In 1976, 20 French judges came together to participate in a blind wine tasting in what has come to be known as the Judgement of Paris. At the time, wines from France were expected to win across the board, given the country’s prestigious winemaking. When the results for the Bordeaux category were revealed, though, an unexpected wine from an American region took the prize. The wine came from the Napa Valley’s Stag’s Leap Cellars.
On this special episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” host Adam Teeter speaks with Marcus Notaro, winemaker at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in Napa Valley. Notaro discusses how he’s helped to continue Stag Leap’s legacy through innovation and hard work, all while striving to uphold the brand’s name as a leader in high-quality New World wine.
Tune in, and learn more about Stag’s Leap at https://www.stagsleapwinecellars.com/.
OR CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter. I am so pumped today to be bringing you a special podcast. On today’s podcast, we’re going to be talking with Marcus Notaro, the winemaker of Stag’s Leap. We’re going to talk all about a really, really incredible event that happened a while ago now, but one that a lot of listeners may be familiar with. We’re not only going to talk about that event, but we’re also going to talk about Stag’s Leap as a whole and what’s going on in Napa. It’s harvest right now, so Marcus is giving us a bit of an update. Without further ado, Marcus, thanks for joining me.
Marcus Notaro: Hey, it’s great to be here, Adam.
A: I don’t want to keep people guessing for too long, so let’s jump right into it. You are the winemaker at Stag’s Leap. While I think many people who listen are very familiar with Stag’s Leap, they may not be familiar with one of the things that made Stag’s Leap super famous in the first place. It’s an event that happened in the ’70s called the Judgment of Paris. I was hoping that you could give us the background. For people who also listened to “Wine 101” at VinePair, there’s a whole episode about the Judgment of Paris that you can go back to and listen to if you want the full breakdown. But, Marcus, can you explain to people who are listening right now what that event was and why it is so important in the history of the winery where you now make the wine?
M: You bet. Obviously, it’s an important part of our history. It’s also a huge part of the history of the Napa Valley. This tasting happened in 1976. If you transport yourself back there into the ’70s in the Napa Valley, it certainly wasn’t what you see today, where it’s kind of like this winery Disneyland. There were things happening in Napa Valley. It was still recovering from that great American idea called Prohibition from the ’20s that wiped out the industry. But, things were happening. There were some new wineries. There was some new energy and excitement. To put it in perspective, though, prunes were more valuable than Cabernet Sauvignon at this time. Our winery was founded in 1970, and our first vintage was produced in 1972. It’s the ’73 that really put us on the map. If you go over to Paris, France, there’s a gentleman named Steven Spurrier who, together with his partner Patricia Gallagher, had a wine shop in Paris. They noticed that a bunch of Americans and British folks were visiting their wine shop. They had been over to Napa Valley, tasted some of our wines, and had seen some of this energy and excitement. They thought that they could sell these wines to these folks that were visiting their wine shop. At this point in time, particularly for quality wine, there was only one place. There was France. There was Burgundy for Chardonnay and Bordeaux for Cabernet Sauvignon. It was completely an unknown place. They decided to organize a blind tasting. They brought in about 20 French judges. Mr. Spurrier said, “We want to come to the wine shop for a tasting of some of these wines from the New World, from Napa Valley. Once the judges arrived, he thought it would be a little bit more fun to throw in some of the finest wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux and do the tasting blind. The judges all agreed. First, they tasted through the Burgundys and tasted them all blind. When the results were revealed, it was the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that had won in the Burgundy category. When they went to the Bordeaux category, it was the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 S.L.V. — Stag’s Leap Vineyard — Cabernet Sauvignon that had won.
M: Mr. Spurrier had invited a bunch of media to cover this event, and basically, nobody showed. At the last minute, he made a call over to Time Magazine, who sent a man named George Taber over to cover this event. Mr. Taber knew what the wines were. He knew about all the background stuff going on. He wrote this little article called “The Judgment of Paris” that appeared on, like, page 56 of Time Magazine. It was that little article that got picked up by news organizations around the world as this great American victory over what the French were most known for. It was almost a “going viral” type of moment for the ’70s, to put it in perspective. For vintners and growers here in the Napa Valley, it really validated what they thought. We thought that we could produce world-class wines here, and the results of the Paris tasting definitely show that the Napa Valley is a special place, and it’s capable of producing world-class Chardonnay and world-class Cabernet Sauvignon.
A: So, what did that do for Stag’s Leap specifically? Obviously it put Napa on the map. Can you look at the trajectory of the winery now and say, “Man, it was a rocket ship”? I feel like almost anyone who starts to get into wine learns the name Stag’s Leap. You’re one of the first growths of the U.S., to be very honest. I think that’s very fair to say. You’re one of the most famous wineries in the country. What did that do to the company? How did everyone react to that? How do you approach that today in your winemaking, understanding that you are now one of these wineries that people think about and say, “Man, this was the winery that put us on the map”?
