There is no shortage of cult Cabernets from Napa Valley now, but back in the 1970s it was a whole different story. chek wong visits the winery that started it all
the year 1976 was a watershed moment in the history of American wine. That was when a group of Californian wines beat the top wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy at a blind tasting held in Paris. No one, least of all the organisers, expected the Californian wines to win — the point of the tasting was to introduce them to a sceptical French public. Even Warren Winiarski, who made the winning red, was rather disbelieving when he first heard about the results. How was it possible his 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon, made from 3-year-old vines, had beaten the grand crus with hundreds of years of winemaking heritage? The news quickly gained traction, giving hope to other Californian producers and provoking outrage among the French. Today the 1973 Stag’s Leap SLV is featured in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, a testament to its effect on the development of the American wine industry.
I thought about the legacy of Stag’s Leap as I drove up to the new, Us$7-million visitors’ centre in Napa Valley, and wondered if winemaker Marcus Notaro felt the weight of expectations when he took up the position in 2013. Prior to working with Stag’s Leap, he made wine for over a decade
at Col Solare in Red Mountain, Washington. In fact his chief concern when moving was the impact it would have on his family, including his three children. “My kids at that time were four, seven and nine. I asked my daughter what she thought about moving to California and she asked ‘Are there horses?’ and I’m like ‘Yeah!’ so she was OK with it. My son was a little apprehensive because he was very much into the small town we lived in but after a month he made some new friends. Now they love living down here; it’s a beautiful spot with so much to do.” Notaro was also excited by the prospect of working in a different environment. “The soils in eastern Washington are very poor and sandy, whereas here the soils are rich and very complex. Over two-thirds of the world’s different soil types are found within this 30-mile-long by 5-mile-wide area. That was one of the reasons I was very interested in coming here — to learn the about the viticultural aspect and different complexities and nuances.”
Winiarski sold Stag’s Leap to a partnership between Chateau Ste. Michelle and Antinori in 2007, but he still supplies grapes and lends his experience to the winemaking team. Notaro recalls a time he was curious why a particular block in the vineyard yielded wine that tasted so different and Winiarski explained it was because of an underground stream that used to run through the area, something difficult for the team to know. “Anytime I have a chance to see him, especially during the harvest, I’ll show him some of our new equipment. He was a very innovative winemaker who cares about quality and was really trying to express the personality of the vineyard.”
I asked Notaro to describe his general approach towards winemaking. “One thing really important for me with any wine is, I like wines that are complex. Whether it is Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc or Cabernet, I like that when you smell and taste the wines there are different things going off. I don’t tend to make wines that are too over-the-top or heavy but are more based around complexity and finesse.” Backed by the financial muscle of its new owners, Notaro was given leeway to modernise Stag’s Leap as he saw fit. “Most of the investment has been into the cellar. We put in a cooling system into the cave to help
with the ageing of the wine, and purchased new crush equipment, and right now we’re getting ready to build a new cellar.” He ticks off a wish list for the last project — the flexibility to ferment according to vintage conditions, temperaturecontrolled conical tanks, and more mundane things such as wider aisles for easier cleaning. The original winery was considered state-of-the-art when it was first built, and Notaro is keen to ensure Stag’s Leap stays ahead of the technological curve. Success isn’t taken for granted here.
The vineyards themselves haven’t changed all that much, apart from being precisely segmented so Notaro and his team can tend to each plot with bespoke care. The warm Californian sunshine ripens Cabernet Sauvignon beautifully during the day but at night the temperature drops dramatically, preserving freshness and giving elegance to the wine. In 1986, a neighbouring vineyard FAY was added, a historically significant area where the first Cabernet Sauvignon vines in the Stags Leap District were planted. This and the original vineyard supply the grapes for the three flagship wines SLV, FAY, and Cask 23. The latter is a blend of selected plots from the SLV and FAY vineyards. Other wines, made from a combination of estate-grown and purchased grapes, bear Greek names such Karia and Artemis. This is partly a result of Winiarski’s scholarly background, and also because there is another similar sounding winery right next door called Stags’ Leap Winery. The confusion between the two culminated in a long court battle that was settled when both wineries were given the right to use the name, with the placement of the apostrophe distinguishing the two. Notaro calls this the “million-dollar apostrophe” and comments, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told, ‘ This Cabernet’s really good, I also really like your Petite Sirah’, and I’m like, ‘ Thank you, but that’s actually someone else’s.’” Giving distinctive names to the wines has helped — so instead of consumers asking for the Stag’s Leap Chardonnay, they ask for the Karia.
Of course, when it comes to the SLV, there is no such confusion. Only one producer has the bragging rights to this name. Notaro’s most recent tasting of the legendary wine was 2 years ago, when he opened it for a group that had placed the winning bid at the annual Auction Napa Valley. “I only had a little bit, but it was holding up beautifully. What I loved about the 1973 was the taste, because it still had freshness and structure, it had that silkiness — it wasn’t necessarily a super-powerful wine but just lush, lingering tannins and that’s something you see with the SLV.” With all the winemaking experience under his belt, I wondered if Notaro had plans to start up his own winery some day. “I guess it’s everybody’s dream, but of course when you own it you need to do everything, especially the selling part.”
For now he’s happy at Stag’s Leap. “There are so many different aspects of winemaking. You have the farming, then there’s some microbiology, a very small amount of chemistry and a lot of it is tasting. We make wine for people to enjoy and it is pretty cool when we get people who say, for example, they had a bottle of the Cask 23 at their kid’s 21st birthday and it was awesome. It’s inspiring for me when people that drink our wine like the wine.”
“We make wine for people to enjoy and it is pretty cool when we get people who say, for example, they had a bottle of the Cask 23 at their kid’s 21st birthday and it was awesome”
— Marcus Notaro
IN THE CAVE CELLARS WHERE WINES AGE, A FOUCAULT PENDULUM IS A METAPHOR FOR THE PASSING OF TIME