By Fran Endicott Miller
On May 24, 1976, a simple blind wine tasting changed the world of wine forever. Organized by an English wine merchant in celebration of American Bicentennial activities in Paris, the tasting, known as the Judgment of Paris, pitted high-quality French red Bordeaux and white Burgundies against California Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays. The wines’ identities were concealed until after the jury of nine French tasters had voted its order of preference.
The red winner was a 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon, which topped four highly ranked Bordeaux, including first-growth Château Mouton-Rothschild and Château Haut-Brion—a bottle of the winning wine is part of the permanent collection at The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. At the time, the result was inconceivable, and today it continues to be cause for celebration within the Napa Valley and especially at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, which celebrates its golden anniversary this year.
Since its founding in 1970, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars has exhibited an unwavering commitment to its S.L.V. and FAY estate vineyards. As a result, the terroir shows through in the grapes’ characteristics. Today, its CASK 23, S.L.V., FAY, and ARTEMIS labels are among the most highly regarded and collected Cabernet Sauvignons in the world.
Nathan Fay first cultivated Cabernet Sauvignon in the Stags Leap District in 1961, discounting opinions that the area was too cool for red Bordeaux varieties. The area proved to be perfect for yielding grapes with luscious dark-berry fruit aromas and flavors, firm yet supple tannins in the wines, and structure that promises longevity in the cellar. A tasting of Fay’s exceptional homemade Cabernet in 1969 led the winery to purchase and plant the adjoining ranch, now known as S.L.V. In 1986, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars bought Fay’s 66- acre vineyard and named it FAY in his honor. Today, it remains one of the great Napa Valley vineyards, producing fruit with an abundance of supple red and blackberry character, perfumed aromas, and seductive, fine-grained texture.
“Everything begins in the vineyard, and then it all comes together in the cellar,” says Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars winemaker Marcus Notaro, who joined the winery in 2013. “You need to do what the vineyard and the vintage tell you to do. It’s important to me that, when you taste our FAY and S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignons, you are tasting the true vineyard character.”
Notaro first visited Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars during his college years. “I knew I had to see this iconic winery and taste its wines,” he says. “When I was the winemaker at Col Solare [Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ sister property], I started tasting the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars wines and visiting more often. When the winemaker position opened, I jumped at the chance to come to this winery to carry on the rich legacy.”
Napa Valley visitors are invited to sample Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ award-winning varietals at the winery’s FAY Outlook & Visitor Center. Located along the iconic Silverado Trail, the center features spectacular vistas overlooking the historic vineyards. “The tasting room makes the connection between wine and place,” says Notaro. “Visitors can stand on the deck and see the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars story. And the elevated customer experiences drive home that connection. A visit to the estate is magical and beautiful, and the fiftieth anniversary is the perfect reason to come celebrate with us.”