Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, one of Napa's most celebrated estates, has been sold to a partnership of Italian winemaking icon Marchese Piero Antinori and Ste Michelle Wine Estates, the largest wine company in Washington state.

The sale is not yet finalised, but Winiarski confirmed yesterday that fundamental terms have been agreed to and signed by all parties.

The purchase includes the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars brand, winemaking facility and the SLV and Fay estate vineyards, from which two of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ three most admired wines come. The third is the flagship Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon. Insiders say the takeover is worth US$185m.

Winiarski, his wife, Barbara, and their family will retain the Arcadia Vineyard, also in Napa Valley, and will provide grapes from Arcadia to the Antinori-Ste Michelle partnership. Winiarski said he will remain as an adviser to the new owners for three years.

‘I’ll need to teach them about the terroir that I learned over 40 years,’ he said. ‘I’ll be here (at the winery) part-time. It’s not like I’m turning out lights.’

Winiarski, 79, said it was time for him and his wife, Barbara, to retire, and that other family members weren’t in positions to take over the business.

Winiarski’s first vintage, the 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon, shocked the world by besting Bordeaux in extraordinary ‘Judgment of Paris’ tasting in 1976. It was a victory that put California on the winemaking map, and established Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars as a global superstar, a position Winiarski has maintained to this day.

‘We’ve been talking about (selling) as a family for four years, trying to come to the right decision,’ Winiarski said. ‘It became clear after a while that we needed to make a transition, because of (issues with) operating roles and ownership roles with the second generation. We all decided this; it was a deliberation by the family rather than a single decision.’

Winiarski said he drew up a short list of potential buyers and Antinori was on that list. Winiarski made the first contact. ‘Piero suggested we enlarge the transaction,’ bringing in Ste Michelle Wine Estates, Winiarski said. ‘I have lots of confidence and trust in Piero. I’ve passed Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars on to good hands.’

Antinori and Ste Michelle Wine Estates president Ted Baseler were not available Monday, but Baseler was quoted in a press release as saying: ‘Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars perfectly fits our shared vision of producing wines from historic vineyard sites, and for Ste Michelle, this is a terrific complement to our estate wineries in Washington, Oregon and California.’

Antinori added, ‘There are few opportunities in one’s lifetime when such a rare site is available. I am looking forward to being involved with this historic estate and becoming intimately familiar with its terroir.’

Antinori and Ste Michelle have another joint venture, Col Solare, a Cabernet Sauvignon-based proprietary wine made in a new winery in the Red Mountain appellation of Washington. And Antinori is no stranger to Napa Valley: he was co-founder of Atlas Peak Winery and owns vineyards in the Stags Leap District appellation in southeastern Napa Valley.

Terms of the SLWC sale were not disclosed, although Winiarski said Ste Michelle Wine Estates, which is a publicly traded company, would reveal financial details at the appropriate time.

Ste Michelle owns the Chateau Ste Michelle, Columbia Crest, Northstar and Spring Valley Vineyards brands in Washington, Erath Vineyards Winery in Oregon, and Conn Creek and Villa Mount Eden wineries in Napa Valley.

Written by Linda Murphy in San Francisco