When Warren Winiarski decided to sell the winery to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates last year, he knew it was time to let go of the reins. No one in his family wanted to step into his role, unwilling as they were to take on the admittedly grueling demands of sales and marketing. But Winiarski, like many winemakers, loved working in the vineyards, and Baseler has said the grapes grown on the property, including both the Fay and S.L.V. vineyards, are as good as any in Napa Valley.
But the wines, at least for me, have been tired in recent years, with more herbal and leathery flavors than bright, vibrant fruit. It’s really a matter of style and character preferences. I’m sure Winiarski liked the wines. But it’s been a long time since the Stag’s Leap wines, including Cask 23, have generated much buzz in the valley.
But Baseler, president and CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, thinks the wines could be better, too, and offered to show me the 2005s, which he and Renzo Cotarella, winemaker for Antinori, had a hand in making. The wines were in barrel when the Stag's Leap sale went through, and they worked together on the final blends for the three key wines: Cask 23, Fay and S.L.V.
“We went through every lot of all the estate fruit to come up with these blends,” Baseler said. Their goals are greater fruit intensity and refinement, both of which the vineyards are capable of providing.
Baseler said the new style will reflect a slight shift rather than anything revolutionary. I did note a slight improvement with the 2005s, but I suspect the greater changes and improvements will come with either the 2006 or 2007 wines.
Yesterday, Baseler and I blind-tasted eight wines at my office in Napa. Seven were from Stag’s Leap, and one was a ringer. To me, the wines were consistently good, but reflective of an older Napa style, not the newer, cutting-edge style, which emphasizes riper (though not overripe) flavors, supple textures and tannins, and greater length and depth. There’s no question that Stag’s Leap can regain its form. After all, it was Winiarski who initially defined that gentler, suppler style back in the 1970s, just as Napa Cabernets had grown bigger and more tannic. And the Stags Leap appellation is one area in which textural grace in Cabernet can be achieved with relative ease.
For example, the 2000 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23 we tasted was intense, vibrant, complex and focused, with zesty black cherry, currant and wild berry fruit. It ended, however, with clipped tannins. The 2004 Cask 23 was rich and concentrated, but also very dry and leathery, with a mix of power and finesse but also a whiff of barnyard. The 2004 Fay was firm and intense yet supple and refined, even a bit closed and reserved, yet it was the most complete and concentrated of the three.
Baseler liked the 2004 S.L.V., but I found it muddled, with dried currant, sage and mineral flavors, and an earthy edge to the finish. We both liked the 2005 Fay. It was fresh, clean and pure, with intense, vibrant black cherry, currant and plum flavors that were elegant and well proportioned, and it gained body and depth on the finish.
Wine No. 6, the ringer, was superrich, bordering on opulent. It was dense, focused and concentrated, with pure, rich currant, black cherry and blackberry fruit that was deep and persistent, ending with a long, elegant finish. It was 2005 Caymus Special Selection, my favorite by far.
The 2005 S.L.V. was firm, ripe and intense, with loamy, dusty berry and currant flavors that retained their earth-anise-sage character. The 2005 Cask 23 was bold, rich, intense and concentrated, a well-proportioned mix of loamy-earthy currant, dried berry, sage and mineral flavors -- but it ended with firm, mouthcoating, drying tannins.
I’m keenly interested in how things will go with Stag’s Leap Cabernets. Winiarski is one of the valley’s greatest winemakers, thinkers and innovators, and he’s had more than his share of great Cabernets. The new emphasis on creating greater freshness, vibrancy and textural harmony are all things he advocated, and often achieved, in his wines.
In the end, I think he’ll be pleased by Stag's Leap Wine Cellars' rededication to quality. The fact is, there are many wineries in Napa Valley that could use the same kind of fine-tuning and rejuvenation. Too many are making wines that are increasingly tired, uninspiring wines that don't live up to their region's potential.