Another WAwineman classic, 1st posted on Sept. 8, 2010:
While Washington State may have its irreverent characters and competing AVAs (which subjectively add to the “flavor” of drinking the wines from such entities), none have matched the storied history of the Stags Leap area within the Napa Valley AVA, and equally, its two original characters.
Warren Winiarski, 82, formerly a political science lecturer at the University of Chicago (and also spent a year of study in Naples, Italy where he first fell in love with wine), uprooted his family in 1964 and drove to the Napa area to learn winemaking while apprenticing at Souverain Cellars with Lee Stewart, then as assistant winemaker at a new winery called Robert Mondavi Winery. His sentinel wine came in 1969, after tasting Nathan Fay’s homemade 1968 cabernet sauvignon. Caressed by the hands of fate, he purchased an adjacent ranch that was for sale, then followed with purchasing the vineyard of that ’68 cab, which is known today as S.L.V. (Stag’s Leap Vineyard). In 1972, the Winiarskis purchased a nearby winery site and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars was established.
His estate cabernet grapes from the 1973 vintage became the source of America’s most celebrated and immortalized wine EVER when it was entered, along with other selected California wines, in a blind tasting competition of chardonnay and cabernet sauvignons against some of the best French wines on May 24, 1976 in Paris. The California premium wine industry was in its infancy, whereas the French wines were in full stride, fully recovered from the Phylloxera blight of a hundred years previous. While no one gave the Californians a glimmer of hope, the real purpose of the competition was to introduce this “New World” of wine crafting to the “mother country” of fine wines and compare quality.
The eleven European judges graded six California cabs, two second-growth and two first-growth French wines. The resulting average scores, based on a 20-point scale, gave 1st place to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 S.L.V. cabernet by five-hundredths of a point over Château Mouton-Rothschild (vintage 1970). Fyi, in the chardonnay category, a 1973 Chateau Montelena beat out a 1973 Meursault Charmes Roulot for top honor, and American wineries also occupied both 3rd and 4th places. George Taber, of Time magazine, was the only media journalist who witnessed this historical event and immediately reported the findings and sent shockwaves through the wine world. Winiarski was quoted as saying, “Afterwards I received several letters from members of the French wine industry saying that the queer results of the 1976 tasting were a fluke. In essence, their letters argued that ‘everyone knows’ French wines are better than California wines ‘in principle’ and always will be.”
Carl Doumani, 77, grew up in Los Angeles and scratched a decent living as owner of Duke’s Barbecue, near UCLA. In 1970, Carl was invited by a friend to attend his friend’s wedding reception in Napa. After a weekend of drinking Schramsberg sparklers while staying at Meadowood, he was about to purchase a 10-acre home site there until realtor Ned Smith introduced Carl to a sprawling 400-acre estate that was originally settled by Horace Chase in 1892 and included a long-ceased operating winery (established in 1893). He restarted the winery under the original name, Stags’ Leap Winery, in 1972.
Look up “rugged individualism” in the book and the term will be defined as “see Carl Doumani.” This is the man who lit up a cigar in the French Laundry (before Thomas Keller purchased it in 1994). While at the time, smoking was still legal in California restaurants; however, it was against the restaurant’s policy. A woman at the bar complained to the owner, Don Schmitt, and it was Don, implementing skillful tact with a regular customer in Carl, who did as the lady ordered and “talked” to Carl. Carl responded loudly with “If you speak to the lady about that obnoxious perfume of hers, I’ll put out my cigar.” When the lady left the bar, she passed by Carl and whacked him with her loaded purse that literally floored Carl. “My glasses went flying. But I was laughing so hard I couldn’t get up,” he recounted.
As further evidence, Carl got fed up and quit the Napa Valley Vintners Association and formed the Gastronomic Order of the Nonsensical and Dissipatory (GONADS), which is still active today.
While cleaning up his land, he got into an argument over a fence with neighbor Warren Winiarski and ended up in litigation. After the Judgment of Paris proceedings, Warren felt that his winery’s name needed protection from the sudden fame he achieved with his wines and promptly sued Carl for trademark infringement, claiming “first use” of the Stags Leap name. Carl countersued, claiming his winery had first rights, dating back to the last century. After many duels, appealed decisions, and over $100,000 spent by each warrior, in 1986, the matter was settled with Winiarski owning the rights to the placement of the apostrophe before the ‘s’ (Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars) and Doumani owning the rights to after the ‘s’ (Stags’ Leap Winery). The two celebrated by taking a vacation together with their families, and releasing a 1985 cabernet fancifully named “Accord”, comprising a 50-50 blend from each winery.
As fate has a sense of humor, the two later were on the same side protesting the petition for the Stags Leap District AVA, claiming it would dilute their brand names. They ended up losing and the new AVA became the first AVA approved based on its unique soil characteristics.
Warren sold his winery to US Tobacco Inc. and Marchese Piero Antinori for $185 million in 2007. Carl sold his winery (and most of his land) in 1997 to Beringer Wine Estates, which was bought out by Foster’s Group of Australia. Carl has since started his own winery, Quixote, along with a second label—Panza. Carl’s Stags’ Leap Ranch estate vineyard was planted in 1996 with help from John Shafer of Shafer Vineyards, the man who led the successful approval of the Stags Leap District AVA (approved Jan, 27, 1989, 1350 acres planted out of 2700 acres).
So knowing this, it was a no-brainer for me when I saw this wine go on sale at Costco recently. Costco has been rolling out several wines from the Napa Valley area (and other California appellations) under its Kirkland Signature brand that is bottled by DC Flynt MW Selections. History sold me on this bottle, and at a fair price.
Tasted at 53-60 degrees on the IR gun. Color: youthful dark violet. Nose: Choward’s Violet candy, ripe blackberries, dark chocolate. Mouthfeel: medium. Tail trail: 5 seconds. Flavors: slippery black plum and black cherry chased by semi-polished tannins. Focused profile but lacking depth and finesse. Food pairings were: (day 0) McDonald’s Extra Value Meal number 2 and (day 1) pork cutlet and Trader Joe’s dark chocolate-covered raisins (best). The wine brought out some weird sweetness in the quarter-pounder hamburger. Do not attempt to recreate.
Alcohol: 14.3%. DC Flynt Wine Selections. Stags Leap District AVA. Rated: 89. Value: $17. Paid: $18. Music pairing: “To Know Him Is To Love Him” by the Teddy Bears. This is WAwineman…uncorked, uneducated but not uncouth.