Stag's Leap Wine Cellars

How the mighty have grown, and grown.

 Why has it taken me so long to interview those wonderful people at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars? Since my early visits to the Napa Valley this legend of the wine world has never been far from my visiting schedule, and as I write this a pen that lies nearby my computer actually comes from there (and a very good pen it is too)!

 It lies so close to the Silverado Trail that one might think that they are spooning, and is placed firmly in the eponymous 'Stags Leap District'. It's not an old world winery like Buena Vista or Charles Krug, but if you want to find the roots of California's wine ambitions and spirit of adventure then this has surely got to be one of the great places to include.


 The man we have to thank for demanding we pay attention is the great Warren Winiarski, a University of Chicago professor who knew that his future lay in the wilds of Napa. In those days it was a sleepy location where farms still existed and the enthusiastic amateur was welcomed and helped by those who'd already made it here to explore if their dreams could come true.

 He founded Stag's Leap Wine Cellars in the early 1970s and his success still has the touch of overnight success about it (let's remember that a lot happens to vines overnight)! 

 This led to their inclusion in the famous Paris tasting, and despite French snobbery at the time the Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon romped home with a top prize, and helped the French wine industry to learn a sense of humility and the rest of the world to look towards the New World when it came to exciting prospects in a wine glass.

 Nowadays, Warren has taken a well-earned rest, but the same care and attention is still part of what makes the wines so fresh and enticing. This is not a place to rest on its history; in fact, this is a place where history is the starting point for innovation and explorers.

 I just had to chat to Marcus Notaro, the winemaker, to find out what keep them at the top of the game.


Winefullness Magazine: How has your day been and what sort of harvest are you predicting?

Marcus Notaro: I look forward to driving into the winery at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars each day. It’s not just the majestic beauty of the surrounding Palisades, but the fact that each day in winemaking brings something new depending on the season.  Currently we are preparing wines for bottling, so lots of finely tuned tastings, and the vineyards are actively growing so I’m spending a fair amount of time outside working with our vineyard managers to adjust to the season.  So far, it’s been a cooler than average year with some late rain (and even hail), bloom is just starting so we are hoping for some warmer days

now to achieve a uniform set.  After this period is when I’ll have a better idea of what to expect for harvest. That said, the weather later in the season (September in particular) is critical in defining the overall quality and characteristics of the vintage.

Winefullness: You came to the public’s attention when you took part in ‘The Judgement of Paris’. Has this been a blessing or a curse?

Marcus: I’d say the tasting was a blessing. The tasting, known today as the “Judgement of Paris,” fundamentally transformed how California wines were viewed worldwide and the stunning victory launched Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars into the ranks of the world’s most noteworthy Cabernet Sauvignon producers.  It put the wines of Napa Valley on the world wine map. 

Winefullness: Which wine typifies Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, and why is this?

Marcus: My selection would have to be CASK 23; it’s our best effort to make a wine that has intensity, complexity, unique terroir character, and can be cellared for decades.  As this wine is sourced from our two estate vineyards – FAY and S.L.V. – it shows the uniqueness of our estate in the Stags Leap District. 

 The style of the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Estate wines has always been about expressing the place.  S.L.V. and FAY both have what I like to call “soft power,” which is a characteristic of Cabernet grown in our area.  Both are rich in flavors, have supple tannins, and lend themselves to be made as balanced wines that can age in the cellar.  Both have distinct personalities due to the different soil types in which they are grown.  For me, it’s my goal to make the wines in this style and express the unique differences between them.  

 With FAY, I get more perfume, red fruit and bramble notes and the wine has softer, silkier tannins. With S.L.V., the wine has darker fruit than FAY with more violets, blackcurrant fruit, richer tannins and structure and a dusty cocoa powder note.  Tasting CASK 23, you can experience a bit of both vineyards in one glass. 

Winefullness Magazine: Is Napa starting to price itself so high that it’s lost its spirit?

Marcus Notaro: There’s no question Napa Valley can be expensive. It’s a destination for people around the world who love fine wine, great food, great hotels and sunshine.  While the region is getting more expensive, there are always ways to travel within your budget.

