On May 24th, 1976 the Napa Valley emerged as one of the world’s premier wine producing regions. L’academie du Vin founder Steven Spurrier assembled a select group of French tasters to conduct a blind taste test including 4 choice reds from Bordeaux and 6 Napa Valley Cabs. The group of tasters assembled to judge the competition were among France’s finest wine professionals. Their impressive credentials gave the tasting legitimacy in the world’s eyes.
The identities of the wine were concealed from the judges until the scores were tallied. Each wine was evaluated on a number of selected criteria, and when all was said and done, California wine would never be the same.
The 1973 Stags Leap Wine Cellars S. L. V. Cabernet Sauvignon came out victorious beating the likes of Chateau Haut-Brion and Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. This was an upset of epic proportions; a surprise even to Stags Leap Wine Cellars owner Warren Winiarski.
The victory became known as the vinous “shot heard round the world, " and its effects were felt almost immediately. The best Cabs from the Napa Valley were now considered to be on par with the legendary red wines produced in Bordeaux, the birthplace of Cabernet Sauvignon blends. This was one of the single most important events in California viticulture history.
The first vineyards were planted in the region during the late 19th century. Unfortunately, most of these vines were destroyed by either Phylloxera or Prohibition.
During the 1950’s, Stags Leap was covered by groves of various fruit trees. However, Nathan Fay knew that the land had viticultural potential. Fay planted his famous Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard and others began to follow. Warren Winiarski acquired what became Stags Leap Wine Cellars in 1970.
Stags Leap is known for its moderate, breezy climate and volcanic, well-drained soils. It is these conditions which gives Stags Leap Bordeaux varietals their characteristic unabrasive intensity, and have earned Stags Leap the title of “an iron fist in a velvet glove. "
Stags Leap geology is broken up into two distinct sections: the hills and the lowlands. The rocky, volcanic soils on the hillside are planted almost exclusively with Bordeaux varietals, notably Cabernet Sauvignon. The hillside soil drains extraordinarily well, translating into large root systems that search for underground water sources. The effects are healthy vines that produce a small quantity of grapes with intense flavors.
Although Stags Leap is best known for its Bordeaux varietals, the lowlands also produce award winning wines. Because this section of Stags Leap is near the Napa River, the soils are composed of silt, clay and river rocks. Additionally, the soils are peppered with alluvial volcanic sediment which has washed down from the hillside over the years. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc dominate plantings in this part of the region.
There is a small ridge that runs North and South bordering Stags Leap that funnels winds from the San Pablo Bay through this region. These winds cool the area, and keep acidity high in grapes. Coupled with sunny days and well-drained soils, this leads to wines of considerable depth and balance.
Considering the complexity of viticulture and winemaking, it is difficult to isolate specific conditions that make for great wine. But Stags Leap has proven time and time again that it has the necessary conditions to produce vintages of rare quality.
Because of the unique microclimate and soils of Stags Leap, it was given AVA status in 1989. AVA stands for American Viticulture Area, and is an important designation for a wine producing area to achieve. Each AVA is recognized to be fundamentally distinct from the surrounding area in terms of soil and climate. For anyone who wants to experience the crème de la crème of the Napa Valley, a Stags Leap Cab will satisfy even the most discerning palate.
Benjamin Bicais lives in the Napa Valley and has written several articles about Napa Valley Wine Country in Stags Leap.