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Stag's Leap Making the Right Decisions for the Future

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jun 26, 2008 2:30pm ET

Ted Baseler insists that returning Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ Cabernets to their top form will be easy for the simple reason that the winery’s vineyards are in great shape.

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.

John Wilen
Texas —  June 26, 2008 4:50pm ET
Great story JL. Very gracious of you to accommodate SLWC in the way you did. The blind tasting should have been incredibly effective and persuasive. One can only hope the new owner was not blind to the message. In fact, it reminds me of a wise old fable, shared here in condensed form.

A man's hillside mansion is severely threatened by an approaching fire, but he refuses to abandon it. Progressively, over the course of the day, he is visited first by a policeman, then by a fireman, then finally by a helicopter rescue team. In each case, they plead with him to leave with increasing urgency. You will die they say. You are running out of time. But each time he rebuffs them, thinking, if God wanted me to leave, he would show me a sign. That night, the house is consumed by flames and the man dies. He soon shows up at the gates of Heaven where he is stunned to be turned away because of his pride and arrogance. He questions God about why the Almighty didn't show him a sign. God responds: A sign? What do you call getting 3 Good Samaritan visits in one day?

Mr. Baseler, did you catch the sign?
Matthew Weiler
Los Angeles, CA —  June 26, 2008 5:03pm ET
I applaud Mr. Laube for recognizing that the strength of SLWC's wines, traditionally, is their graceful, subtle style. But I wonder whether this post advocates an abandonment of that style by elevating a "newer, cutting-edge style" (i.e., opulent and superripe) over an "old Napa" style.

Of course, quality wines are made in styles other than blast-furnace ripe. SLWC's wines were once lauded by this magazine (indeed, by Mr. Laube) for the very qualities now often decried as hallmarks of poor quality, namely herbal and loamy notes. (See, e.g., tasting notes for the 1990 Cask 23, noting, with approval, the "herbal scents," "focused herb," "earthly tobacco" notes.) I suppose some would say that these earth and herbal notes have become too prominent, so that the wines are out of balance (and I may be inclined to agree, to an extent), but the question this post raises for me is a different one: must a wine now be opulent and superripe to generate buzz in Napa Valley? I get the sense that SLWC's formerly lauded wines might now be dismissed as "old Napa."

At any rate, in my humble opinion what is called for (if anything is indeed called for) is a "textural harmony" (and to a lesser extent, "freshness and vibrancy"). Not a stylistic overhaul.
Paul Pashley
Middletown, CT —  June 26, 2008 5:11pm ET
Silverado ~ Hess ~ Steltzner and Far Niente are a few of my all-time favorites that have lost their way. Very puzzling ~These are all wines that should be great in quality by now -but aren't.
Jason Carey
willow, ny usa —  June 26, 2008 5:15pm ET
I'm sorry but I prefer the so called old styled wines. If I want fruit fruit fruit i can get it from Australia for 1/4 the price
Ted A Hunt
Fort Lauderdale, Fl —  June 26, 2008 6:30pm ET
James - thanks for the update on Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, one of our long time favorites. Because we follow your lead pretty closely on California Cabs, haven't bought any since the 2000 Fay VY. Still have some 97's and 99's laid down and look forward to some good ones in the future. As an aside on some of our long time Napa favorites, we opened the one 1997 Georges Delatour in the cellar last Sunday for our anniversary and it was corked. We bought it at the winery a few years ago for $100 after having 4 bottles at various restaurants over a couple years after release. Needless to say I was pissed and emailed the winery to let them know. Haven't heard from them. Went through same thing with Freemark on some 1997 cabs couple of years ago and it was like pulling teeth to get them to respond. Maybe BV and Freemark Abbey should sell to someone who knows how to make wine and maintain their cellars!
Sam Chen
The Golden State —  June 27, 2008 5:11am ET
To John and Matt:Well said. IMO, Warren Winiarski had a vision and interpretation of what a Cabernet wine style should be and he was able to create that and it was a very popular style for a long period of time. Now, the style has shifted and Mr. Baseler is in the position to steer the winery to adjust to whatever the style that the public is seeking. It is a classic example of reinventing the wheel.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  June 27, 2008 1:39pm ET
My problem with recent STags leap wines has been brett -- some have been quite seriously affected. I think if they clean up the cellar, they can return to making stellar "old school Napa" wines -- hopefully, these will come back in style soon anyways
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  June 30, 2008 11:01am ET
To Sam: Is the public really seeking the "new style" wine? Or,are the reviewers giving them high marks which pulls along the public? Personally, I agree with Jason above, but there are only a few Aussie wines that I buy. I was recently at a blind tasting with about 50 other people. I was surprised that on ratings the wines, the public attendees( about 40 of us)gave the highest marks to the "old school wines", whereas the remaining wine professionals (sommeliers, one winemaker, etc.) gave preference to the new style wine. After seeing the numbers posted, one of the sommeliers off handedly asked if perhaps this is the reason many of his restaurant guests are not taking his wine recommendations. Well, duh!
Ted A Hunt
Fort Lauderdale, Fl —  June 30, 2008 11:57am ET
James - wanted to update the record on my earlier comment about BV. David Chu from Diageo just called me, was very apologetic for not getting back to me earlier due to a family matter and was extremely apologetic about the '97 Georges I found corked last week. He offered to replace it with another '97. I found him to be very genuine and of course really appreciate his generous customer service attitude. TH
George Quinn
San Jose, Ca —  June 30, 2008 2:33pm ET
Why not discuss the best age worthy wines available amoung new wines from Napa? Perhaps the best vitners in general to purchase and cellar? Thanks George
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  June 30, 2008 4:57pm ET
George; To do so we would first have to define age worthy. I believe that a minimum shelf life of 10 years is necessary to be called age worthy. I see Napa cab producers calling their wines age worthy if they can be cellared for 5+ years after the harvest year. Do you consider a peaking 2002 to be an ageworthy wine, or perhaps a 2000? I'm not sure we would ever be able to get a consensus of the definitions, no less start listing wines.
Jack Libert
July 3, 2008 11:37pm ET
06, 07, 08, 09, you name the vintage, I can't wait to see what Antinori / Ste. Michelle does with this great piece of property. Hopefully, something for the ages.
Mark Grote
July 7, 2008 4:28am ET
Andrew, I have been in many places in the Stag's Leap winery and "cleaning up" is not the problem. Brett is probably in the barrels and the vineyards and no amount of washing or ozone will kill it. The only answer is to either steam all barrels or remove them. It is harder to eliminate the bug from the grapes. There are many views about Brett concerning it's origins in the winery and how to eliminate it. So far I find that each winery is an individual and different case and eliminating Brett needs to be applied on that basis. It can be a real detective story in some cases.

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