Winefullness: Are you a French Laundry or Taylor’s Refresher type of person?

Marcus: One of the things I love about the Napa Valley is the wide range of dining options. From great taco trucks, to burgers to Michelin star restaurants we have it all.  Since my wife and I have 3 kids, we enjoy casual dining much more often!  Sunday tradition with my youngest daughter is to swing by Gott’s (the present name of Taylor's) in St. Helena for lunch. then head over to Crane Park to play pickleball/tennis.


Winefullness: Artemis has been consistently praised by the critics. Has it been difficult to maintain such high standards?

Marcus: ARTEMIS Cabernet Sauvignon is a very important wine for us. It’s often the first of our Cabernets that wine lovers taste.  For this wine, we source grapes from several long-time growers up and down the Napa Valley. In recent years, in order to help control our own grape supply a bit more, we have purchased a few vineyards to contribute grapes to ARTEMIS.

 Innovation and striving to produce the highest quality wines we can is also our priority at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. We’ve added some new equipment at the winery to enhance quality winemaking. This includes a basket press for our Estate wines and all new destemming equipment for ARTEMIS.  We also installed internal screens on all the fermentation tanks and have changed our pump-over techniques to better match the flavors and tannins coming from the grapes for the vintage.  

Winefullness Magazine: Do you think that the days when Napa Chardonnays were oak monsters will ever return? Wasn’t that a real point of difference between California and France?

Marcus Notaro: I hope not. Personally, I prefer a refined and elegant style of Chardonnay, which is what I make with our KARIA Chardonnay.

Winefullness: Do you feel that Parker’s Point System has made customers less adventurous wine drinks?

Marcus: There are great wines being made today around the world and there may not be another beverage/agricultural product where there are so many choices.  When you head to the grocery store, there may be 8 different types of apples to choose from, but when you go to the wine department there may be 50 Cabernets from all over the world.  Regardless of the critic, wine scores can help guide consumers assuming their palate is in line with the critic they follow. That being said, I have noticed with both trade and consumers less emphasis on scores and more focus on providing more detailed information about the place and style of the wine.

Winefullness: What do you feel is the best book that has been written about the wines of Napa Valley?

Marcus: The Judgment of Paris by George Taber. It’s a great read. 


Winefullness Magazine: It’s the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth. Your wine was served on the royal yacht. If you were asked to present her with one of your wines to help mark the occasion, which would it be and why?

Marcus Notaro: I would serve S.L.V. as we are close to our 50th vintage with this wine.  S.L.V., also known as Stag’s Leap Vineyards, is the winery’s first vineyard.  Planted in 1970, this vineyard achieved international fame when three-year-old vines from the 1973 harvest produced a wine that triumphed over some of France’s greatest Bordeaux in a blind tasting among French wine experts in Paris.  

Winefullness: Which do you feel are the undiscovered wines of Napa, and where are the undiscovered wines of the world produced?

Marcus: I enjoy wines from around the world, and today great wines are being made everywhere.  In fact, as a winemaking team, we regularly taste wines from Napa Valley and then other places to see what’s happening elsewhere.  I think most people appreciate Napa Valley for it’s Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, but Sauvignon Blanc is also an exciting variety for Napa, and Cabernet Franc is on the rise as well.  For around the world, I’ve got a soft spot for Italian wines, and Argentine reds (both Malbec and other Bordeaux varieties) always surprise me for their quality.

Winefullness: Is there a varietal that you wish Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars would try to work with?

Marcus: I love Cabernet Franc. We have also done some replanting in the vineyards and we added some Cabernet Franc in FAY and S.L.V.  2016 was the first vintage I added a hint of Cabernet Franc to the FAY Cabernet Sauvignon.  I did this again in 2017 with 2% Cabernet Franc in FAY.   

 In addition, we have been bottling varietal Cabernet Franc in small quantities for our wine club members and visitors to the winery.

Winefullness Magazine: What is the best part of Napa Valley?

Marcus Notaro: On the winemaking side, one thing that I love is what a great community we have in Napa Valley. Winemakers love to call each other and talk about new innovations, harvest issues, etc.  It’s a real community where we look after one another. 

