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Stag’s Leap Cabernets Due for a Quality Tuneup

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Feb 28, 2008 1:41pm ET

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars owns two driver vineyards, Fay and S.L.V., that are among the best in Napa Valley. But the celebrated winery hasn’t been getting great mileage out of either one as of late, and its flagship wine, Cask 23, has been underperforming as well. Artemis, a brand aimed at providing value, hasn’t worked well either.

Expect that to change rather abruptly, starting with the 2005 vintage.

Last week the subject of quality and style of Stag’s Leap's Cabernets came up when I met with Ted Baseler, president and CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Last year, Ste. Michelle and Piero Antinori teamed up to buy this famous Napa winery for $185 million.

It was an unusual deal, admits Baseler, since Stag’s Leap’s owner, Warren Winiarski, approached Antinori and in turn Ste. Michelle about their possible interest in one of wine’s most famous names.

Winiarski “effectively invited us [to buy] the winery,” said Baseler, and Ste. Michelle was more than happy to. Without heirs to take over the winery, Winiarski sought the best stewards of the land and brand he could find and I think he made a wise choice. Antinori’s long history of running a family owned winery appealed to Winiarski, but Antinori wanted to partner with Ste. Michelle in an arrangement similar to what they have in Washington State with Col Solare. Antinori also owns Antica Napa Valley.

Part of what makes that relationship work is Ste. Michelle’s philosophy of letting its wineries operate as independent companies with their own identities. And the goal with Stag’s Leap will be to raise the quality of its reds, including that of Cask 23, Fay, S.L.V. and Artemis, which have been notably earthy and sometimes funky to an extreme in recent vintages.

The focus with Stag’s Leap will be to honor what Winiarski created and improve quality.

“Warren never skimped on the vineyards, so there’s no problem with [excessive] yields,” Baseler said, adding, “I think there are some stylistic issues.”

One is he would like the wines to offer more fruit complexity and parts of the cellar needed an overhaul that will lead to a cleaner environment. “I think with the ’05 [Cask 23] we’ll bring out a little more fruit sweetness and less of the herbal [character],” Baseler said.

This will be worth watching, since the vineyards are capable of making great wines and Ste. Michelle and Antinori should be the team to turn it around.

Chris Lavin
Long Beach, CA —  February 28, 2008 5:11pm ET
It is interesting to note that even with less than stellar wines being made at Stags Leap Wine Cellars, the sellability of the "brand" has never been in question. One of the busiest tasting rooms in Napa. Their foray into Lake County has been very successful as well. Hawk Crest "Red Hills" Cabernet is excellent. The only gripe I have in general with Stags Leap Wine Cellars has been their price points...

Some of my favorite wines from Stags Leap have been the '94 SLV and the '96 Fay! As far as '05 is concerned - Artemis will probably be sold out soon.

I think that Ste. Michelle's influence will be very positive.
John Wilen
Texas —  February 29, 2008 10:46am ET
You want to talk about a reclamation project? Of a franchise lost from declining quality? Welcome to SLWC. I¿ve wracked my brain trying to think of a better example of a once-top notch, well regarded, universally known brand that has so woefully underperformed over the last 10 years. I can¿t. Not even runner-ups Groth, Heitz, or Arrowood.
Michael Blum
San Francisco —  February 29, 2008 11:39am ET

Great instructive video today on the Syrah spectrum and how California produces wines across the axis from the leaner, Northern Rhone style to the richer, Australian style.

In order to translate the lesson into my effective reading of tasting notes, I went to the notes in search of clues for how to tell which style is which.

Both the lean and the rich notes use, ¿ripe¿ and ¿focused.¿ The ¿lean¿ Nyers note uses the word, ¿rich.¿

So with those terms eliminated, I¿m guessing the key words for the leaner style are ¿elegant¿ and ¿sleek.¿

Are the key words for the richer style ¿brimming,¿ ¿intense,¿ and ¿concentrated,¿ or is it more of the ¿plump,¿ ¿plush,¿ and ¿supple¿?

Thank you,

James Laube
Napa, CA —  February 29, 2008 2:32pm ET
Michael, the cooler-site wines are leaner, more austere and usually have more pepper and spice aromatics and remind me more of the Northern Rhone, which by the way is a very cool climate region. Lagier Meredith would be in that camp, as would Neyers. Riper, more opulent wines would include such wines as Saxum (and others from Paso Robles) or Carlisle, which aims for an Aussie Shiraz style.
Matthew Weiler
Los Angeles, CA —  March 3, 2008 4:25pm ET
What makes the SLV and Cask 23 distinctive to me is the characteristic Stags Leap loaminess; let's hope the new owners 'stylistic changes' preserve the unique features of these vineyards. My $0.02 is that the last two or three vintages have been grittier, leaner. Texture, length, and finish, as opposed to flavor profile, have been the issues. The earthiness in these wines is a becoming trait; I hope that it is refined and not abandoned in favor of a 'lusher' or 'more opulent' style.
Peter Hickner
Seattle, WA —  March 3, 2008 7:11pm ET
A leaner style is fine with me as long as the green pepper is avoided.What some call "earthiness", I taste as contaminated with brett and other stray yeasts. To me, that is a flaw, not a desirable trait. I hope the new owners bring Stag's up to modern standards quickly.
Paul Wick
Portola Valley, CA —  March 10, 2008 1:32pm ET
Yet another Laube post that's way off the mark. The only reds he champions are fruit bombs with excessive alcohol and no complexity or structure. The 03 SLV and Cask 23 are top notch, as are the 04 Fay and Cask 23. The so-called deterioration at SLWC is a myth perpetrated by Wine Spectator. The truth is that Laube doesn't like the Bordeaux-like style of SLWC or Ridge, instead being a fan of the new Mondavi or Realm, both of which will knock you over with one glass given their 15%+ alcohol and searing hot finish.

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