Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (apostrophe before the S) was founded in 1970 by longtime Napa Valley resident Warren Winiarski (originally from Chicago). “Winiarski” in Polish means son of a winemaker – Warren’s father ran a livery business for weddings and funerals but also was a home wine maker (fruit wine, honey wine and dandelion wine).
Warren became interested in wine when he met Philip M. Wagner, an influential viticulturist and author from the east coast. Philip in turn introduced Warren to Maynard Amerine (a well known wine researcher and prolific author). Warren began to explore wine regions including in New Mexico and California. Eventually he wrote several small wineries in the Napa Valley asking if they needed any help. The proprietor of one winery, Lee Stewart of Souverain, (the site of what is now Burgess Cellars) wrote back and invited Warren to come by the winery. Warren ended up taking an assistant winemaker job there for several years. After working at Souverain, Warren started working for Robert Mondavi in 1966 (before ground was even broken on the winery facility).
In 1965 Warren purchased 30 acres on Howell Mountain (near Randy Dunn’s winery), planted Cabernet Sauvignon but later sold the property to purchase his Stags Leap property. Warren and Barbara actually lived in the old house on what is now the Dunn Vineyards property which is today used for the Dunn offices. For approximately $200,000 he purchased a 44-acre parcel of land next to Napa vineyard grower, Nathan Fay. Warren had tried some of Nathan’s home wine, realized the quality of wine from this particular part of the valley and then had the vision to build the winery, plant the land to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (after removing prune trees and old grape varieties) and ultimately began producing world class wines. And Warren was the founding winemaker (rather then hiring a winemaker).
From the Silverado Trail continue straight on their short driveway until you reach a parking lot on your right hand side. A modern and welcoming hospitality center opened in early Fall 2014 – replacing their long time tasting room. This new hospitality center is unique in that the main tasting room overlooks some of the finest scenery in the Stags Leap District. It feels like (and rightly so) their vineyard is on display and visitors are the captivated audience. One block of the well known Fay Vineyard is located directly below the tasting room. A contemporary setting with large windows allows one to enjoy excellent views of this premium vineyard as well as the rocky formations in the hills that form this part of the Vaca Mountains. From the tasting room, views are looking down at Block 1a – the rest of the Fay vineyard lies behind the row of trees and is planted all the way to the base of the mountains.
Two tastings are offered, a portfolio and an estate tasting. Tours can also be arranged by prior appointment. Several private tasting rooms are on site and outdoor seating is also available. On a clear warm day this outdoor patio seating is an ideal place to sit back and enjoy fine wine and fine views!
The Estate Wine tasting are from grapes sourced from vineyards on site. Their oldest vineyard block on the property dates from 1972 and the fruit from this goes into a small production wine available only through their wine club.
While this is a “cab house”, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars produces a Chardonnay each year. The Stag’s Leap Arcadia Vineyard Chardonnay is grown east of the town of Napa (in Coombsville) in a cooler growing climate than the actual winery location. We have enjoyed several vintages of this wine over the years – it is a balanced wine that often shows hints of flint or graphite notes on the bouquet along with citrus blossom. It is a rich wine of this variety yet is remarkably balanced. The finish is clean with just a touch of lingering vanilla flavors (2012 latest vintage reviewed).
Despite their two primary Estate Vineyards located so close to each other, there are remarkable differences in soils between the two. The Fay Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon is grown on very alluvial soils contrasted with the S.L.V Cabernet Sauvignon (stands for Stag’s Leap Vineyard) which is predominantly from volcanic soils. Terroir makes a huge difference and it is interesting to compare these two wines side by side for that very reason.
Their S.L.V Cabernet Sauvignon won at the famed Paris wine tasting of 1976 catapulting this winery along with Chateau Montelena & the Napa Valley wine growing region in general, to International fame. Bottles of those original winners are now housed in the Smithsonian Museum. Guess they will never be consumed! A bottle of this 1973 vintage (made from grapes that were only three years old at the time) is also displayed in their hospitality center.
They have done a nice job on the 2011 vintage (a fairly challenging year in the Napa Valley due to late rains into June, a fairly cool summer and a early rains during harvest. This wine shows a slightly smoky nose, and evident aromas somewhat gravelly, or pebbly in nature. Notes of cocoa powder. The tannins are fairly well integrated with a lingering finish of high toned (red) fruit for some time. This is a vintage grown in certain parts of the valley (namely eastern hillsides) that is showing very nicely 6 to 7 years after.
In the mid 1970’s they made a wine from a special vineyard block; this wine had very unique flavors and was aging in a Cask titled #23 – which is how this wine got its name. The Estate Tasting includes a pour of the latest vintage of the Cask 23. This is their premium Cabernet and is only made during select years in which the fruit is of the highest quality. It is their most age worthy wine and if cellared properly will be drinking great in 10 to 20 years. The 2010 vintage shows dark in the glass – it has an elegant nose, somewhat perfumy (violets, a bit floral) with both red and black fruit aromas showing. This is their largest structured wine – showing red currant and black cherry flavors with a broad based big finish – that is somewhat leathery and chewy. This wine has good acidity, structure and fruit to ensure it should age quite well.
A wine cave is also located on site (38,000 square feet); note the interesting “pendulum” hanging inside the cave which is supposed to symbolize the “aging of wine” (shown on a tour). All tours are by appointment and do tend to fill up fast especially in the busier late Spring and Summer months.