 The valley as a whole also is truly a beautiful place. On weekends I often find myself out in our vineyards or driving up and down the valley and mountains simply to enjoy the scenery.

Winefullness: What are the worst and best vintages that Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars has produced, and why?

Marcus: Most consumers can find our current releases in the market and many have bottles in their cellars that they are aging now. The Napa Valley has had a string of fantastic vintages from 2012 to 2019.  All of these vintages are great to seek out.  Going back to older wines, here are some of my favorites from the last four decades:

 The 1980s – Like the wines from the 1970s, the wines from the 80’s should be enjoyed now. These are perfect for commemorating a memorable year in your life – an anniversary, a milestone birthday, etc.


 I think the 1983, 1986 and 1987 are showing well now. While a cooler vintage, the 1986 wines have ample richness and have aged well. 

The 1990s – The wines from 1990s are in a sweet spot right now. These are great wines for those who appreciate drinking wine in its prime drinking window and who love the complexity of wines with some age. As with all the wines, they have been impeccably stored. They have enough age that the tannins have resolved while showing some fruit and hints of spice. The 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997 and 1998 vintages are particularly lovely right now. These wines can continue to age gracefully in your cellar. My personal favorites are the 1993 and 1995 as they are in their prime – very complete and balanced wines.  

 The 2000s – These are wines for those who appreciate more youthful components in wine – rich, fruit flavors, some of the oak character and a juicy palate.  These wines have a long life ahead.  I’m particularly impressed with the 2002, 2008 and 2009 vintages.  

The 2010s – If you missed your chance to purchase these vintages upon release, this is the chance to add them to your cellar. In this decade, Napa Valley has had a string of incredible vintages. Lay them down. I think our wines are best first enjoyed with 6-8 years of aging from the vintage date on the label. Open a bottle upon receipt and then taste another every few years. Don’t forget to bury at least one in the back corner of your cellar as they will age gracefully for decades. 

Winefullness: Is there one question that you wish I’d have asked you, and how would you answer it? 

Marcus: Is there anything visitors should know about special experiences you offer at the estate? 

 A visit to Napa Valley is not complete without a visit to our estate!  We offer several different experiences – both indoor and outdoor – with stunning panoramic views of FAY Vineyard and the Stags Leap Palisades. Reservations are required for all experiences.

 Current tasting experiences, hours and prices can be found here:

 One highlight is the new Celestial Tour & Tasting…


 Our Celestial Tour & Tasting begins with a guided tour of our scenic Napa Valley wine caves and culminates with a seated tasting of our iconic, estate-grown wines, perfectly paired with delicious bites created by our Chef Travis Westrope. This 90-minute experience is offered Monday, Thursday and Friday at 10:30am and 2:30pm.

B y appointment only for up to 6 guests, this popular experience fills up quickly. We recommend making reservations at least two weeks in advance of your visit. All guests must be 21 years or older for this tour and tasting.

 Like Marcus I would urge visitors to visit Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. It's beautiful place located within an area where you dream of putting down roots and owning a parcel of vine growing land, but it's more than that. The wines never let you down and as one opens a bottle and takes a sip it feels as though you're drinking wines that are at the top of their game. Of course there's more to their wines than Cabernet, but you can always use this as an excuse for a return visit; should you need one!


Stag's Leap Wine Cellars - S.L.V.  2018

 If you want to know one of the reasons why I get excited by Napa Valley in general, and Stag's Leap in particular, then you need to lay out the cash (not cheap) and buy yourself a bottle of this little beauty.

 This Cabernet Sauvignon is like a well-dressed dandy that has made sure all is present and correct before going out on the town.

 Blackcurrant - check.

 Blackberry - check.

 Dark Plum - check

 Bags of interesting tastes flowing into each other - more than check!

 The mouthfeel of this wine is so filling that you can easily spend a few minutes chewing through the varied collection of fruits and flavours popping by to say hello.

 The graphite supports the fruit, and the fruit lures your tastebuds in until you're surrounded and giving into a long finish with vanilla, pasty, oak, leather and enough nuts to excite a gang of squirrels!

7 out of 7