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stirring the lees with james molesworth

$185 Million for a Winery Whose Wines I Haven't Bought in Over 10 Years

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jul 31, 2007 3:58pm ET

With the impending sale of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, another great California name seems to be passing into its next phase. Whether that phase is good or bad remains to be seen.

I remember how the Stag's Leap wines from the late '70s and early '80s were prized bottles, in the early days of my own wine cellar. After moving on from college, I didn't have much to build a cellar with, but I would splurge where I could to add a bottle here and there. My first boss in the wine business, Al Hotchkin, used to open some of his older Stag's Leap vintages for the holidays or special occasions, and the wines always hit a chord with me.

Both the S.L.V. and Fay bottlings, along with the Cask 23, really turned me on to California Cabernet, along with the likes of Diamond Creek, Dunn and a few others. But the last two decades' worth of vintages didn't deliver like those from '75 through '85, in my opinion. The old argument over whether the winery's style changed, whether new wineries passed them by or whether my own tastes changed can probably never be settled.

As the announcement of the sale shakes loose some of my old wine memories, I'm curious to hear your reactions as well: Do you feel like it's only a matter of time before all the grand old wineries are gobbled up by a few major players? Is it simply a case of too much money for someone to turn down, and a just reward for a lifetime of hard work in building up a business? Or do you simply gloss over the headline since you haven't bought the wines in a while anyway?

For more on the founder of Stag's Leap, and the winery's sale, check out today's blog from James Laube, who broke the story for Wine Spectator last night.

Steve Barber
Clayton, CA. —  July 31, 2007 7:03pm ET
No different than the consolidation in other industries. Less personal, chasing orders, managing trade margins-attempting to influence retails, possibly releasing wines too early, better merchandising, current release not available in the tasting rooms, and the winemakers style being managed by deep pockets.
Joseph Tredici
Ramsey / NJ —  July 31, 2007 7:46pm ET
James, I think it's very sad to see the historical wineries gobbled up. I'm in the middle of reading the "House of Mondavi" and all I keep thinking is I hope this never happens again to another iconic winery (although I know it will). There is hope however thanks to the great Pinot currently made in Santa Rita, Sonoma Coast and the Russian River Valley. We seem to be losing Napa wineries left and right to giant corps with no heart howeever we're picking up the new pinot pioneers such as Loring, Costa Browne, A.P. Vin, Kutch, etc. I love the enthusiasm and fire within these guys, not to mention their very good wine.
Brad Coelho
New York City —  July 31, 2007 11:17pm ET
Passing of the guard is occuring for the glory days generation of the 70s and 80s w/ the Mondavis, Winiarskis and now the Duckhorns...business is too big to be passed along to family members through heritage and is prone to the corporate conglomerate acquisitions...w/ land pushing hundreds of thousands of dollars per acre in prime Napa real estate, corporations like Constellation are the word of the day...
David A Zajac
August 1, 2007 6:22am ET
Is this any different from what the golden parachutes the corp. execs on Wall St. are getting? Who in their right mind, at their ages, would pass up such a deal? Remember (in case you can't fathom without the entire set of numbers), were talking about $185,000,000! Whoever said to make a small fortune in wine you had to start with a large fortune is apparently not in the wine business today. Is it sad, sure, but the newer generation is doing great things too, so in the long run, it will be just fine.
Loren Lingerfelter
Danville, CA —  August 1, 2007 12:27pm ET
Mondavi, Stags Leap, and Duckhorn top my list of MOST OVERRATED wineries in Napa. Average wine, if that, and way overpriced. I would much rather seek out a smaller producer with some passion instead of a snobby winery (insert Duckhorn) that makes average wine. Finding that special bottle for me is what makes it fun. I would never buy any of these wines.
Peter Chang
Hong Kong —  August 1, 2007 7:00pm ET
James, interesting title for this blog. I, too, haven't bought SLWC wines since the '97 vintage as I was disappointed by the Cask 23 from that year. It's a truckload of money and no one should turn down that kind of offer. Lets hope the new owners can give the property a boost.
Jeffrey Fitzgerald
Chicago —  August 1, 2007 7:13pm ET
Loren, you hit the nail on the head. These wineries, in my opinion, have become a laughing stock for people who don't know much about wine, but recognize a few labels. They charge an absolute FORTUNE for average or slightly above average wines. I personally just pass over the headline and move onto the Kosta Browne/Kutch/Astrale e Terra's of the world...I just don't care about Far Niente, Silver Oak, Cakebread, Duckhorn and Stag's Leap any more. They tire me.
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  August 2, 2007 4:21am ET
I have a hard time believing that any corporate giant is interested in cutting yields and making better wine. So the sales of some of the above mentioned wineries make absolutely no difference to me. Most of these wines made their best wines years ago.
James Molesworth
August 2, 2007 1:36pm ET
Since most people seem to feel that Stag's Leap's best days are far behind it - how would you answer the question of 'why'?...

Did the winery's style change, or was it your tastes, or did just a number of other wineries pass them by.
Joseph Tredici
Ramsey / NJ —  August 2, 2007 1:45pm ET
Jeffrey, couldn't agree more. The Napa wines you mentioned have become restaurant wines. They're boring and over priced.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  August 2, 2007 7:53pm ET
I think many of these iconic wines have become safe "bets," like when folks would say no one ever got fired for buying IBM [technology]. They've been around so long that people who don't know wine buy these wines to impress other people who don't know wine. It happens with many products. In the process, though, the quality of such products declines because they take on a life of their own (ie, self-promoting) and the producers no longer need to put so much effort into the product to differentiate it from the competition. I suggest this is what has happened to the big vintners as well.
As for the big conglomerates and private equity firms buying up these guys, it's just business. Credit is tightening though, and most of these players won't buy with straight cash/stock. This won't stop the trend though. These older, family-owned labels need to monetize the goodwill and land holdings, especially when life-expectancy for a major shareholder has diminished.

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