Napa Valley’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars: 50 years of Iron and Velvet

Date: 29 July, 2021 / Author: Adam Lechmere

Warren Winiarski on a tractor at the first plantings

There’s an old black-and-white photograph of Warren Winiarski planting Stag’s Leap Vineyard (forever known as SLV)  exactly half a century ago. He’s on a tractor, a big Ford 4000, but he’s looking as bespectacled and bookish as he would have done a few years previously, when he was still a political scientist at the University of Chicago.

As Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars celebrates its 50th anniversary (actually last year, but, for obvious reasons, celebrations were muted and events delayed), Winiarski remains a notable figure at the winery that he founded and which he sold in 2007 to Ste Michelle of Washington State and Antinori of Tuscany. Now in his early 90s, Winiarski lives quietly in a beautiful hilltop house high above the winery. He doesn’t want his name used in connection with Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars these days; he’s simply known as “The Founder” in official documents and correspondence.

The Founder remains revered at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars not simply because of the winery’s legendary status – it became a household name on 24 May 1976 when its 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon triumphed in Steven Spurrier’s famous Judgment of Paris tasting – but because his influence as a visionary winemaker is as relevant today as at any time in the past 50 years.

When he bought SLV’s neighbouring vineyard from Nathan Fay in 1986, for example, Winiarski soon realised it needed replanting (Fay had originally planted it in 1961). “It was a 66-acre hillside laid out very simply in long rows,” Marcus Notaro, the current winemaker, explains. “When you have a hillside like that you realise how different the top will be from the middle and bottom – the top gets ripe first, for example – and it quickly becomes interesting and complicated.

“When Warren replanted, you can see he was experimenting. The vineyard is subdivided into all these small blocks, and each one is an experiment: this block is a rootstock trial, this one a clone trial, others have different orientations, north and south, east and west; there are different planting densities, different trellising, soil tests. He was an academic, and all this was for him to learn, and we’re still learning from him today.”

To mark the 50th anniversary, Club Oenologique persuaded the winery to pull together a vertical tasting of back vintages. This sort of thing is always fascinating, especially when you’re going back to the beginning. Or almost – there are only about 11 bottles left of the hallowed ’73, so the first bottle we open is the first vintage of Cask 23, the 1974, of which 100 cases were made (there are about five dozen bottles left; one less now). It’s still a magnificent and hugely pleasurable wine, and one of the remarkable things about it is that it’s made from four-year-old vines. “The reality is that young wines make exciting wines,” Notaro says, because they are naturally very low-yield.

Notaro chose 18 wines from 1974 to 2017 to show the evolution of the winery, the winemaking philosophy, the character of the SLV and Fay vineyards, and to demonstrate how Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is – in common with all great wine properties – a work in progress.

We are tasting the work of dozens of winemakers, from André Tchelistcheff in the early 1970s, through to Winiarski’s daughter Julia and many others that went on to important careers: Stag’s Leap was a nursery for winemakers as well as ideas. Various names stand out: the late Bob Sessions of Hanzell, John Williams of Frog’s Leap, John Kongsgaard, the late Dick Ward of Saintsbury, Andy Erickson, Paul Hobbs, Michael Silacci of Opus One, the maverick Abe Schoener – all at one stage were employed by the Founder.

Read more about California’s legendary estate on Club Oenologique
Club Oenologique is a luxury quarterly magazine dedicated to celebrating and showcasing the very best in wine, spirits, gastronomy, travel and lifestyle.

Formerly launch editor of decanter.com, Adam Lechmere has been writing about wine for 20 years, contributing to Decanter, World of Fine Wine, Meininger’s, the Guardian and many others. Before joining the wine world he worked for the BBC, and as a music and film gossip journalist.