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Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

Taste the Past and Future at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

By Published On: April 30th, 2022

Sipping through two legendary vineyards.

Let’s take a quick look back in time…It was May 24, 1976, 3 p.m. Location: Intercontinental Hotel in Paris. Event: a blind wine tasting—dubbed the Judgment of Paris—featuring wine from France’s top estates in Bordeaux and Burgundy, vs. wine from some place no one had ever heard of in Northern California. 

The result of that tasting catapulted the Napa Valley onto the world wine stage.

The United States was viewed at that point, as a benighted wine-growing region incapable of producing anything worth serious consideration. But once the scores from the blind tasting were tallied, French judges rated two wines from the Napa Valley—the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon and the Chateau Montelena 1973 Chardonnay—as better than France’s best.  

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars instantly earned cult wine status, an honor that continues today. The estate was founded in 1970 with the purchase of Stag’s Leap Vineyard (S.L.V.); two years later, the winery itself was erected, and the first vintage was released. 

The next vintage, made from young three-year-old vines, almost single-handedly changed world wine history. Today of course, the Napa Valley is synonymous with premium Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ win isn’t just about wine, either. Consider the economic implications of Napa’s rise to fame: only 4% of California’s wine grape harvest comes from the Napa Valley, and it represents just 0.4% of the worlds wine production, that wee output provides $9.4 billion in economic impact to the local economy, and $34 billion to the United States economy, every year.  

A Tale of Two Vineyards 

There’s more to the story at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, of course. While grapes harvested from the S.L.V. vineyard is arguably foundational to the winery’s success, winemaker Marcus Notaro explains that the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars story began with the FAY Vineyard.

“The FAY Vineyard was established by pioneering grape grower Nathan Fay in 1962,” Notaro says. “It was the first planting of Cabernet Sauvignon in what is now the Stags Leap District.  At the time, conventional wisdom maintained that the area was too cool for Cabernet Sauvignon.  FAY is a 66-acre vineyard, planted primarily to Cabernet Sauvignon with 1.5 acres of Cabernet Franc.”

When the estate was founded in 1970, the team began working with grapes from FAY, and planted what became S.L.V.

Notaro credits the 1976 Judgment of Paris with “fundamentally transforming how California wines were viewed worldwide. The stunning victory launched Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars into the ranks of the world’s most noteworthy Cabernet Sauvignon producers.  S.L.V. is a 35-acre vineyard planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and 1.5 acres of Cabernet Franc.”

The soils in FAY are older, with great water-holding capacity, while the soils in the S.L.V. are younger, with red volcanic soil. Those differences can be tasted in the glass, Notaro says. 

Taste the Difference

The team at Stag’s Leap wine Cellars is devoted to coaxing the distinctions between these places into the bottle through careful farming, and a minimal intervention winemaking method that allow the grapes to shine. 

“S.L.V. and FAY both have what I like to call ‘soft power,’ which is a characteristic of Cabernet grown in our area,” Notaro says. “Both are rich in flavors, have supple tannins and lend themselves to be made as balanced wines that can age in the cellar.

Both have distinct personalities due to the different soil types in which they are grown. With FAY, I get more perfume, red fruit and bramble notes and the wine has softer, silkier tannins. With S.L.V., the wine has darker fruit than FAY with more violets, black currant fruit, richer tannins and structure and a dusty cocoa powder note.  It’s fun to hold a glass of FAY in your left hand and S.L.V. in your right hand and smell and taste the differences side by side.”

Yes, please. 

If you want to taste Napa’s past, present and future, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars should be on your dance card when you visit the Valley. Several special experiences are on tap, all of which can be customized, and all of which offer stunning panoramic views of the FAY Vineyard and the Stags Leap Palisades. 

A highlight is the Celestial Tour & Tasting, a guided tour of the winery’s scenic Napa Valley wine caves, culminating with a seated tasting of the iconic, estate-grown wines, perfectly paired with delicious bites created by Chef Travis Westrope.

This 90-minute experience is offered Monday, Thursday and Friday at 10:30am and 2:30pm.

Make reservations at least two weeks ahead your spot.

As Notaro recommends, compare the wines sourced from S.L.V. and FAY, side by side, and see if you can taste the difference. 

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