Stag's Leap Cleans Up

After a decade of mediocre wines, a turnaround
Aug 22, 2012

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars has cleaned up its cellar.

After nearly a decade of mediocre red wines, many flawed by the spoilage yeast brettanomyces, the owners of this once prominent Napa Valley winery have released the first vintage of what seem to be clean, complex Cabernets.

All three of the 2009 Cabernets I tried in a blind tasting yesterday—Fay ($95, 3,300 cases made), S.L.V. ($120, 2,200 cases) and Cask 23 ($210, 1,800 cases)—exhibited pure, ripe, elegant flavors and none of the off-tasting earthiness and bitterness found in past years.

Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Piero Antinori purchased Stag's Leap in 2007, and they acknowledged the problems with its cellar and wines. And they've rectified it. The owners trace the brett issues to early 2000, and believe that the brett went undetected for years.

The last SLWC Cabernet to earn an outstanding mark was the 2000 Fay Vineyard. The 2008s were a step up in quality, but well off the pace of the winery's best efforts, and certainly out of step with Napa's top producers. Starting with its 1973 Cabernet that won the Paris Tasting, Stag's Leap's marquee wines were highly acclaimed for their textural elegance, richness and finesse … until brett crept in.

After buying the winery from the Winiarski family, the new owners set out to remodel and clean up the cellar. Ste. Michelle and Antinori had their winemaking team of Renzo Cotarella, Nicki Pruss and Ray Einberger oversee cellar renovations and a renewed focus on clean, high-quality wines.

"There was a bit of denial that brett was in the wines early on," said Steve Spadarotto, the winery's general manager, brought in last year to continue with the clean up. He cited a combination of physical reasons for the spread of brett, including a warm cellar and tainted barrels.

Brett exists in all cellars at varying degrees, but once it gets into wineries and barrels, the source of contamination is difficult to detect and eradicate. It usually takes several years to eliminate the problem.

Spadarotto said the cellar temperature at Stag's Leap was in the 60° F range, far warmer than ideal. The cellar is now temperature-controlled and set in the 50s, he said.

"In my mind, [temperature control] is the one thing that really helps," Spadarotto said. "We're staying on top of it [and] really keeping the bad things out."

Founded in 1972 by Warren and Barbara Winiarski, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars was one of the first to focus on Cabernet from Napa Valley's Stags Leap District. The winery made about 60,000 cases in 2008, most of that being the Artemis Cabernet and Karia Chardonnay (20,000 cases each).

The 2009s are not of the same caliber as the best Cabernets in Stag's Leap's history. But surely they are the best in a decade, and a positive sign for this once prominent Napa Cabernet producer.

Wine Flaws Brettanomyces TCA Red Wines United States California Napa Cabernet Sauvignon

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