Stags' Leap Winery - One Valuable Apostrophe

Stags’ Leap Winery, located in the Stags Leap American Viticultural Area (AVA) is not far away from the similarly named Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, which produced the most famous Stags Leap wine that you’ve probably ever heard of — the Cabernet Sauvignon that won the famous Paris Tasting in 1976. But who’s who and how can a name — Stags Leap — be used in so many ways? And what’s the deal with the shifting apostrophe?

In what has been called the “most expensive apostrophe in history,” the battle for who had the right to use Stags Leap on their wine label began in the 1970s but did not end officially until 1989, when the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (TTB) designated the fourth Napa Valley AVA that they called simply Stags Leap, dropping the apostrophe altogether.

Years earlier, three vintner neighbors — Warren Winiarski, Carl Doumani and Gary Andrus had spent years and small fortunes in legal battles to secure the name for their own use. In the end, each vintner was given the right to use the name but with differing uses of a humble apostrophe. A Cabernet Sauvignon from Winiarski’s famous Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars might sit on a store’s shelf that also held Doumani’s Stags’ Leap (each with surprisingly similar labels) that were both only inches away from Andrus’ Pine Ridge Stags Leap wines. Today, because of the TTB designation, any wine that contains 85 percent of grapes grown in the AVA can also have “Stags Leap” listed on the label.

The value of a name

Why would these three vintners care so much about the name Stags Leap? Partially it must have been about bragging rights: Doumani purchased his property in 1970, but the original owner was the first to call the area Stags Leap as far back as the late 1880s.

Winiarsk had purchased the first Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard in the area in 1972 (planted by Nathan Fay in 1961) and had made a wine that won the Paris award that put the viticultural area (and the entire Napa Valley) on the world stage.

Andrus had moved to the area in 1978, believing he might someday use the area’s name to help sell his wine. What all of these individuals knew was that the name was exceptionally valuable. How valuable?

In 1997, Stags’ Leap Winery was sold by Dumani for than $20 million to Beringer Wine Estates (owned by Nestlés), which was, in turn, purchased a few years after by the Australian Foster's Group that then spun it — and many other wineries — out into what is now known as Treasury Wine Estates.

Around 2000, Andrus sold Pine Ridge to Leucadia National Corp for an undisclosed sum. Within a few years, Leucadia had added more wineries to its portfolio and then spun the collection of wine producers off to their shareholders into a company now called the Crimson Wine Group.

Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars was sold in 2007 for $185 million to joint owners Chateau Ste. Michelle of Woodinville, Washington; Marchesi Antinori of Italy and the conglomerate Altria tobacco/food (formally Philip Morris Cos. Inc., maker of Marlboro brand of cigarettes and Copenhagen and Skoal brands of chewing tobacco).

Stags’ Leap Winery: a 125-year history

Whereas the current owners of Stags’ Leap talk about this being its 125th anniversary of winemaking, that wine has not been made on the property continuously for 125 years, although grapes may have been grown and sold during that time.

The first wine made on the property was in 1893, when then-owner Horace Chase, a Chicago businessman, built a summer home and winery. Twenty years later, the Chase ranch was sold.

Prohibition ended winery operations, and the property continued to evolve, functioning at times as a speakeasy, a hotel, a post office (a framed envelope with a Stags Leap postmark can be found at the winery) and a retreat for U.S. Navy officers during World War II.

Later, its renovated grounds could be seen on the TV show “Falcon Crest” (also filmed at Napa’s Spring Mountain Winery) and in movies such as Disney’s 1906 “Pollyanna” and the 1991 film “Dying Young” that starred Julia Roberts.

But before the Hollywood crews arrived, the entire site needed to be renovated.

“The Stags’ Leap Manor had been boarded up and abandoned 13 years before I bought the property in 1970,” Doumani said. “Originally, our intention was to reopen it as an inn, but we’d always known we’d also make wine — as a way to keep the long tradition alive.”

According to Doumani, he paid $525,000 for the property, which might have seemed expensive at the time but in hindsight seems a steal for 400 acres of historic Napa Valley land, 120 of which had been planted in vineyards, a manor house and half a dozen outbuildings and a hand-dug wine cave that dated back to the late 1800s. But there was work to be done.

“The manor needed extensive renovation and many of the vineyards were in rough shape and needed to be replanted,” he said. “But we kept some of the oldest vines, including five acres of Petite Sirah and ‘mixed blacks’ that had been planted sometime in the late 1920s.”

