Stags Leap Through the Looking Glass

This week I’m reporting on my research expedition to Napa Valley, where I attended the Stags Leap District Winegrowers Association Vineyard to Vintner’s (V2V) event and ventured “through the looking glass” to consider the past, present and future of wine.

My last post ended with a question: Stags Leap was still an emerging region when I visited in 1980, but it was already attracting a great deal of attention and international investment. Would the influx of big money into the Stags Leap District destroy its great wines or would the terroirists managed to save them? Here’s what I found out.

Follow the Money

The big money certainly arrived and you can see it today in the wonderful facilities that the wineries have created.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars was a tiny one-building operation when I visited there 30 years ago. Now that original structure with its oak doors is Building 1 on an expanded campus of facilities that includes a vast arched barrel room and a network of tunnels for barrel storage (I’ve heard these called wunnels — wine tunnels). Everything is sleek and custom made for entertaining clients and visitors as well as making wine.

The barrel room at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars is gently curved like a barrel stave. The barrels are stacked five deep.

Warren Winiarski is responsible for these changes, but he doesn’t own Stag’s Leap any more. He sold out in 2007 to Italy’s Antinori family. I’ve read that he figured he could trust the Antinori to uphold his vision of wine.

The Antinori partnered with Ste Michelle Wine Estates (SMWE) of Washington State, who they trusted because of their successful joint venture on Red Mountain, Col Solare. (SMWE is owned by Altria, a corporation that also owns Phillip Morris and U.S. Smokeless Tobacco.)

Changing Hands

Stag’s Leap is not the only winery in the district to be acquired big business. Chimney Rock is now owned by The Terlato Wine Group, a company that owns several notable U.S. wineries and is a major force in wine distribution (they represent Gaja and Santa Margherita wines from Italy, for example).

Pine Ridge Winery, which produced its first vintage in 1978,  was acquired by the Leucadia National Corporation in 1991, which also owns Archery Summit in Oregon but is is best understood as a diversified holding company investing in manufacturing, telecommunications, oil and gas drilling gaming, entertainment and real estate activities.

So the big money did in fact come to Stags Leap and the many of the wineries they created are rather grand – as far from the simple cellar that I visited 30 years ago as can be imagined.

The Economic Factor

Dinner at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars

Economics dictated the large scale and luxurious feel of many of today’s Stags Leap District wineries. Winemaking is capital intensive, so it is important to produce in volume. Stags Leap AVA Cabernet Sauvignon (necessarily limited in supply by the AVA’s tiny size) is often therefore produced alongside higher volume “Napa Valley” wines, for example, and Chardonnays from Carneros grapes in order to get volumes up to an economic level. Nothing wrong with that.

The plush feel of the wineries themselves, with plenty of space for entertaining, events and on-site culinary staff, is a product of the practicalities of distribution. Direct sales – to cellar visitors and wine club members – yield more revenue than restaurant and retail sales that must make their way through the tortuous and costly three-tier distribution system. So it is important to build and establish direct-sale personal relationships and to provide appropriate winery facilities.

One winery’s wine club manager told me that nearly 70% of sales came through this direct channel. Wow! That’s a lot of revenue and worth a substantial investment. So it is important to both make good wine and to create a memorable winery experience. Understandable.

But what happens to the wine in the process? Is there so much focus on image and marketing that the wines themselves are an afterthought?

The Mondovino hypothesis

My answer, based on an intense weekend in Stags Leap, is that it ain’t necessarily so. Sure, we tasted a couple of wines (I won’t name the makers) that seemed like they were made to catch the attention of critics more than to capture a sense of place, but for the most part the wines we sampled seemed to be authentic variations on a Stags Leap theme. And the winemakers we talked to spoke with conviction of wine made in the vineyard, not the advertising agency.

Can big multinational money coexist with an authentic idea of wine? Yes, at least in Stags Leap. (Robert Parker goes further — he seems to think that the Antinori/Ste Michelle money and technical attention might actually restore the  faded — according to him — glory of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.)

So the way I framed my question — money, business and globalization versus terroir — was plain wrong. Money, marketing and multinationals doesn’t guarantee great wine, but it doesn’t make it impossible, either. Wine is too complicated for that.

The pessimistic Mondovino hypothesis that the wine business inevitably destroys wine itself doesn’t always hold. I’m not saying this is true everywhere, but I am quite sure that the somewhereness of Stags Leap has survived these 30 years.

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Thanks to the Stags Leap District Growers Association for inviting us to attend the Vineyard to Vintner program. Thanks as well to Russell Weiss (Silverado), Mark Smith and Jim Duane (Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars), Elizabeth Vianna (Chimney Rock), Tim Dolven (Steltzner), Jeff Virnig (Robert Sinskey) and Michael Beaulac (Pine Ridge) conversations and help in various ways.

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