Stag’s Leap

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

Prestige (Singapore) - - CONTENTS -

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


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