Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars – Napa Cabernets with a celebrated history

Visit Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars for its celebrated history and archetypal Napa Valley Cabernets.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (with the apostrophe inside) was founded in 1970 by Warren Winiarski, a celebrated Napa winemaker whose Cabernet Sauvignon famously won in ‘the Judgment of Paris’ in 1976.

Winiarski’s influence on the Californian wine industry and Napa Valley in particular has been profound. The “Hands of Time” wall at the winery is who’s who of Napa Valley: people who have worked at Stag’s Leap in various capacities throughout the years are continuing to shape the Napa Valley wine industry today. John Williams, the founder of Frog’s Leap; Michael Silacci, the winemaker at Opus One; and Rolando Herrera, who made wine at Chateau Potelle and Paul Hobbs and now owns Mi Sueno winery, have all worked here. 

Warren Winiarski’s legacy is so significant that the bottle of his 1973 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon, the Judgment of Paris winner, is exhibited in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, "Hands of Time" wall
The Hands of Time wall at Stag’s Leap

Curiously, I couldn’t find Winiarski’s name anywhere on the winery’s website. Could it be because of some legal issues related to the change of ownership? In 2007, Winiarski sold the winery to Chateau Ste. Michelle (85%) and Marchesi Antinori (15%).

I first visited the winery during an annual ‘Morning in the winery’ event organized for Napa Valley residents. I was surprised to see such a big crowd of locals wanting to learn about the history, wines, and green initiatives of the winery that has been one of Napa Valley’s staples for so many years.

I returned later to do a tasting at the Stag’s Leap modern hospitality center. Sipping wines at an outdoor terrace overlooking the vineyards and the Vaca mountains to soft music playing in the background, was very nice. Yet, visiting the winery and caves excited me more than just tasting the current lineup of wines, so if you have a chance, do a tour to learn about the winery’s history and to see the beautiful caves.

The layout of the 80,000 sq ft. caves, as we learnt on the tour, resembles Napa Valley’s main thoroughfares: Silverado Trail, Highway 29 and Napa River, which all run north to south, intersected by east-west roads. The middle of the cave represents the center of the universe, with sparkling stones in the ceiling as stars, sconces as comets, and the Foucault pendulum as a reminder of the passing of time.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, 3 Cabernets

Much has changed since Warren Winiarski founded the winery in 1970 and started digging the caves in 1996. But some things seem to have remained constant, like the Wine Advocate’s penchant for lush and ripe California reds. All three Cabernets offered for tasting at Stag’s Leap have been awarded 95 points or higher by the Parker team (and, sadly, priced accordingly).

I liked the graceful body, fine-grained tannins, nice acidity, and aromas of coffee and forest fruit jam in 2013 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon (14.5% alc., $135). I would have liked to taste the wine after a few years of aging, as at the time of my tasting, I was a bit bothered by obvious oak on the nose and palate. With enough money and a bit of patience, I’d get a few bottles and taste them after 5, 10, and 15 years.

5766 Silverado Trail, Napa. Open daily 10 am – 4:30 pm. Several tasting and tour options are available.