AWG Correspondent

Tom Riley

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Photos

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Review

Regions: Napa Valley AVA, Stags Leap District AVA, California

Reviewed: May 24, 2013 by Tom Riley
Published: June 2, 2013

I should have known.

When you plan to drop into a winery before 11 a.m., you don’t expect the place to be already crowded. But I wasn’t planning on visiting just any winery. My destination was Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. Yeah, I should have known.

Ever since turning the wine world on its collective head with a surprising win at the now legendary Judgment of Paris in 1976, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar (not to be confused with its neighbor, Stags Leap Winery, or the Stags Leap District AVA), has stood near the top of the American wine charts for their steady production of some of California’s finest cabernet sauvignon.

Over the years I’ve not had the pleasure of enjoying their wine more than a few times, but when I did, the occasions were memorable ones. Recently, I figured it was time to visit the winery and see what magic lay behind these famous, impressive wines.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, founded in 1970 by Warren Winiarski, made its way onto the local stage at a time when Napa Valley, still reeling from the effects of Prohibition, was just beginning to wake up to the possibilities of reclaiming its lost momentum. The valley, which had once enjoyed 140 or so wineries, was down to a few dozen by the mid-1960s, when Napa’s modern era started to blossom.

If you’re going to visit Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, pay close attention as you drive along the Silverado Trail. The winery is nestled halfway up a tree-covered hill, at the top of which sits a few of America’s finest cabernet sauvignon vineyards, including the FAY vineyard, named in honor of its original owner, Nathan Fay. It was Fay who opened Winiarski’s eyes to the potential of this part of the valley. Fay’s land was the first planting of cabernet sauvignon in what would eventually become the Stags Leap AVA, known the world over for the achievements of its various cabernet producers.

It was crowded when I got there, but the reception areas are roomy, things well spread out; the tasting bars capacious and inviting. Several stand-up high tables constructed out of old wine barrels for folks to gather around with friends and wine dot the room. Certainly plenty of space for one more visitor. You get the immediate sense that SLWC has been dealing with crowds for some time. Umbrella-covered tables on the patio, a gurgling fountain, ivy covered walls. And, there is enough kitsch and clothing to keep the non-wine-curious interested, but not enough to confuse any visitor. When you come to Stag’s Leap, it’s obvious that they are all about the wine.

I sidled up to the tasting bar and was warmly greeted by Judy, a Napa resident who knew all you might want to know about the winery and the valley itself. The offerings that day were the Estate Collection ($30) and the Napa Valley Collection ($15). I figured if I was going to get the full SLWC treatment, I had to go with the winery’s first team.

Batting lead-off was their 2011 Arcadia Vineyard Chardonnay, which is aged in neutral oak, so as not to obscure its wonderful aromas of honeysuckle, pears, and citrus. A delightful, delicate wine, and a great way to whet one’s whistle in preparation for the big guns that followed.

The 2006 FAY Cabernet Sauvignon was an impressive production, concentrated fruit, with great balance of tannins and acids. There was a gentle hint of oak, but, disappointing to me, also a fair whiff of brettanomyces, which gave it an unmistakable barnyard aroma. Judy attributed it to bottle age, but I knew better: something went awry during fermentation. Hey, some folks love that “earthy” component; they think it gives it a more rustic, European profile. Maybe. It’s just not for me.

Up next was the 2009 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon, a powerful, dark, complex wine, the kind of bottle that keeps people around the world chasing the finest Napa cabernet they can afford. Aromas and flavors of black cherry and blackberry, with alluring hints of fennel and black licorice, make this a wine that you want to take home with you, despite the $125 sticker price. Actually, given the prices these days for high end Napa cab, these numbers are not that outrageous.

My final wine of the day, SLWC’s clean-up hitter so to speak, was the 2009 Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon. Stag’s Leap claims that this wine is Napa’s first estate proprietary blend, composed of fruit from both the FAY and S.L.V. vineyards. The wine was given its name by legendary winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff, who was advising Winiarski in the early 1970s, and called such because of the numbers on the large wooden cask in which it aged. This wine is powerful, deep, elegant, and alluring, and it’s easy to see why it has earned the global reputation it enjoys. Bright, fruity aromas; rich, mouth-filling flavors; fine tannins and acids; and a long, layered finish might be a fair description of this wine, but it’s one that barely scratches the surface. This pour made the price of admission worth every single penny. Every. Single. Penny.

As I made my way down the steps to leave, there was a group of six men and women heading up towards the tasting room. Over their heads I could see a few more cars pulling into the driveway. Stag’s Leap is a pretty popular spot. And now I know why.

Still, I should have known.

Address & Contact Information: 5766 Silverado Trail Napa, California 94558. Telephone: 866-422-7523, email:, website: Tasting Hours: 10:00-4:30.

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