Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

It gets a little confusing writing about Stag’s Leap (  It’s all about the apostrophe.  The district or AVA it’s in is Stags Leap (no apostrophe), a simple statement that stags do leap. Stags’ Leap (with a trailing apostrophe) refers to the leap used by many stags and is also a different winery nearby, best known for its Petite Sirah.  And the leap used by a single stag – Stag’s Leap – is the one we’re talking about here.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is a winery of almost mythical importance in Napa Valley.  Started by Warren Winiarski in 1972, his Cabernet Sauvignon was the winner of the famous Judgement of Paris contest in 1976 that put Napa Valley solidly on the map of Wine Country.  In 2007, Mr. Winiarski sold Stag’s Leap to an international consortium and it hasn’t been the same since.

That last sentence might be interpreted negatively, but it was only intended to say that for the visiting wine taster, the experience is totally different from what it once was.  We make no secret about our nostalgia for the old Stag’s Leap and have written about it in the past.  It was the House that Winiarski built, made of wood and redolent of history.

Today’s visitor will find a modern, architecturally interesting building made of stone and glass.  After you park your car, you approach the building through a garden of desert shrubs.  If that seems a bit strange for Napa Valley, we think it’s just to set you up for the lushness of the vineyards on display behind the building.  As soon as you enter into the building, you’ll be welcomed by a concierge, as they call their greeters, who will first check if you have a reservation and then direct you to an server whoa will introduce you to their wines.  Through a vast glass window, you see some of the most storied vineyards in California: S.L.V. and Fay.  These have been producing top tier Cabernet Sauvignons for decades and each produces single vineyard wines.  (It was the S.L.V. that was the victor in Paris.)  They also make a wine called Cask 23, which combines the grapes from the two vineyards.  There is another nearby vineyard where they raise grapes for Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, but it’s the reds that make Stag’s Leap famous.


Visitors are presented with all of these wines.  We recommend that you ask your server to pour all three of the Cabs at the same time so you can go back and forth and compare them.  We also suggest that you ask if they have any of their Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon available.  This wine is a blend of sourced grapes from around Napa Valley.  Call us Philistines but we often like this wine as much as its more reputed big sisters.

On the basis of several visits, we find that the servers are quite friendly but not deeply knowledgeable about the wines they are pouring.  They’re more hosts than educators.  But they are well-versed in the history of the winery and seem eager to make certain that you enjoy your visit to the maximum.

No, Stag’s Leap isn’t what it once was, but what is?  It is only fair to rate the winery on the basis of the experience and the wines that you have today.  And on both scores, a visit to Stag’s Leap rates high.


Taking Wine Back Home

It happens so often.  You’re on vacation in Wine Country and you taste a wine that’s just so good.  You must buy some to have as a souvenir of your wonderful trip.  The bottle gets carefully packed in your checked luggage and stored in that special place you have for your best wines.  It’s being saved for a special occasion.  But when that day comes, you open the bottle and…meh.  “What was I thinking?” you ask yourself while you finish the bottle in disappointment.

You hear people say, “This wine just doesn’t travel”.  Malarkey!  That may be true for a well-aged Bordeaux that has accumulated a lot of sediment, but not for a new release that you try at most wineries.

What happened, and what can you do about it?

  • Everything is better on vacation. When you go wine tasting, you become enthralled with the beauty of the vineyards, the friendliness of the server, the elegance of the tasting room, the beautiful weather, some of the above, all of the above.  Your dining room table is very nice, but it can’t compare to the emotional pull of a long-remembered vacation.  The best advice is not to try to remember what the wine was like back then and to enjoy if for what it is now.  But if you must, try to recreate the memory of that special time.  Talk about it, especially with your Significant Other who shared that experience with you.  The memory won’t make the wine taste better but it might make you feel better about it.

Vinho verde.  Photo courtesy of

  • It’s not the same wine anymore. When you tasted that wine, it was young.  If you’ve stored it for a couple of years, it has changed.  Some wines improve with age, but there are many that don’t.  Most Portuguese vinho verde shouldn’t see its second birthday.  A lot of Zinfandels are meant to be drunk when released.  If your save-for-a-special-occasion wine is like one of those, you might want to have that occasion shortly after you arrive back home.
  • You waited too long. Sometimes a bottle just seems to find a spot in the rack that you don’t notice.  Years go by, other purchases are made and then one day you find that special bottle, almost forgotten.  Did it bake in the summers gone by?  Has it reached and passed its peak?  It’s not a bad idea to let some wines age, but it’s a very good idea to remember that you have something special and not let it pass its time.
  • It may be even better than you remember. As noted above, with time it’s not the same as the wine you tasted. If you bought well and stored the wine well, time can often smooth out some roughness and give deep-seated flavors a chance to emerge and reach their peak.  When that happens, revel in the experience and remember the day you bought it.  It’s days like those that make wine tasting so special.

Jerome, Arizona

The State of Arizona is a wonderland for vacationers.  There are the thriving metropolis of Phoenix and its tony suburb, Scottsdale, where you can visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West.  Natural beauties abound.  There are the magnificent red rocks of Sedona, the Painted Desert and more stunning than any other natural wonder is the Grand Canyon.  We encourage you to avail yourself of all the best that Arizona has to offer.

