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Reflecting on Winiarski and Stag's Leap Cabernets

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jul 31, 2007 1:04pm ET

The sale of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars ends an era—even if founder Warren Winiarski refuses to use the word "sale," calling the winery's changing of hands a "transition" instead. 

That manipulation of semantics is classic Winiarski. He likes to frame things his own way.

The Stag's Leap founder also likes to control the dialogue, tempo and range of discussion. Case in point: as we were discussing the sale of his iconic winery last night, Winiarski refused to disclose the cost of the "transition"—until today, that is, a move to keep the focus on him, the winery and its new partners rather than the staggering $185 million price tag.

A thinking man’s winemaker, the introspective Winiarski can be as complex as his Cabernets, and he has made quite a mark on the wine world. He helped define the modern Napa Valley wine scene, much in the same way that others such as Robert Mondavi or Al Brounstein or Mike Grgich did.

Stag's Leap was part of the influential class of ’72, which also includes Chateau Montelena, Diamond Creek, Caymus, Clos Du Val and Burgess, among others. All of those wineries came on the scene that year, and most of them staked their reputations on Cabernet.

Ultimately Winiarski's Cabernets helped define the Stag' Leap appellation, with a style that came to be known as “the iron fist in the velvet glove” for its intensity and richness, finesse and supple texture.

Winiarski’s best Cabernets, most of which were bottled under the Cask 23 label, were among Napa's elite. The early classics included the Paris Tasting winner 1973, from what later became known as S.L.V., and Cask 23s from '74, '77, '78 and '85. All of these wines are rich, deep, complex and polished, and they all aged well. Vintages in the '90s were strong as well, including the addition of a Fay Vineyard bottling.

But in recent years the winery has been inconsistent, with Cabernets that strayed, to my taste, into earthier, leathery flavors. So, the timing of the decision to sell is a good one, as the wines could use a lift.

Winiarski and his family wrestled with the succession question and decided that the best buyer would share a similar view as theirs; that ideal buyer turned out to be Washington-based Ste. Michelle Estate and Tuscan vintner Piero Antinori, which purchased the winery in a partnership agreement.

Regardless of what people might say about the quality of Stag's Leap wines today, there’s little disputing Winiarski’s impact and influence on the modern Napa Valley wine scene. Many young winemakers witnessed what he accomplished and used his Stag’s Leap Cabernets as a stylistic compass.

Today is the perfect time to reflect on Winiarski and his wines, so I’m interested in your thoughts.

John Miller
Windsor, CA —  July 31, 2007 4:04pm ET
James,Having had a mediocre Fay Vineyard bottling recently, I am not surprised that you find the Stag's Leap quality to have become less consistent of late, but I'm not sure why you equate "earthy and leathery" with lesser quality. Unless perhaps we use those terms for different things. Or perhaps its because of my bias toward "old world" style cabs?
Brent L Pierce
St. Helena, CA —  July 31, 2007 5:27pm ET
I was recently fortunate enough to pick up a few bottles of the 1973 Paris winner a year or so ago, at the same time I was reading the Taber book on the tasting, which has some wonderful detail on Warren's early career. It was very good and reminded me of many great bottles I've had from SLWC. I'm sorry to see it go to another large corporation (U.S. Tobacco) but all things must pass, I guess.
Eric Arnold
NY, NY —  July 31, 2007 6:00pm ET


I had the pleasure of meeting Warren once, and he was a very interesting, engaging guy. Truth be told, I've only ever tried one of the Cabernets (good, if pricey), but a friend of mine recently opened a bottle of the Paris Tasting winner ('73) from his collection, and said it was outstanding. Sure, maybe Stag's Leap hasn't been the best producer from year to year, but I think we have a lot to thank Winiarski for considering what he was able to do from the get-go with that one wine.

It's not like being a one-hit wonder. Chumbawamba and Toni Basil didn't change music, even if they did dominate people's attention for a brief, embarassing amount of time. But that Stag's Leap '73 Cabernet did change the wine industry, right or wrong. Is that worth $185 million? Maybe. Especially if people still continue to enjoy the wines no matter how the style has changed or the scores have risen or fallen over the years. It sounds like a bit too much money if you ask me, but then again, I don't pay $185 for a bottle, much less $185 million for a winery. Still, considering what Winiarski did for the industry, I'm not sure a price can be put on that.
La Quinta, CA —  July 31, 2007 6:54pm ET
A little off topic, but in the same vein, I just heard that Duckhorn sold for around $400 million. WHEW! Must be nice to have the "Monopoly Money". Dustin
Harvey Posert Jr
napa valley —  July 31, 2007 8:15pm ET
yes, warren will be missed, but hopefully he'll continue to speak out on industry issues where his intellect and articulateness are so needed. i was at wine institute when the l976 tasting occurred, and the industry could not have been better served than by warren's putting the tasting into perspective...while bob mondavi was saying only, "i told you so!"harvey posert
Ron Lippitt
July 31, 2007 9:27pm ET
Many great wines and fine memories. The last great Stag's Leap that I had was the '91 Cask 23-What a smooth and polished wine that had that enticing cardimon flavor in the background.
James Clary
United States —  July 31, 2007 10:51pm ET
In 1993, after a merger between my company and my competitor, we had a holiday dinner for the management team at a very fine restaurant in the Chicago area (Carlos). My partner began ordering expensive wine, which really ticked me off as I only drank beer at the time. I finally decided that I had better have a taste, since I was paying for half. It turned out to be the '90 Cask 23, and was sensational. That dinner cost me a small fortune...I now have over 4,000 bottles. As a follow up, I met my wife over a bottle of Cask 23. It has had a major impact in our lives, and even though we no longer buy it for reasons that Jim has discussed, it remains near and dear to our hearts. Glad to see Warren ring the bell and cash in.
Sao Anash
Santa Barbara —  August 1, 2007 1:49pm ET
I agree that the Stag's Leap Wine Cellars offerings of late were underwhelming, but I'll always have fond memories of one Christmas around the Winiarski family Christmas tree, all lit up with real, bees wax candles. And, Warren holding court with his guests. We had some great Cask 23 wines that night. I attended elementary school with Julia Winiarski, Warren's youngest daughter, and , later, as an adult, had the opportunity to share many great Stag's Leap wines with her and their family.They leave behind a strong legacy of graceful Cabs in the earlier years......wasn't it Warren who described them as the iron fist in the velvet glove?Warren brought a certain panache to the valley; he was the historian, philosopher, thinking man's winemaker.I wish him and his family the best of luck in their future endeavors. Napa Valley's history is richer because of them.
Peter Chang
Hong Kong —  August 1, 2007 6:47pm ET
I had the pleasure of meeting Warren once years ago at a vertical tasting of Cask 23 in Singapore. That was my first introduction to the wine and I was blown away by the '85, '90 and '91 vintages, not to mention others. He was extremely nice and I can say the same about Barbara, whom I met at the winery later in the same year. I'm glad they are getting what they deserved after 30 years of hard work.I do tend to agree that recent vintages seem to be a little disappointing. I have drunk quite of few bottles of the '97 Cask 23 and they certainly weren't anything like the vintages I mentioned earlier...

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