sq ft. caves, as we learnt, resembles Napa Valley’s main thoroughfares: Silverado Trail, Highway 29 and Napa River, which all run north to south, intersected by east-west roads. The middle of the cave represents the center of the universe, with sparkling stones in the ceiling as stars, sconces as comets, and the Foucault pendulum as a reminder of the passing of time.

Wines

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, 3 CabernetsMuch has changed since Warren Winiarski founded the winery in 1970 and started digging the caves in 1996. But some things have remained constant, like the Wine Advocate’s penchant for big, oaky wines. All three Cabs offered for tasting at Stag’s Leap have been awarded 95 points or higher by the Parker team.

I liked the graceful body, fine-grained tannins, nice acidity, and aromas of coffee and forest fruit jam in 2013 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon (14.5% alc.). Yet, too much oak on the nose, palate and finish bothered me, frankly. Time should be able to cure this – if only I wanted to experiment with a $135 bottle.

2013 Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon (alc. 14.5%, $260) is another big, rich Cab. It has a nose filled with black fruit, blueberry jam, herbs, savory notes, and quite a bit of vanilla. On the palate, the juiciness of black cherries and a good structure prevent it from turning into a bomb.

Address and opening hours: 5766 Silverado Trail, Napa. Open daily 10 am – 4:30 pm. Tasting – $40 for a flight of four wines, tours – $60-95 per person.