As an interesting side note – Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars was founded in the same year as their nearby neighbor, Stags’ Leap Winery. Both wineries are often confused for each other and it drives the hospitality folks at each winery crazy at times! In fact, both wineries went to court in 1986 over the name “Stag’s Leap” and the California Supreme Court ultimately decided to award Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars the apostrophe *before* the S and Stags’ Leap Winery the apostrophe *after* the s! And to further complicate things, note that Stags Leap District has no apostrophe.
Several wine club options are available giving members access to limited production wines, and preferred seating on site. Several tours are also offered including the premium Fire & Water experience allows one to see and learn about the estate on a guided tour and finishes with a tasting of their estate wines paired with fresh appetizers.
While no longer involved in the ownership of the winery, in 2018 founder Warren Winiarski donated 3.3 million dollars to the University of California at Davis’ library (for their continuing efforts to build a premiere collection of books from wine writers). This library already contains some 30,000 wine related books (including some rare volumes) and ancient maps dating back to 1287.
Chateau Ste. Michelle is Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars parent company – Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars sold in 2007 to a partnership between Chateau Ste. Michelle and Piero Antinori (prominent Italian vintner who also owns Antica Winery in the Napa Valley). Chateau Ste. Michelle also owns Napa Valley based Conn Creek Winery and the 56-acre Greenwood Vineyards just north of Calistoga with fruit from this vineyard going into their Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon.
Chateau Ste. Michelle is a gorgeous estate located in Woodinville Washington (about a 30 minute drive north of Seattle), open for tastings and tours throughout the year. The property is 105 mostly wooded acres and used to be called the Hollywood Farm. This is the oldest winery in the state of Washington having been founded in 1954 with roots dating back to 1934 – however the first vintage of Chateau Ste. Michelle was not produced until 1967 overseen in a consulting role by legendary Napa Valley winemaker André Tchelistcheff. The French-styled chateau was built in 1976.
Today the winery operates two separate state of the art production facilities – one for whites in Woodinville and one for reds at their Canoe Ridge Estate property (559 acres) located outside of the tiny community of Paterson along the banks of the Columbia River (an extremely confusing name since there is also a non-related Canoe Ridge Vineyard – a winery + separate tasting room in the town of Walla Walla). The first vineyard planted for Chateau Ste. Michelle was in 1973, the Cold Creek Vineyard – now 753 acres and dedicated to André Tchelistcheff. Andre’s influence in Napa Valley has certainly been well chronicled (including working as a consultant for a time for Warren Winiarski and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars) – however he also left his mark on the Washington wine industry. And his nephew Alex Golitzin co-founded one of Washington’s top wineries Quilceda Creek along with his wife Jeannette.
Today Chateau Ste. Michelle contracts the majority of their grapes (rather then owning vineyards) and they are the largest producer of Riesling wines in the country.
Chateau Ste. Michelle, similar to Robert Mondavi Winery helped spawn the careers of numerous winemakers. Noted Washington vintner and founder of Long Shadows Winery, Allen Shoup worked at Chateau Ste. Michelle from 1980 until 2000, serving 17 years as the company’s CEO.
Visitors to the winery are free to explore the gorgeous grounds and picnic. Several tasting or tour options are available on site including an estate tasting (no appointment required) a tour of the winery + tasting, a guided tour of the property including a tasting, a blending session where guests learn the art of ‘building’ wines through blending and a separate sensory educational experience focusing on identifying characteristics of wine including both through smell and taste.
Also popular at the winery is their Summer Concert Series (similar to the ones held at Robert Mondavi Winery – but with a bit more space). Popular acts perform on select dates throughout the summer – big name acts have performed here in the past including Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and John Legend.
FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950–2000 – Smithsonian, National Museum of American History
FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950–2000 is an ongoing exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum, housed on the lower floor of the Behring Center, the National Museum of American History. Visitors to the Smithsonian National Museum of History can park on nearby streets (very limited parking) or at the parking lot next to the Ronald Reagan Building (only about a 10-12 minute walk away). Alternatively, the Federal Triangle Metro stop is only about a 1-2 minute walk away.
Warren and Barbara were instrumental in helping develop this exhibit which has been on display since late 2012. Several historical mementos, tools and other artifacts from the early days of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars are displayed in a sub exhibit titled: Wine for the Table. These items include a Stag’s Leap Winery notebook from 1974 containing pages and pages of hand written notes including winemaking details and names of vineyards worked with at that time (some of these notes were written by his winemaker at the time, John Williams – later co-founder of Frog’s Leap Winery), a wine barrel and related equipment and a number of historical photographs from Warren and Barbara’s personal collection.
In addition to the physical items, a monitor plays 15 short interviews with Warren and some of his employees – made in 1997 when a team from the Smithsonian visited Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and recorded an oral history project.
The exhibit is categorized into nearly 30 smaller sections – focusing from the recovery of Prohibition to more modern day winemaking – along this historical timeline, highlighting individual personalities and wineries, tools, vineyard practices and other related information. The Stag’s Leap Winery items are only some of a number of mostly Napa Valley producers represented – other Napa Valley mementos are on display from vintners Mike Grgich and Gustavo Brambilia and from wineries including Biale Vineyard and Ceja Family Vineyard.
For more information, to schedule a tour + tasting or to join one of their wine clubs, visit: www.cask23.com for more information and to check out their wine club benefits, which is appropriately titled, “Club 23”.
Paris Tasting of 1976
Chateau Ste Michelle, Woodinville, WA EXTERIOR
Chateau Ste Michelle, Woodinville, WA INTERIOR