And if you have one more day, we suggest you drive to the tiny village of Jerome.  Once a thriving mining town, Jerome once had 15,000 residents.  But then the mine closed, the people left and it became a veritable ghost town.  Today, Jerome has been revived as…well, there’s no other way to say it, Jerome is a tourist destination.  Not a trap, it’s too much for that.  But it exists only so that tourists can come look at it, eat a meal or two, buy souvenirs and leave.

Jerome as it once was… Photo courtesy of the Jerome Grand Hotel.

So why are we featuring it as a Place to Visit in Power Tasting?  Because there are local wines to taste in Jerome.

…And as it is today.  Photo courtesy of Experience Scottsdale.

Every state in America has vineyards.  The three Pacific states make world renowned wines.  A few others are producing some creditable wines.  It is Power Tasting’s policy not to say bad things about any winery, but we aren’t urging you to make the journey to Jerome just for the wines.  But we do recommend that you make it if you are in the area.

Getting there is half the fun, if your idea of fun is driving up a long, steep road.  You are rewarded for that drive by magnificent views across the desert.  If you’re the one driving, keep your eyes on the road; if you’re a passenger, try not to let your knuckles get too white.

Once you get into town and find somewhere to park, the best thing to do is just walk around.  In some ways, Jerome is small-town America, with the emphasis on “small”.  In another, it’s a lovingly recreated (and somewhat embellished) corner of the now-lost West.  There are no gunfights on Main Street and probably never were, but there are saloons, cafes, galleries and restored buildings.

And there are winery tasting rooms.  Among them are Caduceus Cellars, Merkin Vineyards, Jerome Winery, Vina Zona, Echo Canyon and others.  Most of them offer a fairly wide selection of wines, starting with the expected varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel.  But many feature less common grapes like Aglianico, Nebbiolo, Garnacha and blends of just about anything they can grow.  We don’t think that any of these grapes were intended for production in the High Chaparral, but there are some hardy pioneers who are doing it.

A visit to Jerome may not reward the avid wine taster with a life-changing experience.  But you can have a fun day visiting a restored ghost town.  And when you get home, you can brag that you tasted wines made in Arizona.

Recognizing Bad Wine

When you go wine tasting, you don’t expect to like everything you try.  In most cases, that’s simply a matter of taste.  No winery is capable of appealing to everyone and no visitor is required to like everything he or she samples.  But here we’re not talking about a wine you just don’t enjoy.  It doesn’t happen often but in some rare cases, the wine that’s put in you glass is simply tainted.  Sadly, it happens with bottles that you bring home from the store, too.

Photo courtesy of Sentara Healthcare.

When it happens in a tasting room, it’s fairly important to recognize the flaw in what you’re tasting and report it to the server or the tasting room manager.  They want to know if there’s a problem and prevent shipment of wines that are simply bad.  Each of the following instances has happened to us at one time or another although, as we say, it’s been rare.

  • Brett This taint is caused by the presence of a yeast called Brettanomyces, or brett for short. It is a bit difficult to discuss, for two reasons.  The first is that brett is only described in euphemisms, most often as “barnyard smell”.  It’s easy to get the point: Brett makes wine smell and taste really bad.  But the other difficulty is that some people (including winemakers) actually like a little bit of that smell.  And who’s to say much is “a little bit”?  Brett seems more prevalent in Pinot Noir, especially French Burgundies and is much sought after by some connoisseurs.  But if brett shows up in your glass and it’s clearly too much, mention it to your server, but be prepared to be told, “It’s supposed to taste that way.”
  • Corked wine Winemakers are not responsible for corked wine, but cork manufacturers are. There are some fungi in cork trees which may appear when the bark of trees is turned into bottle closures.  It’s a chemical called TCA (2,4,6 – trichloroanisole) or simply TCA.  Once in contact with the wine, it imparts an aroma and taste that is often described as wet cardboard.  Once corked, the wine cannot recover, no matter how long it’s aged or left to air out.  We were once at a renowned winery that is famous for their attention to the science involved in winemaking.  After a tour, we were served in a pleasant tasting room.  And to our dismay, the first Chardonnay served was corked.  We immediately told the server, who was abashed to be sure and she quickly took the cork.  The manufacturer and batch were identified on it.  She took it to the lab people in the back so they could eliminate those corks from future production. That’s why servers should smell the wine before pouring from a new bottle, avoiding serving corked wine to visitors.  This one did not.
  • Wine fault There are some cases in which a wine has an off taste, such as rotten eggs, discarded motor oil or swamp. In our experience, this problem occurs rarely, most often following a below average harvest.  Some winemakers, rather than accepting the fact that they won’t get good wine that year, play with it, adding chemicals and using techniques to “boost’ the wine.  In a few cases, all that effort just makes a poor wine into a bad one.  We well remember tasting the poor 2011 vintage at one of Napa Valley’s most famous wineries.  One of the wines tasted…rotten.  Our server told us that the wine was still young and would improve with age.  We tried using a Clef du Vin to see if age would make a difference, but it didn’t.  We have since been back to that winery, but we’re always on our guard when we taste there.