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It’s been seven years now since a partnership between Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and the Antinori family of Italy purchased Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and almost 20 since the partners made their first vintage at Col Solare in Washington’s Red Mountain region.  So there was a lot to talk about when winemakers Marcus Notaro, formerly of Col Solare and now with Stag’s Leap, and Darel Allwine, who succeeded Notaro at Col Solare, sat down last week for a luncheon tasting with six journalists at Manhattan’s Quality Italian restaurant.  I left the meal and tasting with several threads of thoughts – some discussed, some not – going through my mind.


First of all were the stories some of us had about our meetings with the founder of Stag’s Leap, Warren Winiarski, a skilled winemaker and unabashed, if very sophisticated, contrarian.  My first meeting with the former college prof was in 1979, just after I had tasted with a winemaker who said his grapes were so good they could practically make their own wine.  “These naturalistic winemakers who think wine is made only in the vineyard really irk me,” Winiarski, well-known for his cellar acumen, blurted out.  I’m not sure if he ever modified that stance, but through the years I have tended to agree with his viewpoint.


I also mused about the fact that Winiarski’s 1973 Cabernet, which beat out the French Bordeaux crus at the Paris Tasting of 1976, was made from three-year old vines.  Increasingly, our reverence for old vines has been called into question, most recently by Bordeaux consultant Denis Dubourdieu.  I have one winemaker friend who believes a vine produces its best grapes at four years; after that, subsequent vintages try to recapture what is lost in youth.


Then there are the partners – SMWE and Antinori.  Both are quite individualistic, SMWE seeming to work efficiently both as a producer and an importer, and Antinori continuing to grow and diversify as its 26th generation – the three Antinori sisters – show a major hand in running the business.  SMWE imports Antinori wines into the U.S., while Antinori enologist Renzo Cotarella is always on hand when their joint American wines are being blended and major decisions are to be made.


The partnership’s decision to buy Stag’s Leap was an interesting one.  In spite all the talk in California of “family wineries,” few make it beyond the founding generation, as was the case with Winiarski’s winery, and a winery that is still family-owned after three generations is a rarity.  Yet, this purchase seemed to be more of a continuation of Winiarski’s work than of another faceless corporation milking a once-famous brand.  The wines show that.


Tasting Stag’s Leap three primary estate bottles – the S.L.V. and Fay single-vineyard releases and the Cask 23 blend – showed more of a continuation than a departure.  Yes, there have been tweaks in the vineyard and cellar, but lovers of Stag’s Leap should be pleased with the continued elegance of the wines while still showing distinctive fruit and considerable power.


The Col Solare Cabernet-heavy blend (the partnership gives considerable emphasis to Cab Franc as a component in the dominant Cab Sauv) seems more of a brother to Stag’s Leap than a distant cousin.  The not-yet-released 2011 vintage has elegance, too, but it also has more texture, density and earthiness. Gradually, it is becoming a 100% estate blend.


Finally, in addition to SMWE and Antinori being committed to producing well-made wines from the good to the great levels, they also believe in agritourism, both in the U.S. and Italy.  As a result, Stag’s Leap will be opening a new visitors’ center this summer, which will in time take its place among the religious shrines Napa Valley offers the world’s wine zealots on pilgrimage.


As all of us around the table understood, wine is more than a business.

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