M: Remember, this event was a very innocent event. Once the results were revealed, they made a phone call over to Warren Winiarski’s wife, Barbara Winiarski. Warren was on business at the time. When she was told that they had won a tasting in Paris, her response was, “Oh, that’s very nice.” She hung up the phone and then called Warren, who was on business back in Chicago. She said, “Warren, we just won this tasting in Paris.” His response was, “Oh, that’s very nice.” He hung up the phone and it wasn’t until a few days later when he actually saw what the other wines were in the tasting that they had beaten. That was when he realized the magnitude of this event. He actually tried to buy back all of the 1973 S.L.V., just knowing the sheer ramifications of this event. Certainly, to have one of your first vintages to have such a quality statement is huge. That really is what the winery has been about after the Paris wine tasting. What’s interesting is that everybody wanted to work at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. Everybody wanted to know what the secret was. What was it that Warren was doing where he was able to produce this wine that beat some of the best wines in the world? The reality is that the place here is so special. Whether it’s S.L.V., Stag’s Leap Vineyard, the FAY Vineyard — which is right next door where we also produce an estate wine — our area here in Stag’s Leap produces wonderful wines that have incredible potential for ageability. They have a real personality. That is really what Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars has always been about. We produce not only top-quality wines, but wines that are really expressive of our area and the individual personalities of the vineyards.
A: That’s amazing. So, when did you come to Stag’s Leap?
M: My first vintage, start to finish, was in 2013.
A: OK. When you came, did you understand, at the time, the gravitas of the place and the importance of it in American wine history?
M: Oh, for sure. My first trip to the Napa Valley was when I was right at the end of studying in college. I fell in love with wine in school. This winery was one of the first wineries that I ever visited as a young wine connoisseur. So, for sure. The winery has such a pedigree. As the winemaker today, it’s pretty awesome when we’re traveling around and doing winemaker dinners. Everybody’s got a story of a time that they visited, or they have a vintage in their cellar that they’re saving for a special occasion. To make the wines here today is very humbling, but it’s also a real honor.
A: Speaking of the wine specifically, a lot in the world has changed since 1976. Napa has changed. How have the wines at Stag’s Leap changed? If someone were to drink a bottle of the current vintage of Stag’s Leap, how much of what was happening in 1976 could they still find in that bottle? How much of what was happening in 1976 has informed what’s inside that bottle? Could you take the listeners through what defines a Stag’s Leap wine?
M: The wines come from the area, and the Stag’s Leap district as a whole is a very small sub-appellation. We’re about five miles north of Napa on the Silverado Trail. When the first Cabernet was planted here in 1961 by a man named Nathan Fay, at that time, our area was actually thought to be too cold for Cabernet Sauvignon or red varieties, for that matter. You know, the city of Yountville and north was for red grapes. South of Yountville was for white grapes. The way the weather works here is that, on a typical summer day, we wake up and the valley is full of fog or low clouds which burn off from the north — up in Calistoga — to the south, back out into our air conditioner, being San Pablo Bay. Then, it heats up. In the early afternoon, the sea breezes turn back on, coming up San Pablo Bay from the south, funneling up through the Napa Valley to the north. Depending on where you are north to south, you’re going to have different levels of fog or clouds and different times as to when that air conditioner comes back on. That’s why, back in the ’60s, it was thought to be too cold. Luckily, Mr. Fay took a chance and planted Cabernet Sauvignon here anyway. Later, when we were able to do some real measurements, we confirmed that our area is a little bowl. We’re surrounded by these rocky outcroppings called the Stag’s Leap Palisades. Those were named after a particularly large rock formation right above the winery. Back when the native Wappo tribe was living and hunting in the valley, they used to chase the deer up into these rocks. There’s a legend that a particularly large stag made it to one part of this V cut and leapt this incredible distance to the other side in order to escape. That’s how our area then has been historically known as Stag’s Leap. Those Palisades radiate the heat. Once the sun does come out here, temperatures in Stag’s Leap heat right up. It gets fairly warm, but because of our southerly location, the sea breezes hit us around 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. in the afternoon. That cools us back off. The fog does sit here. It lingers until around 9 a.m. We have these nice, warm afternoons and that warmth is what Cabernet Sauvignon needs to get out those nice ripe flavors, complexities, and ripe tannins. But, that extended cooling period really preserves a lot of the natural acidity. I think, combined, these give our wines what I call “soft power.” They’re wines that are wonderfully complex. They’re rich wines, but they don’t tend to be heavy or over the top. I find that style in our neighbor’s wines as well. That would be what I would call the Stag’s Leap style.
A: That makes sense. They’re powerful, but they have some acidity. They’re approachable. That’s really interesting. I never really thought about that in terms of the description of the style of that entire district. It’s really interesting.
M: You bet. It’s very cool to be at a winery that has 50 years of history and a wine library where we have some of the historical vintages. As the current winemaker, I think it’s really important for me to understand history, how the wines have evolved, and the individual personalities of our vineyards. So S.L.V., Stag’s Leap Vineyard and our first vineyard, for example, to taste the wines from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and today, is incredible. Sure, every vintage is a little bit different. What I find in the wine is this signature personality that, to me, is S.L.V.. It’s this dusty cocoa powder, it has graphite, this dark fruit character, this violet character. It’s a richer wine. It’s not over the top, as I said, but it has a backbone. It has a beautiful structure. You see that in the older wines. That is what I try to get out of the grapes in today’s wines. Things have changed through history. A lot of the vineyards themselves, here in the Napa Valley, needed to be replanted in the mid-’80s and early ’90s, due to phylloxera.
