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What To Drink Now: Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

A few weeks ago, at Auction Napa Valley, I attended a dinner at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellarsin the cave of their beautiful property at the end of the Silverado Trail, pairing their historic wine with delicious bites from Chef Cindy Pawlcyn, owner of Mustard’s Grille, Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen and Go Fish….whom I would say is the grand-dame of female chefs in Napa, along with being lovely, approachable and fun.  She was also cooking the Auction lunch the next day, so her time with us was brief, but her stamp on the food was precise, thoughtful and executed with the help of Executive Chef of Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, Darren McRonald.

I had an opportunity to sit next to Ted Baseler, CEO of Chateau St. Michelle Wine Estates, owners of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars with Antinori, and through our discussion not only got a wonderful history lesson on Stag’s Leap, but also some of the other brands under the Chateau St. Michelle Wine Estates umbrella, like one of my personal favorites, Spring Valley in Walla Walla. 

I mentioned that I loved that wine and Ted tells me the story that he was once on a plane traveling across country and strikes up a conversation with the gentleman seated next to him.  He finds out he is in the wine business and mentions he is as well.  Through the course of the flight the two have a great discussion about wine, the Northwest and Spring Valley.  At the end of the flight Ted says to him if he is ever looking to expand or needs help to give him a call.  It was at that point that Spring Valley Owner, Dean Derby, realized he was talking to the CEO of Chateau St. Michelle, who he would eventually go into business with.  I loved hearing this story from Ted’s perspective because I had heard the exact same story just a few months ago when I had dinner with Dean Derby’s grand-daughter, Katherine Derby Raymond.

The great thing about hearing Ted’s perspective was that he recognizes the value and uniqueness of each of the many properties under the Chateau St. Michelle umbrella, and described the company’s view as a string of pearls.  Each winery under the umbrella is a perfect pearl in it own right, beautiful, special and valuable.  St. Michelle is simply the string tying all the pearls together, helping them grow, while handling some of the back office work.

Which brings us to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.  Originally founded in 1970 by the Warren Winiarski family, it has set the standard of producing great Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley since its inception.  The 1973 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon won the 1976 Paris Tasting for red wine, bringing international recognition to California wine.  Today Chateau St. Michelle and Antinori are partners in the stewardship of this historic and classic California winery.

Over the 5 course dinner we walked through a tasting of their most prized wine, the S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon, Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon and their Fay Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as their Karia Chardonnay, one of my personal favorites, and enjoyed spot on pairings from Chefs Pawlcyn and McRonald.  The winery philosophy of “making the most out of the terrior both for what it is and what it will become,” as noted by founder Warren Winiarski, is evident in every glass as the wine exudes the earthy, dense, hearty flavors of Napa Valley’s Stags Leap district.

The Karia Chardonnay was paired with a classic shrimp bisque from Chef Pawlcyn.  The wine, named after a Greek word for graceful, is the sentiment for everything this wine tries to be.  Elegant, light and refreshing filled with pear, apple and layer of cream, pairing beautifully with the creamy shrimp bisque.  A wonderful opener to the meal.

2007 Fay Cabernet Sauvignon was poured for the second course of Grilled Quail with braised figs and a port glaze over polenta.  The Fay Cabernet was really the inspiration for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.  Nate Fay was a grape grower in the valley in the early 1960’s planting Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards in an area where no one else was thought Cabernet should grow.  He ended up being quite successful at it, as it turns out was Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars as they purchased these grapes to use in the making of their Cabernet Sauvignon from the very beginning, some even being used in the S.L.V. wine that made it to the Paris Tasting.  The Fay Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon has become one of the signatures of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, recently being served to The Queen of England.  Deeply characteristic of classic Napa Cabernet, with balanced ripe fruit and layers of leather and cedar.

Over Spring Lamb with Thyme and Fresh Peas we sipped a 2007 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon from the estate vineyard right next to Fay’s purchased by the Winiarskis in 1970.  This is the wine that really put the Stag’s Leap region, and some would say all of Napa Valley Cabernet, on the map as an area that produces complex, intense and well structured wines.  The 2007 S.L.V. is filled with ripe cherry, blackberry and black plums with caramel and spice on the finish and big, bold tannins.  A great pairing with the lamb and thyme as the natural acidity of the wine enhanced the earthiness of the meat and the hint of fresh thyme.

Over a cheese course of fig salumi, dried figs with nuts and a hint of vanilla shaped into salumi, fresh cherries and Old Kentucky Home Tomme we enjoyed both a 2001 and 2007 Cask 23 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon.  The story behind Cask 23 started in 1974 when Warren Winiarski and his friend, wine making legend André Tchelistcheff, were tasting through the lots of wine from the Stag’s Leap Vineyard (S.L.V.) and found one lot that was especially luscious, delicious and distinct, so they opted to bottle it separately and Cask 23 was born.  Today it is a blend of the best fruit from S.L.V. and Fay Vineyards.  Layered and complex, with ripe fruit, wild flower and a hint of minerality, with a velvety texture and a lingering palate.  An incredible wine to enjoy with anything from dried fruit to roast lamb and grilled beef.

One comment on “What To Drink Now: Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

  1. when I first moved to Dallas in 1980, I was so very lucky to learn about wine from the late Victor Dobiak(sp?) at Sigel’s when Sid and his brothers still ran the joint … and Victor was friends with Winiarski and touted the SLV wines as the best reds in CA. He sent me to Cafe Pacific in HPV where they sold wines at 10% over retail and Cask 23 was about $23 a bottle. really. Moet was around $25 and Dom was $49!!! Those were the days. a few years later, at Gershwin’s I had a GLASS of Cask 23 for like $100. Thanks Jack Knox for the sensible wine pricing and thanks Victor for the words, time and passion for great wines and sharing his vast experience and knowledge with me.