Stags’ Leap Winery: Sometimes Big is Beautiful

Regular readers of this blog know we’re most interested in small wineries making unique, distinctive wines. We also indulge in some criticism of large industrial wineries and their tendency to make homogeneous wines that taste alike. But when “big wine” does something right they ought to be praised for it.

Treasury Wine Estates is by any measure a large company. According to Wine Business Monthly, in 2016, Treasury’s U.S. sales of 15,000,000 cases put them in 6th place in the domestic market. Yet, Treasury in recent years has put a lot of emphasis on their luxury brands, one of which I had the opportunity to visit recently, and I was pleasantly surprised, not only with the overall quality of their wine, but with their distinctive approach which sets them apart from what might be called a “typical” Napa flavor profile. (More on that profile in a moment)

Thanks to the 2017 Wine Blogger’s Conference, we were able to visit the Stags’ Leap Winery Estate, one of Napa’s iconic brands with a storied history. To avoid potential confusion, note the placement of the apostrophe in the name. This is not Stag’s Leap Cellars (singular possessive) founded by Warren Winiarski in 1970 whose Cabernet beat out several 1st Growth Bordeaux at the 1976 Judgment of Paris. This is the other Stags’ Leap (plural possessive), a 240-acre estate founded in 1893 by Horace and Minnie Chase. It later became one of Napa’s most important resorts, hosting some legendary bacchanals in the early 20th Century, until falling into disrepair. (During Prohibition, it featured a speakeasy, hiding below a trap door in the floor, and included the local Sheriff among their guests to ensure they were unmolested by police raids.)

stagsleap editRevitalized as a winery in 1970, it was later purchased by Beringer which was in turn purchased by Treasury in 2011.  The original buildings are still intact and maintain a semblance of rustic charm beneath the polished refinement of an estate once visited by the monied elite of San Francisco; the grounds and tasting room are lovely.

Stags’ Leap, at one time, made a lot of wine, over 100,000 cases in 2013, although Treasury’s recent focus on the luxury segment of the market may have dialed that back a bit. (I don’t have current overall production figures).  But the key to quality at Stags’ Leap is the uniqueness of their estate vineyards as well as the deft hand of winemaker Christophe Paubert. The vineyard enjoys cool breezes from the southern end of the valley but is nestled against the craggy peaks of the Vaca foothills that radiate heat. Thus, the vineyard itself has several microclimates that give the winemaker many options when deciding on the final blend.

Winemaker Christophe Paubert grew up in the wine industry in Bordeaux and brings that restrained, old-world sensibility to winemaking in the new world. His wines do not taste of the overly-concentrated, hulking opulence we’ve come to expect from Napa Cabernet. He of course endorses the reigning ideology that quality is found in the vineyard, and the winemaking should not cover up the expressiveness of the grapes. But there is an elegance to these wines that shows a remarkable understanding of the inflection points where continued maceration will make the wines feel too heavy. Despite aromatic intensity and a juicy introduction, each wine has a weightless, almost ethereal mouthfeel, and a languorous evolution and finish that will seduce you for an entire evening. The estate cuvee yields about 7000 cases annually and it is clearly a labor of love. Christophe says he checks in on each barrel every day.

The take away point is that high production wineries can produce distinctive wines if they have distinctive vineyards and choose to invest their resources into maintaining that distinction. Most don’t because it is not economical and the corporate demand for efficiency encourages cutting corners. Treasury Estates is to be commended for letting Stags’ Leap be Stags’ Leap.

Here is a brief rundown of the wines I tasted:

2016 CHARDONNAY NAPA VALLEY

The only wine not made of estate grapes, this is a distinctive Chardonnay in that it undergoes no malolactic fermentation. It is fresh and lively with crisp fruit and scintillating acidity.

2014 BOCK 20 MERLOT STAGS LEAP DISTRICT ESTATE GROWN

Simply beautiful. Really one of the best Napa Valley Merlots I’ve tasted. Aromatically complex with earth, minerality and fruit sharing the stage, the layered textures and sultry finish are unforgettable.

2014 TWELVE FALLS RED WINE, STAGS LEAP DISTRICT, ESTATE GROWN

A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, and a little Merlot, this wine was lush and juicy with distinct Petite Sirah, berry character showing through. Surprisingly soft on the finish given the blend of grapes.

2014 THE LEAP CABERNET SAUVIGNON, STAGS LEAP DISTRICT, ESTATE GROWN

A complex nose with generous earth notes supplementing the dark cherry and cassis, this is medium bodied and slightly austere on the palate. Very well-integrated and balanced, with, once again, a characteristically elegant finish.

2014 NE CEDE MAIS PETITE SIRAH, STAGS LEAP DISTRICT ESTATE GROWN

These grapes are from a fascinating vineyard block. Classic head-trained, California Sprawl, the vines were planted in 1929 and are mostly Petite Sirah with 15 other varietals, including some white-skinned grapes, mixed in. So this is a field blend. It is unusual to find Petite Sirah that is so soft on the finish, a testament to the magic of old vines.  Very spicy and floral with prominent blueberry.

Cross posted on Edible Arts on 11/13/2017.

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