Decanter Wine Legends
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 1973 Napa Valley, California USA
A legend because…
This was the wine that trumped various Bordeaux first growths at Steven Spurrier’s ‘Judgment of Paris’ tasting in 1976. Apart from damaging Gallic pride, the result astonished observers as the wine had been made from vines that were only planted in 1970. When the event was replicated in London and Napa in 2006, this wine took second place, behind Ridge’s Monte Bello 1971. (Ironically, at a 1986 rematch in New York, also organised by Spurrier, a bottle of the Monte Bello was considered past its best.) Indeed, in 2006 the five top places were taken by Californian wines. In 2011, Warren Winiarski, the then owner, said: ‘The 1973 still embodies a lovely, living, fleshly reminder of the fruit we harvested with so much hope and joy 35 years ago.’ A bottle is in the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
Winiarski, a political scientist from Chicago, bought and planted land in what would become the Stags Leap District AVA in 1970. The first vintage from his Stag’s Leap Vineyard (note the vineyard and cellar names have apostrophes but the AVA does not) was 1972. In 1986, he bought the adjoining Fay Vineyard. The first vintage of his celebrated barrel selection Cask 23 was in 1974. In 2007, the property was jointly bought by Washington’s Chateau Ste Michelle and Italy’s Piero Antinori, a long-time friend.
Winiarski persuaded the renowned Russianborn winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff to act as a consultant. His advice proved helpful in determining the harvest date and the final blend, but these crucial decisions were nonetheless taken by Winiarski alone.
The Stags Leap District AVA lies on the eastern side of Napa Valley in an area once thought too cool for Cabernet Sauvignon. Winiarski commissioned a soil analysis after he bought the land in 1970 and this revealed it was a mix of volcanic and alluvial material. He eventually planted 14ha: Cabernet Sauvignon on the most gravelly parcels and Merlot on rockier soils. He selected a row orientation that would prevent excessive exposure to the heat generated during the afternoon by the cliff-like palisades close to the vineyard. The Stags Leap District has since become renowned for the silky texture and elegance of its best Cabernets.
Napa Valley enjoyed an excellent growing season in 1973, with many dry warm days interrupted by brief heat spikes in June and July. August was cooler but warm enough for continued ripening. Harvest was between 23 September and 3 October for both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with Winiarski's friends doing most of the picking. Tchelistcheff, when trying the fruit just before harvest, said it tasted ‘like honey, divine honey’.
The must was fermented in stainless steel tanks designed by Winiarski, using those of Château Latour as a model. Yeast was added, and temperature-controlled fermentation took just six days on the skins. Malolactic fermentation took place over the autumn. In March, the Cabernet was moved into new, lightly toasted Nevers barriques, while the Merlot was aged for a year in 500-litre Nevers oak puncheons. Tchelistcheff assisted Winiarski with assembling the final blend. The wine was fined, bottled by hand and released in July 1975.
Tasting the wine at 25 years old, Michael Broadbent recorded ‘a very fragrant spicy bouquet; [the wine] was sweet though the tannins were still raw. For its age, it was still pretty good.’ By 1999, Wine Spectator critic James Laube applauded its ‘complex aromas and spicy cherry, cedar, toast and chocolate flavours’. Jancis Robinson MW, at the 2006 re-enactment in London, thought: ‘Very subtle but not especially intense. Hint of oyster shells. Lovely lift. Really racy. No tannin management here but great integrity and life. Could be Bordeaux.’ D ‘Really racy. Great integrity and life. Could be Bordeaux’
- Bottles produced: 21,600
- Composition: 93% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot
- Yield (hl/ha): No record
- Alcohol level: 13%
- Release price: $6
- Price today: $500-$700 at auction