Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

Collector’s Corner

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

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A Great American Wine

Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley is the one American wine that enjoys truly international renown. Its fame has penetrated even the most hidebound Old World cellars, so much so that for many people it serves as a symbol of American wine at large—the country’s vinous achievements but also its excesses. Over the years, many individual labels—from groundbreakers like Beaulieu Georges de Latour and Inglenook Cask, through heavyweights like Heitz Martha’s Vineyard and Dunn Howell Mountain—have contributed to its fame. But one particular wine, and one seminal moment, stands out. In 1976, when a three year-old Cabernet from the fledgling Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars triumphed at Steven Spurrier’s now legendary Paris tasting, Napa and by extension all American wine began to emerge from its cocoon of provincial isolation. Even more important, that event initiated a process in which critics, consumers, and vintners all began to rethink what constitutes true merit or greatness in wine.

For generations, people had assumed that wine quality was a function of history--specifically, a history of storied vintages. Since only a handful of European wines enjoyed such a legacy, only those wines could be considered great. But the Paris tasting and the emergence of world-class Napa Valley Cabernet suggested that quality involves something else. The fact that a new wine from a new winery could be judged superior to first and second growth Bordeaux meant that merit could no longer simply be equated with pedigree. Add to this the fact that the wine came from a country that only a generation earlier had deemed all wine contraband, and it became clear that excellence in wine, no matter the wine’s origin, had to be defined in terms of present composition rather than lineage.

This shift in understanding had wide-ranging ramifications. For vintners, it inspired rededication and reinvention, while for critics and consumers, it led to a new sort of wine appreciation, exemplified by blind tastings and numerical scores. Most important, it enabled not only the United States but also Australia, South America, and the rest of the New World to emerge as legitimate sources of increasingly superior wines. And within the New World, no category of wine became more acclaimed than Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon...

Today, when wines from all over the world compete in an increasingly competitive global marketplace, wine often is thought of something like fashion. Just as hemlines rise and fall, styles come and go. Racy whites become all the rage one year, jammy reds the next. Fashion, however, is just that—a trendy style that inevitably falls out of favor, what George Bernard Shaw called “an induced epidemic.” True greatness must be something more, something that transcends the vagaries of fads or cults. Wine may be an admittedly minor art, but its finest examples are like those in any art form. They do not shift in fashion’s fickle winds. Instead, they endure. My recently published book, The Great Wines of America (W. W. Norton), identifies forty wines with enduring significance. These are wines that have made and continue to make a difference—in a specific region, with a specific grape variety, or with a specific style. Not surprisingly, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S. L. V. Cabernet Sauvignon is one of them.

During the four years in which I researched and wrote this book, it became increasingly clear to me that a truly great wine must be more than a single glass of wine, no matter how delicious that glass may taste. That is, it must provide more than a transitory moment of pleasure. Instead, a great wine is one that helps define something other than itself—the identity of a place perhaps, or the potential of a certain grape variety, or even the quality of the pleasure it in fact can provide. In that definition, it approaches an ideal and so approaches permanence. Put another way, it becomes something other than fashion.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S. L. V. Cabernet Sauvignon does precisely that. The wine that triumphed in 1976 in Paris came from the winery’s first commercial vintage, but as the judges who ranked it so high surely recognized, it already approximated a certain classic status. It did so by tasting rich and ripe, but at the same time restrained—balance and harmony being more important than muscle or brawn. During my work on The Great Wines of America, I had the opportunity to taste it and a series of subsequent vintages. That experience demonstrated that S.L.V. (this vineyard designation was first employed in 1985) consistently displays those same qualities... The 1973 showed its age that day, but it still exhibited finesse, while later releases, including an outstanding 1985 and a breathtaking 1997, tasted remarkably harmonious, their flavors deep but never heavy.

Of course, Stag’s Leap Cabernet was not the only winner at the 1976 Paris tasting. Chateau Montelena Chardonnay bested a set of Côte d’Or white Burgundies that same day, the two Napa wines enjoying a bicentennial triumph... Today, nearly thirty years later, that confidence is more apparent with Napa Cabernet than with Napa Chardonnay, if only because of the greater affinity the red grape has for the Valley. Yet despite the category’s renown, few Napa Cabs display the sort of nuanced, complex flavors that characterize Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Few have such a fine-grained texture, the tannins in this wine, even a young rendition, being firm but seductively pliant. Most important, few seem so oblivious to fashion’s seemingly seductive lure. In today’s global wine market, where headiness is often valued above subtlety, and energy over elegance, S.L.V. continues to be all about those “three Rs”—ripe fruit and rich flavor tempered by restraint.

S.L.V.’s distinctive character comes in part from the vineyard, but even more important is the human vision behind it, terroir always expressing itself through choice and action.