Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, one of Napa Valley’s renowned producers, celebrates its 50th Anniversary this year. Founded in 1970 by Warren Winiarski with his purchase of orchard land in what’s now the Stags Leap District AVA in southeastern Napa Valley, the estate started out planting cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes.
Just six years later, the winery brought international recognition to California winemaking and the Napa Valley when the 1973 Stag’s Leap cabernet sauvignon won the now-famous Paris Tasting, also known as the “Judgment of Paris.” Stag’s Leap winemaker Marcus Notaro and Steven Spurrier, the British wine expert/former merchant behind the Judgment of Paris, discussed the winery’s 50-year history and the stunning 1976 victory during a Zoom event on July 18.
How did the historic Judgment of Paris come about? Spurrier and his American partner, Patricia Gallagher, were looking for recognition for California wines. No one was giving wine tastings in the mid-1970s; he recalled; they were just selling. So he and Gallagher decided to assemble nine of the best palates in France for a tasting that pitted some of the best French wines against new, unknown California bottles.
Concerned that the French judges would “damn [the California wines] with faint praise,” Spurrier decided to do a blind tasting. Stag’s Leap came out on top of the reds, while California’s Chateau Montelena won the whites with its 1973 chardonnay. “I think they voted for Stag’s Leap because they thought it was French,” Spurrier said.
The Judgment of Paris put Stag’s Leap, Chateau Montelena and California wine in general on the map, Spurrier said. The blind competition created a template whereby little-known wines of quality could be compared against well-known wines of quality, he added. “I was very lucky to be the person who was behind it.”
What does Spurrier see as the most exciting development in wine today? The interest in “indigenous grape varieties that speak to the sense of place,” he noted. Winemaking hasn’t changed, but there have been key developments in vineyard management, he said.
Notaro, who joined Stag’s Leap in May 2013—six years after it was acquired by Chateau Ste. Michelle and Marchesi Antinori—agreed: “The grape vines are much healthier.” Winemakers today have so much more to choose from in terms of different yeasts and tools, “but it still goes back to farming,” he said. Pick the grapes when they are exactly ripe, “and make the best wine that you can that expresses the region in which the grapes were grown.”