Within vino’s voluminous vale, the story of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is the story of Napa. At least, it’s a microcosm of Napa’s rise from a fiefdom of meh to a kingdom of quality—and that’s a crown that Warren Winiarski can make a legitimate claim to owning.
This is not to steal thunder from the Krugs, the Schrambergs or the Beringers—all of whom established Napa wineries a century before Winiarski skittered onto the scene. To understand Winiarski’s position on the throne requires a review of the momentous Judgment of Paris, which caused France—then considered by the world (and especially, by themselves) to be peerless producers of cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay—to utterly lose its equilibrium.
In 1976, British wine merchant Steven Spurrier organized a gimmicky competition wherein he pitted California cabs and chardonnays against Bordeaux and Burgundies; ten wines in each category.
Since Spurrier was a purveyor of French wines exclusively, his self-confessed goal was to prove that California wines were inferior to French; the fact that the competition would take place during America’s bicentennial insured that PR machines would be operating at full steam. Thinking to ensure victory for his portfolio of Old World classics, he stacked the pool with French judges—(of the eleven, only one was American)—including such luminaries as Pierre Brejoux, Inspector General of the Institut National des Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, Michel Dovaz of the Institut Oenologique de France and Odette Kahn, director of the prestigious Revue du Vin de France.
Subsequently, Spurrier confessed, “I thought I had it rigged for the French wines to win.”
“My Wine Has No Nose.” “Then How Does it Smell?” “Awful.”
Epic fail; worse than Waterloo. Among the recorded comments of the judges were, “Ah, back to France,” upon sampling a Napa chardonnay, and, “This one is definitely a California—it has no nose, “ after sipping a Bâtard-Montrachet.
In retrospect, Spurrier’s biggest mistake was making it a blind competition. At very least, he could have coughed every time the judges tried a French wine. As you no doubt know, in the end, California not only won top honors in both categories, but literally dominated the debacle. As one observer noted, “It was so utterly improbable that skilled French tasters, suckled on Bordeaux red and white Burgundies, should not only fail to recognize their own wines, but actually express so strong and concerted a preference for those of the New World.”
Nelson Muntz, hallowed bully at Springfield Elementary School, phrased it succinctly, and far better than moi: “Ha, ha!”
And, beating Château Mouton-Rothschild, Château Montrose, Château Haut-Brion and Château Leoville Las Cases? Warren Winiarski’s 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, which was a full three years younger than the first, second and third runners up.
To say that the French were incensed is understated; they hadn’t been this pissed off since that Austrian chick told them to eat cake. They gave Spurrier the silent treatment for a year, making him sit in the corner with a conical hat and banning him from prestige wine-tasting tours. He might have counted his lucky stars, too—in 1976, believe it or not, they were still guillotining people in France.
How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down On The Farm After They’ve Seen Pa-ree?
Meanwhile, prestige in hand, Warren went back to growing grapes, which is all he really wanted to do anyway. Part of a new wave of 1960’s prospectors, he’d left an academic career in Chicago to go west. He established himself as a winemaker wannabe in Napa, and moved up the ladder rungs as as an apprentice with Lee Stewart at Souverain Cellars and then, as assistant winemaker at the newly created Robert Mondavi Winery. Once his hands were stained sufficiently purple, he began to search for his own vineyard, finally finding one in the Stag’s Leap District, which he purchased from Napa pioneer Nathan Fay.
Stags Leap District, incidentally, was the first appellation in Napa to be designated an AVA (1989) based on its terroir. The soil is composed of loam and clay from the nearby river along with volcanic deposits from ancient eruptions in the Vaca Mountains. Nathan Fay first recognized the suitability of this district for growing Bordeaux varietals, and planted the area’s first cabernet sauvignon in 1961, but it was Winiarski who dared to bottle merlot—then woefully under-represented in California—as a stand-alone varietal.
A decade after the Judgment of Paris, Winiarski had perfected his wine to the point where 1985’s Cask 23, commanded the highest release price ($75) in Napa history. It was referred to as “Truly sublime and perhaps perfect…” by a certain critic who shall remain unnamed, although his initials, ‘R.P.’, may as well stand for ‘Really Picky’.
Winiarski continuted to expand, buying more property, building new facilities, forming conservation easements with the Napa County Land Trust (legalese for ‘no Wal-Marts’) and a state-of-the-art multi-tunneled cave for barrel aging red wine.
The culmination of all this activity, award-winning and aggressive accretion occurred in 2007, when Winiarski turned over the Stag’s Leap stewardship (read: sold for a boatload of cash) to a joint venture between Piero Antinori and Chateau Ste. Michelle.
It’s fair to say that this sale was almost as earth-shattering to wine cognoscenti as was the Judgment of Paris, and more than a few eyebrows were elevated at the notion that this near-sacred winery could prosper under the umbrella of a 600,000-case-a-year Washington conglomerate primarily known for middle-road rieslings, but Winiarski has done his best to reassure his constituency:
“I’ll need to teach them about the terroir that I learned over 40 years,” he said. “I’ll be here at the winery part-time. It’s not like I’m turning out lights.”
He’s proven himself true to his word, too. After all, you can take the winemaker out of the vineyards, but you can’t so easily unload your DNA: ‘Winiarski’ is Polish for ‘Son of a Winemaker.’
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Chardonnay, Karia, Napa Valley, 2009, around $35: Classic Napa style with creaminess and crispiness as counterpoints. Primary aromas are apple pie, lemon zest and pear, with some green apple and French vanilla on the mid-palate. A vibrant wine that’s built in the vineyard, having kept acidic and refreshing by twilight breezes from San Pablo Bay. The wine finishes sharp and clean with a bit of custard and oak.
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Artemis, Napa Valley, 2008, about $55: Nicki Pruss, Stag’s Leap’s winemaker, describes vintage 2008 as ‘a scary movie with a happy ending’. Though yields were compromised due to early-season frost, the wine winds up being a signature Stag’s Leap red brimming with juicy Bing cherry, fennel, violets, star anise and dried sweet herbs—notably, lavender. Cassis, baking chocolate and smoke dominate a silken mouthfeel with a long, mineral-tinged, mocha finish.