A: That thing.
M: Yeah, that thing. So, the vineyards are different. They’re different rootstocks for the most part. Different spacings, different clones. Every time you replant or you do something, you want to make it better, right? You take from what you’ve learned, and when you have a replanting, you take with what’s worked and then you try to make it better and try to make the vineyard better. The same thing goes with winemaking. Do we make wines today the same as they were made in the ’70s? No. We have the same goal, which is to make the best-quality wine we can. That is expressive and brings out those personalities that I see in these vineyards. For sure, though, equipment is different, winemaking techniques are different, barrel aging is different. It’s all constantly evolving. You can’t, as a winemaker or as a viticulturist, sit back and do the same thing every time. Our goal is to make the best wines we can for the vintage. Every vintage is different. We don’t necessarily do the same thing every year, as well. Warren Winiarski, our founder, is still a grower for us. He grows Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, and he lives on the property. It was really great to see his curiosity and excitement when I would bring something new. When this winery was founded, this place was that. This was something new. This was the innovator. This was the new thing in Napa Valley. It is OK to innovate. It is OK to try new things, as long as I’m respecting the characters and the qualities of the vineyards and staying focused on producing the best quality wine I can.
A: That’s amazing. How many wines does Stag’s Leap produce?
M: What you’ll see out in the marketplace, is that we have our three estate wines. We have a single-vineyard from S.L.V., a single-vineyard from the FAY Vineyard, and our top wine, which is a blend of the best of the best of the two. It’s called Cask 23. We also have three Napa Valley wines. We make a Sauvignon Blanc that we call Aveta. We make a Napa Valley Chardonnay, which we call Karia. Our most popular wine is our Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which we call Artemis. Those are the six wines that you’ll see out in the marketplace. Here at the winery, we have a very active wine club that I produce some other wines for, as well.
A: Some special wines that you can only get if you actually join.
M: Exactly. Or, when you stop by the winery here.
A: Right, exactly. Clear one thing up for me. You get this question a lot. You’re not the only winery named Stag’s Leap. That’s another one, too. People get confused. You both have an apostrophe in your name, but one is in one location, one is in the other. Can you tell me why that is? Can you tell me what listeners should look for to ensure that they’re actually buying the Stag’s Leap that won the Judgement of Paris, from the winery founded by Warren Winiarski? How do you ensure that it’s that winery and not the other Stag’s Leap?
M: Yes. This is very confusing. It’s been confusing for 50 years. Basically, both wineries were founded at the same time as grape wine-producing wineries. You actually have to get a bond in order to do this. Both tried to capture this name of Stag’s Leap. The other winery — completely different ownership, completely different founding — was more excited about Petite Sirah than Cabernet Sauvignon. In good American fashion, this, of course, resulted in about a 10-year, $1 million legal battle. The solution was that no one winery can lay claim to a place like that. Winiarski’s winery is Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, with the apostrophe before the “s” and the other one is Stags’ Leap Winery, with the apostrophe after the “s.” This, of course, has resulted in another 40 years of confusion, particularly for consumers, but they have completely different ownership and completely different wine. On the labels, our deer is standing still and their deer is leaping away. They make very good Petite Sirah. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been told how good our Petite Sirah is —
A: That’s amazing.
M: Their winemaker is actually a friend. They also get told all the time about Cask 23 and Artemis. Frankly, that’s the reason why, on our Napa Valley wines, they do have a name like Artemis, Karia, or Aveta. That’s so that, when you’re at a restaurant and have a wine list, the restaurateur may only have so much space to write out Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. If they put even just Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Artemis, people will really recognize that. It’s very recognizable for the consumers and helps to keep you straight and make sure you’re getting it from the right one.
A: Are the three Napa wines the wines that people will most easily find out in the market?
M: Yes. Aveta, Karia, and Artemis.
A: OK, cool. The S.L.V., Cask 23, you can find those at, probably, the finer restaurants and higher-end shops.
A: Very cool. Well, Marcus, it has been really interesting to talk to you about Stag’s Leap, the Judgment of Paris, the wine as a whole, and the region. To be honest with you, I actually didn’t know that it was named for a stag jumping over a rock outcropping. I just always thought it was named because there were lots of stags that had been seen leaping in the area. That’s a super-cool story. I really appreciate you sharing.
M: Well, I’ll tell you what. The descendants of that deer that got away have a voracious appetite for Cabernet Sauvignon. As harvest is going on here right now, I’m constantly chasing these things out.
A: Oh, lovely. I don’t want to take up much of your time because I’m sure you are super busy with harvest. So, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today and talk to us more about Stag’s Leap and what’s going on in Napa. I appreciate it and I will talk to you soon.
M: My pleasure, Adam. Awesome being here.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.