It’s one of Napa Valley’s oldest estates, yet its often confused for its almost-namesake Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. That fact doesn’t bother its owners, Treasury Wine Estates (owners of Penfolds) nor its winemaker Christophe Paubert. Why? Because its wines stand apart: Stags’ Leap Winery is known for complex, beautifully textured, and approachable upon-release wines that deliver harmony with every sip. The unique terroir of the Stags Leap Palisades provides a microclimate for the 240-acre property that can support traditional viticulture, land use, and winemaking that is as relevant today as it was 100 years ago.
The late 20th century witnessed a lawsuit that reached the California Supreme Court over who had the right to use the name Stags Leap: Stags’ Leap Winery or Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. Both wineries were officially founded in the 1970s in the Stags Leap District of Napa Valley, and each took the name to honor where their grapes were grown and where their wines were made. The name has also been attributed to a Wappo legend in which a stag leaps across the palisades to escape the hunters. However, in 1976 when Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars won in the Judgement of Paris, gaining international fame which ultimately led to the fame of Stags’ Leap Winery, a lawsuit followed.
Yet, as both were founded at the same time and both released their first wine in 1972, neither could prove they were first. This led the California Supreme Court to rule that both had a right to use the name, except with the subtle difference in apostrophe use. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars would use the apostrophe before the “s” and Stags’ Leap Winery would use the apostrophe after the “s.”
Despite the lawsuit, the two wineries became friends and even released a 1985 vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon with an equal percentage of grapes from each estate. They named the wine “Accord.”
The story of Stags’ Leap Winery is a colorful one. Hidden away in the Stags Leap AVA, the story is one of an old stone mansion, of fortunes made and lost, Great Gatsby-style parties, dereliction, and ultimately revival.
While the first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon was in 1981, the estate itself was founded in the 1870s. It went through a number of owners, one of whom was Horace Chase who built the manor and started producing wines from vineyards previously planted. Sadly the Chases were ruined in the 1890s due to poor investment in a failed Mexican silver mine and had to sell the estate to Clarence and Frances Grange in 1913. The Granges also faced tragedy and by the 1950s the property was derelict. This history has led to several rumors, one even of a ghost who drifts along the corridors, but regardless, one thing is for certain: the property has soul.
The revival can be traced back to the 1970s when Carl Doumani, a flamboyant LA restaurateur bought the estate and began its restoration. Doumani brought back the vineyards, planted new ones, and made the 1981 Cabernet Sauvignon that earned 86points from Wine Spectator. This began their pattern of critically-acclaimed wines, regularly receiving 95 points and above for their Cabernets as they honed their winemaking skills. The revival is summed up by their moto: Ne Cede Malis, yield to no misfortune.
The revival however is also thanks to the terroir. The Stags Leap Palisades are the most prominent geographical feature in the area. Erosion from the Palisades is the source of volcanic soil that has been acknowledged as a key factor to the world-class reputation of Cabernet Sauvignon in the district. More than that however, the Palisades contribute to the weather. The slopes and its small valley are oriented to block early morning sun, retain afternoon heat, and funnel cooler marine air from the San Pablo Bay to the south.
The rock face also gives off stored warmth after sunset, helping to heat the entire ranch, but loses it rapidly after twilight hours thus slowing and prolonging the ripening of grapes. This combination of an extended growing season with warmth and cooling from the Palisades results in an ideal balance of acid and sugar in wine grapes: They’re given the time to mature and develop a soft texture and intense flavors that the Stags’ Leap Winery has become known for.
Now, with a quick rundown of the colorful history, time for what we’re really here for, the wines. Winemaking at Stags’ Leap is run by Christophe Paubert, a native of Bordeaux who previously worked at Chateau d’Yquem and in wineries across Chile, Spain, and Washington State. Paubert believes in a hands-on style that emphasizes balance to produce intense wines that have soft tannins. The focus is on the fruit, exactly how it is, and not on tailoring it. So, whilst the Stags’ Leap style may be slightly more restrained than the usual Napa Valley reds, they truly express the terroir by picking at optimal maturity.
There are several iterations of Cabernet Sauvignon produced at the winery. One is a classic Napa Valley offering from vineyards no further than St. Helena, a warmer area, and the other is created entirely from vineyards at the estate called The Leap. The Napa Valley iteration is deep and dense with aromas of dark plum, blackberry, hints of vanilla and cinnamon that transfer onto the palate with added hints of black pepper, cocoa nib, and coffee wrapped in a silky texture.
Their flagship however is Petite Sirah. It has been produced at the winery for over 45 years and is part of the Stags’ Leap DNA. The grape itself can be rustic so the key is to express the fruit whilst maintaining freshness and elegancy with the help of American oak expressing notes of black and blueberry fruit, pepper spice, and floral notes.
But they don’t only do reds well. The Stags’ Leap Chardonnay has been rated 93 points by James Suckling in 2020. Notes of citrus, yogurt, and flavors of sliced green apples, and young peaches with a medium finish make this Napa Chard a definite must-try.
While the history of Stags’ Leap is a storied one, the future is clear: as stated by their head winemaker, there is no big news. The aim is to stick to traditions and continue doing what they’ve been doing so well over the years: crafting critically-acclaimed Napa wines.