Ne Cede Malis Vineyard

The vineyard that Doumani kept remains today, still with its twisted and gnarled head-trained vines that he thought were just “too beautiful” and “historic” to be discarded. Today, the vineyard is referred to as “Ne Cede Malis,” a Latin phrase found etched in one of the manor’s stained-glass tasting-room windows.

The full phrase, “ Tu ne cede malis, sed contra audentior ito,” originated from the Roman poet Virgil. The oft-quoted admonition is translated into English as “ Yield not to misfortunes (sometimes translated to ‘evil’), but advance all the more boldly against them.”

Written more than 2,000 years ago, the quote originates from Book 6 of “The Aeneid,” “The Descent to the Underworld.” The story begins when Trojan War hero Aeneas dreams of his deceased father. The visiting spirit instructs his son to journey into the underworld to learn the future fate of his people.

But as is the case of all epic tales, the hero must first complete a series of difficult tasks before achieving his quest. Prior to the journey, Aeneas consults with an oracle, the Sibyl, where he learns he’ll need a golden tree bough to gain safe access into the dark and dangerous netherworld. Aided by his mother, Venus, the hero finds the golden branch and is able to cross the Stygian river and enter the underworld. Avoiding a three-headed dog and many tortured souls, Aeneas eventually speaks to his ghost-like father, who tells him of Rome’s grand future.

A vineyard’s journey

Aeneas’ tale is appropriate for this vineyard because it has had its own epic journey. Originally planted at the end of Prohibition, the five acres is composed of up to 15 different Rhône wine grape varietals but remains primarily planted with about 85 percent Petite Sirah. Having survived economic downturns, wars, neglect and numerous owners, the small vineyard has remained, today being one of a dwindling handful of such vineyards throughout the valley.

“For all my wines, I am not trying to make something that reflects me but instead reflects the fruit and the place — and that is nowhere more important than in Ne Cede Malis,” said Christophe Pauber, Stags’ Leap’s senior winemaker. “I think that sometimes people use the fruit to serve themselves, but I believe that the winemaker’s job is to do exactly the opposite.”

Explaining how the vineyard is “bathed” in cooler air that is drawn in from the San Pablo Bay as the nearby rocky “palisade” cliffs warm throughout the day, Pauber explains that the geology and soil complement the winemaking techniques.

“The soils in all the vineyards are rocky and rich with iron, which is good for drainage and the plants’ metabolism,” he said. “For the Ne Cede Malis vineyard we also pick the grapes and co-ferment them together — the result can be spectacular.”

Field-blend wine

According to Pauber, back in the 1980s UC Davis conducted DNA tests to determine what varietals existed in the Ne Cede Malis vineyard. They found nearly 15 mostly Rhône varietals, including Petite Sirah, Carignane, Mourvedre, Grenache, Peloursin, Syrah, and even Muscat and Sauvignon Blanc, among others.

Back in the early days of the Napa Valley, many vineyards had been planted in what was a common approach in Italy and France. Called field-blend vineyards, growers would plant a blend of grapes that might be made into their own special and distinct wine, which is comparable to how a farmer might grow a collection of lettuces to make a Mesclun mix. But today, these types of vineyards are exceptionally rare.

Most winemakers of today are interested in consistency and picking grapes at the peak of their ripeness. However, in a field-blend vineyard this is nearly impossible. Each variety ripens at a different rate and each different vine requires its own type of special farming and winemaking technique. In these vineyards, that type of control is stripped away and the result can be wonderful — a natural and non-reproducible expression of a single place.

Although Stags’ Leap Winery makes many very good wines, it is the Ne Cede Malis ($125 per bottle and a limited number of cases) that is the showstopper. The wine is thick in the glass with a lavender-black color. The aromas are of earth, blue flowers, smoky sage, star anise and rum cake. In the mouth the wine is layered and rich with soft-grained tannins and flavors of blackberry compote, black raspberry Chambord, cracked pepper, cardamom and echoes of roasted French Passover lamb (“le gigot d’agneau Pascal”).

Still young, this 2015 wine will benefit from time in the cellar. It, like the vineyard’s namesake hero, is on a journey, each step full of its own challenges. Each of those who have stopped for a time — owners or visitors — may have walked away a little bit changed, having had the chance to reflect on what time may reveal.

Originally published in the Napa Register, December 2018