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Stag's Leap Cleans Up

After a decade of mediocre wines, a turnaround
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Aug 22, 2012 10:30am ET

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.

Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  August 23, 2012 12:46am ET
The question is whether consumers, like me, who choked down two dreadful bottles of 2004 Artemis (having unwittingly bought them, in an optimistic mood) will ever give them a chance again. At their prices, it's not an easy loss to forgive.
Robert Lapolla
san diego, CA USA —  August 23, 2012 8:01pm ET
i stopped buying stag's leap wine cellars wines a couple of years ago. they were dreadful and not cheap. you did not mention the basic cabernet artemis - worth a try ?
Greg Flanagan
Bethel CT —  August 24, 2012 9:14am ET

Come on now, what did you score those bottles?

Maybe lowering their prices might entice us to try again.....I will grab an Artemis 09 at 35.00......not a Fay for 100.00 and most certainly not going to drop 200.00 on the Cask!!
Colonial Spirits
Acton, MA, USA —  August 24, 2012 8:58pm ET
When did a wine with a bit of bret become a bad thing? If I'm not mistaken there are plenty of Grand Cru Bordeaux that still have some bret and people don't seem to mind. What I also find interesting is that in the craft beer sector people are lining up to buy saisons and krieks that are chalked full of bret. I've liked Stag's for quite some time, a bit pricey but still great wines. Can't wait to see what CSM and Antinori do with the winery.
David Hults
Plantation, Fl —  August 26, 2012 11:38am ET
This article does have a huge error, when talking about fay and the whole other lineup, artemis, karia, that is from Stags' leap....Stag's leap is a different producer that once again, does a solid product but definately under achieves and Antinori and Chateau St. Michelle was trying to purchase to avoid the common confusion.

With the Stags' Leap Cabs I am definately looking forward to future releases as they have been continuing to replant all the vineyards as they do find that the younger grapes make much sexier Cabernets.
Dana Nigro
New York, NY —  August 27, 2012 9:40am ET

Many people have trouble keeping the two wineries straight as the differences between the names are subtle.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars makes Cask 23, SLV, Fay, Artemis and Karia.

Stags' Leap Winery, a separate producer not discussed here, also makes Cabernet and Chardonnay from Napa.

Thank you for the reminder that clarification is needed.
Dana Nigro
Brad Paulsen
Saratoga, CA —  August 29, 2012 4:57pm ET
I have not purchased any SLWC wines in years as they had (as my Grandfather used to say about 2nd rate sourdough bread) lost the "mother". That and the oft putting price for tastings ($50 the last time I looked) made it easy to stay away from something I found to be missing the mark and clearly trading on their name and history while destroying their Brand. With so many other makers in the same AVA hitting it out of the park (e.g. Shafer, Lindstrom, Cliff Lede etc.) skipping SLWC and leaving for the misinformed tour busses was the safe route.

My strongest suggestion is that if indeed the wines have been re-centered and found their mark perhaps a "welcome back" tasting rate is in order to help those like me that have avoided SLWC re-discover the winery.

There are far too many good to great Cabs in Napa to risk another funk filled SLWC tasting experience at the old rates.

John I Hanbury
Hattiesburg, MS —  August 30, 2012 11:18am ET
I have never liked their wines and I have never understood how they ever got a good reputation. In the last 20 years, only occasionally have their wines ever scored 90 or above. Most wines I have tasted with a WS score between 85-89 are only average.

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