Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars has long been one of the treasures of California’s Wine Country. In fact, we’d say it was one of the treasures of the world of wine, period. Along with Chateau Montelena, Stag’s Leap won the famous Judgment of Paris in 1976, establishing the fact that California could match France for the quality of its wine. And if you should visit those two wineries, they won’t let you forget it.
But today, Stag’s Leap is not the same company as it was when founder Warren Winiarski was in charge. (Lucie met him at a wine tasting some years ago in New York, got a signed bottle and a hug, has a fond memory of him and still refers to him as Warren.) When he decided to retire in 2007, he sold the company to a huge international consortium and agreed to consult for another three years. Yes, they still make the Cabernets they’re famous for: SLV, Fay and Cask 23. (We actually prefer their Artemis, which is not completely estate-grown.) But if you do the math, 2011 was the first year that Mr. Winiarski no longer had anything to do with Stag’s Leap.
Until the end of 2014, the winery itself looked like a large wooden California house with a gorgeous garden. The tasting room was in a somewhat dark, wood-paneled room that always seemed crowded. We have been told that they often had to ask visitors to wait outside until there was space available inside. The tasting experience may have been a bit cramped, but the wine was great and the room had real presence. You could just feel that a master had made wine there.
Stag’s Leap no longer has a tasting room. Now they call it a Visitors Center, beautifully designed and imposingly modern. Made of stone, steel and glass, it has a panoramic window that looks out onto the famous vineyards and the mountains beyond. Open and airy, there are tables around a large room where a waiter brings you one wine after the other.
To us, the change from a tasting room to a Visitors Center says a lot about what is happening to much of Napa Valley. The wine is less important than the experience that the visitor receives. The owners want to be seen as making something important for people who are important. Therefore an important building is required to demonstrate the importance of all involved. Perhaps there is no intent to intimidate people who are just wine-loving folks, but that is the net effect.
At Stag’s Leap today, you don’t just walk up to a bar where a server asks, “Would you like to taste some wine today?” Rather, you are met at a front desk by a receptionist who asks if you’ve got an appointment. You’re then walked to a table and introduced to your waiter. It feels more like dinner at the snazziest restaurant in town than a visit to a winery, which after all is just a combination of a farm and a factory. If you are someone who would never get to taste a $225 bottle of wine (Cask 23, 2010) except in a tasting room, or for that matter have dinner in your city’s best restaurant, you’re made to feel distinctly uncomfortable.
On top of that, the 2011s we were served were the worst we’ve ever tasted from Stag’s Leap. Perhaps it’s just the vintage, admittedly a terrible one everywhere. Perhaps it’s because it’s the first year without Mr. Winiarski’s hands.