Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ top Cabs offer reminder of restrained California wines

Ste. Michelle Wine Estates New York State Manager Brian Strauss conducts Stag's Leap Wine Cellars tasting

Ste. Michelle Wine Estates New York State Manager Brian Strauss conducts Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars tasting at Long Island’s Post Wines.

 SLWC wines, especially Cabs, show well at a retail tasting

By Alan J. Wax

I’ve never been a big fan of California wines, but a recent tasting at a shop near my home happily reminded me of the fine wines being produced at Napa Valley’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

I’d sampled the wines of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars from time to time in the past at various large, industry walk-around tasting events, but never before had an opportunity to give them a more contemplative look.

I left the tasting at Post Wines in Syosset, Long Island, quite impressed and quite happy.

The wines were exciting, particularly the reds. The Stag Leap Wine Cellars’ Cabernet Sauvignons showed tannic structure, acidity, and for the most part, restrained fruit, which probably explains my enjoyment.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars has a terrific story. Warren Winiarski, a former college professor, founded the winery in 1972 and in 1979 it gained worldwide acclaim when its second vintage, the 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon, bested a group of handpicked Bordeaux wines in a blind tasting by French judges held in Paris during the American bicentennial. The tasting advanced not only the reputation of Stag’s Leap but also those of Napa Valley and California. The tasting became the subject of a 2005 book by George M. Taber, “Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine.” Washington-based Chateau Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Tuscan vintner Piero Antinori, partners in various wine ventures, have owned Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars since 2007.

New ownership brought changes, the tasting group at Post was told by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates New York State Manager Brian Strauss, including replacing vinyl piping with stainless steel and adding air conditioning to the winery’s aging caves, all of which, he said, resulted in better wines, beginning with the 2012 vintage. The partners also brought in a new wine maker in 2013, Marcus Notaro, from the Col Solare winery in Washington, which they jointly own.

We sampled wines from the 2012, 2013 and 2014 vintages starting with Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Sauvignon Blanc Aveta 2014 ($22). Straw-hued, with a grassy, herbal nose, there’s grass and grapefruit on the palate with just enough acidity to keep it interesting.

We followed with another white, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Karia Chardonnay 2013 ($28). This straw-hued, creamy Chard offered hints of spice on the nose and pear and vanilla on the palate along with lip-smacking acidity.

Then onto the Cabs, for which Stag’s Leap remains best known. The winery’s top wines and, perhaps most-renown, are its Cask 23 Cabernet blend, which sells for $150— not poured at the recent tasting – and the Fay and S.L.V. bottlings. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ fame is closely linked to its signature estate vineyards, S.L.V. and FAY. The FAY Vineyard was planted in 1961 as the first Cabernet Sauvignon site in the Stags Leap District. The S.L.V. Vineyard was planted in 1970.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 ($55). This deep purple seems the antithesis of its pricier siblings with oak dominating the blackberry and cherry fruit and the finish. Not particularly a favorite at this stage.

Stag’s Leap FAY Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($1205). Deep purple hued with notes of spice and cherries on the nose. It’s quite approachable despite its youth and very fruit forward.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($120). The final wine of the evening – they saved the best for last. Dark and inky, this was a powerful, full-bodied wine with loads of black fruit and spice notes from nose to palate. I’d love to taste this beauty after a few years of aging.

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