Judgement Day

Stags’ Leap Winery made history in 1976. Taste some of the fruits of the vineyard’s bounty.

By Irene Moore

In 1976, in honor of the American Bicentennial, Steven Spurrier, a wine-shop owner in Paris, organized a blind tasting — pitting renowned reds from Bordeaux and whites from Burgundy against Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays from California.

Although the tasting began as a publicity stunt, two American wines — red and white — placed first, and the event took on unexpected significance. The “Judgment of Paris” was a triumph for California winemakers.

The 1973 Stags’ Leap Wine Cellars’ Cabernet Sauvignon won first place, beating out the French Bordeaux. One of the Napa Valley’s earliest wine estates, its unique terroir and ideal microclimate support the area’s classical winemaking techniques. (The other winner was a 1973 Chardonnay from Napa Valley’s Chateau Montelena, which placed first — ahead of the best French white Burgundies.)

In May, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is commemorating the 40th anniversary of the “Judgment of Paris” winetasting competition.

In 1996, on the 20th anniversary of the tasting, the museum collected bottles of the two winning vintages, which are now on display in the “FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950–2000” exhibition in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, this year, Stags’ Leap Winery celebrates 100 years. Located in Napa Valley’s Stags Leap District, it is a place of natural beauty, with picturesque wine estates, a lively history, and a reputation for elegant wines showing finesse and intensity. Here are five of our favorites.

THE REDS

judgement-day12012 STAGS’ LEAP WINE CELLARS CASK 23 CABERNET SAUVIGNON: Cask 23, a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Stags’ Leap Wine Cellars Estate Collection, is among the most highly regarded and collected Cabernet Sauvignons, worldwide. It’s a harmonious blend of grapes from two Stags’ Leap Estate vineyards, combining the signature perfume notes of the FAY vineyard with the structure and minerality of the S.L.V. — Stags’ Leap Vineyard — which was the initial vineyard owned by the estate. This vineyard was the source of the grapes that produced the wine that won the 1976 Judgment of Paris. This Cabernet Sauvignon shows the same finesse and intensity as that first-place winner, opening with aromas of black cherry, dark plum, espresso, and spice. On the palate it expands, coating the whole mouth with rich fruit, full and sweet tannins, and lingering flavors — mocha and black tea. $350, 750 ml.

2011 SHAFER HILLSIDE SELECT CABERNET SAUVIGNON:judgement-day3 Recognized by wine collectors as one of the world’s best and most sought-after wines, this Cabernet Sauvignon is a “wine of a place” — sourced from hillside vineyards in the heart of the Stags Leap District. It expresses the voluptuous fruit, rich flavors, and velvety texture that characterize grapes grown in this famous AVA (American Viticultural Area). The wine is aged four years prior to release — three years in oak barrels and 15 months in the bottle — giving it vibrancy, along with the richness of aging. Ripe and refined tannins hold out the promise that this vintage will gain richness and maturity with up to 20 years of careful cellaring. $250, 750 ml.

judgement-day42013 SHAFER MERLOT: 2013 was a classic Napa Valley vintage filled with warm, sunny days and perfect, chilly nights from spring through early autumn. The consistency of heat and coolness created an ideal growing season, resulting in an ideal vintage with fruit harvested at ideal ripeness and brimming with rich color and flavor. This much-praised Merlot blend — with eight percent Cabernet Sauvignon and eight percent Malbec — is fragrant, bright, and fresh, with rich, enticing aromas and flavors of briar fruit jam, black currant, black-cherry, sage, herbs, red berries, and vanilla, wrapping up with a long, vibrant finish. $55, 750 ml.

THE WHITES

judgement-day22013 PINE RIDGE LE PETIT CLOS CHARDONNAY: Le Petit Clos, “The Little Enclosure,” is tucked away on a northeastern-facing hillside on the Pine Ridge Estate. This very special two-acre block is cultivated to produce one of the only Chardonnays planted in the Stags Leap District. Le Petit Clos is sheltered from the heat in the shade of the pines, with afternoon breezes that course into this small canyon behind the winery. A slightly cooler microclimate is created, resulting in low-yield fruit with luscious, intense flavors. The 1973 Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena, which placed first ahead of the best French white Burgundies, was produced in Calistoga, a different Napa Valley AVA. It is, however, known for the same intense concentration on the palate as Le Petis Clos, with bright acidity and layers of citrus. $75, 750 ml.

judgement-day52013 SHAFER RED SHOULDER RANCH CHARDONNAY: The 20th vintage of this wine makes it an exciting milestone for Shafer. Based in the Stags Leap District, the winery produces this Chardonnay from small-clustered clones of grapes grown in their vineyard in Carneros — another Napa Valley AVA — which are selected for their low yields and distinctive flavors. The cool, long, steady growing season provides the ideal spot for growing the exotic flavors in this wine, resulting in brightness, richness, and complexity. It has citrus-flower aromas, juicy fruit flavors of apricot, red, and green apple, honeysuckle, kiwi, pineapple, Meyer lemon zest, and vanilla, with a touch of minerality and lively acidity. $52, 750 ml.

Stags Leap District wines not only have regional character, but also a classic character that goes back in history. The appellation and its wines resonate with life, culture, and food and continue to be appreciated by the wine-loving world.

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