Reflecting on Winiarski and Stag's Leap Cabernets

Jul 31, 2007

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.

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