The incredible success story of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is like a fairy tale—one that’s full of propitious, delicious magic and extraordinary timing. A true American legacy, the brand was born 11 years before Napa Valley became California’s first American Viticultural Area, and nearly 20 years before Stags Leap District received its recognition as a terroir-driven AVA.
JUDGMENT OF PARIS
Six years later, on the eve of America’s bicentennial, the Old and New World of wine collided on a spring afternoon in Paris. In a meeting room at the InterContinental Hotel, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars astonished nine judges when its 1973 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon bested some of Bordeaux’s first-growth wines in a blind tasting. Steven Spurrier, the 1976 event organizer, explained that luck played a role that day. First, successfully transporting the wine bottles from California into France; second, because Spurrier’s wife Bella attended with her camera; and third, it was an other- wise slow Monday news day, meaning that TIME magazine reporter George Taber chose to attend the event. Nobody anticipated the shock result. Looking back, when asked how California wine was viewed in those days, Spurrier replied, “California wine was not viewed. California wine did not exist.”
Twenty years later, in acknowledging the impact of that stunning upset, the Smithsonian Institute exhibited a bottle of the 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. It is now in the permanent collection at the National Museum of American History as one of the “101 Objects That Made America.”
Today, with a commitment to continue producing complex and age-worthy wines, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars arrives at its golden anniversary year. The pledge is that there will be no resting on laurels, no autopilot, no complacency, but rather a drive to ensure the next half-century is as glorious as the first.
THE NEXT 50 YEARS
On this noteworthy occasion, winemaker Marcus Notaro was asked whether he found this phenomenal legacy to be intimidating or challenging. “It’s both humbling and exciting. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars was founded on quality, and that’s our focus. Everything we do in the vineyard and the cellar is quality-driven to protect the legacy of this iconic property. My team and I work hard every day to raise the bar of excellence for the wines. We’re devoted to ensuring the next 50 years are as great as the first 50.”
A DEFINING MOMENT
FAY Vineyard, established by pioneering grape grower Nathan Fay in 1961, is where the story of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars begins. At the time, conventional wisdom maintained that the area was too cool for Cabernet Sauvignon. But tasting Nathan Fay’s homemade Cabernet in 1969 was a defining moment for Winiarski.
Here, he strongly felt, was land capable of producing a wine that could rival the world’s best. Within a year, he purchased an adjacent ranch now known as Stag’s Leap Vineyard, or S.L.V. Later on, in 1986, the winery purchased Nathan Fay’s vineyard, naming it FAY in honor of its founder. In 1974, the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars team determined that one lot of wine from the Stag’s Leap Vineyard was so beautiful and distinctive that it should be bottled separately. Named for the large wooden cask in the cellar where it aged, CASK 23 instantly became a benchmark for California Cabernet Sauvignon.
ESTATE VINEYARDS WITH PERSONALITY
One of the things that makes Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars so unique is the two historic estate vineyards, FAY and S.L.V. Although they’re adjoining, they are vastly different in soil composition and flavor expression.
FAY is a 66-acre vineyard planted primarily to Cabernet Sauvignon in soil that’s a combination of fine Bale gravelly clay loam and volcanic alluvium. These are older soils, ones that hold more water, having washed down from the Stags Leap Palisades and carried by Chase Creek on the estate. Today, FAY remains one of the great Napa Valley vineyards, producing fruit with an abundance of supple red and black berry character, voluptuous perfume, and a luscious, fine-grained texture. Notaro explained, “With FAY, I get more perfume, red fruit and bramble notes, and the wine has softer, silkier tannins.”
Adjacent, the 35 acres of S.L.V. is the winery’s first, dating to 1970. Also planted primarily to Cabernet, it has younger, red volcanic soil and alluvial with good drainage. The wines have darker fruit than FAY with more violets, black currant fruit, richer tannins and structure, and a dusty cocoa powder note. This history-making vineyard continues to produce wines with complex black fruit and berry character, spicy intensity, excellent structure and complexity, promising long life, and ageability.
Marcus Notaro uses an intriguing expression, “soft power,” in describing the wines that are rich and powerful without being heavy and have a respectable level of ripeness and freshness without being over the top. “I want to make balanced wines; I want to express the incredible terroir of the FAY and S.L.V. Estate vineyards and the true varietal character of the grape,” he said. Notaro further shared his philosophy: “My wine style favors balance and complexity, richness and elegance, and captures the unique characteristics of the vineyard. That’s my winemaking goal. By making a style of wine that ages well, I’m confident that our current fans will continue to love our wines and that we will make new fans along the way, continuing the legacy.”
Notaro places emphasis on matching the type of oak to the wines from the individual estates to heighten the vineyard characteristics. “It’s important to me that when you taste our FAY Cabernet Sauvignon, you are tasting the true vineyard character. The same for S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon. I want to marry the barrel type and toast level to bring out the distinct vineyard notes.”
Three Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars estate vineyards—FAY, S.L.V., and Danika Ranch—were among the early adopters of Napa Green Certification with a focus on environmental stewardship and climate concern. It is a source of pride for vineyard manager Kirk Grace and the team to hold Napa Green Vineyard, Fish Friendly Farming, and Napa Green Winery certifications. “We take a qualitative versus a quantitative approach,” Grace said. “Numbers are an indicator but growing premium grapes and making fine wine is really about being in tune and in touch with each plant. You’ve got to be on the ground. Managing vineyards involves both the technology of agriculture and the craftsmanship of farming. When the soils are balanced and the vines properly maintained, the wines taste better.”
The team at Stagʹs Leap Wine Cellars believes that choices made in the vineyard and the winery have a profound influence on the quality of the wine, the health of the environment, and the welfare of future generations. The harmonious goal is to embrace the forces of Mother Nature, secure in the knowledge that a healthy ecosystem means vibrant vineyards destined to produce high- quality grapes for years to come.
GRACEFULLY AGING INTO ELEGANCE
Marcus Notaro believes that if a wine is balanced when it’s bottled, it will also be balanced as it ages. He said, “Wines don’t need to be undrinkable in their youth to be age-worthy. A balanced wine will be balanced in its youth and will continue to get better as it ages. I want to make wines to be enjoyed upon release, yet reward patience by aging gracefully.”
In the center of the caves, illuminated by soft light, a Foucault pendulum is suspended above a quartzite floor whose patchwork pattern evokes visions of the earth when viewed from the heavens. The Round Room is the “beating heart” of the cave, where the pendulum serves as a metaphor for the passing of time and the aging of wine.
Indeed, on this 50th anniversary, Marcus Notaro is sampling some bottles from the library. He said, “Wines from the mid-90s are really singing right now. Specifically, the ‘93, ‘95, ‘96 are exceptional, showing great fruit and texture.” He also provided an answer to the frequently asked question: “Yes, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars has just under a case of the 1973 S.L.V. remaining in the cellar.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Article By: Laurie Jo Miller Farr