When Ted Baseler, president and CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, first visited Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars long ago, he was struck by the small visitors’ center. “I thought, ‘This is quaint,’” he recalls.
In 2007, when his company acquired the famed winery, he visited again. “It seemed even more quaint, hardly representative of a winery of its statute.”
He resolved to do something about it, and Monday he and Piero Antinori of the Marchesi Antinori wine empire, which shares ownership of the winery, unveiled plans for a visitor center worthy of a winery whose wine changed the world’s perception of California and Napa wines.
The site is already prepared for a grand new entrance to the winery and a new visitor center overlooking the Stags Leap pinnacles that frame the winery’s Fay and S.L.V. Vineyards.
At Monday’s ceremony, Baseler and Antinori were joined by Barcelona-based architect Javier Barba, who previously worked with the winery, and local architect Dan Macdonald to unveil plans for the new 6,000-square-foot Visitor Center.
The new center should be completed during the 2014 harvest. The existing building and an adjoining small structure will be removed at that time.
Baseler said, “When we purchased the winery in 2007 in partnership with Marchesi Antinori, our focus was on enhancing the quality of the wines and preserving the legacy of this benchmark producer. We have been investing in every aspect of the winery including enhanced temperature control in the cellar and technology like the Mistral berry sorting system, as well as undergoing vineyard replanting … we believe it’s time to continue our investment in the winery and to Napa Valley by giving our customers a tasting experience that matches the world-class wines being produced.”
Antinori commented that all over the world, wine lovers are seeking to extend their knowledge of wine beyond the printed word and the Internet to experiences. “You’ve had it here in Napa, and now it’s happening in the rest of the world,” he said, adding that Antinori has also been expanding its visitor facilities in Tuscany.
The design will use local stone and glass to reflect its environment.
The stone for the project will come from the property so visitors can appreciate the natural beauty of the earth occurring in the cliffs of the palisades up close.
Using glass prominently in the design for natural light also allows visitors to witness the changes the seasons and climate have on the vines.
Barba also designed the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Arcade, the Great Room and the Round Room in the wine caves, a four-year project that was completed in 2000.
Dan Macdonald of Daniel Macdonald AIA Architects, Inc., of Novato, and landscape architect Sandra Reed are implementing Barba’s vision locally.
The new visitor center will cost approximately $7 million to build. The financial commitment will be shared by the joint venture partnership of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Marchesi Antinori. They bought Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in August 2007 for $187 million, with Antinori acquiring a 15 percent stake but the partners sharing equally in winemaking.
Following the unveiling, local wine buyers, sommeliers and other guests enjoyed a tasting of five vintages of S.L.V. Cabernet starting with the 1983, a decade after the vineyard’s first commercial wine, which stunned the world when it beat four top-ranked Bordeaux wines, including two first growths, in a blind tasting held in Paris in 1976.
The wines, which have aged well, included the 2007 vintage, the first influenced by the Ste. Michelle-Antinori partnership. Officiating at the tasting were Renzo Cotarella, Antinori’s long-time chief enologist and virtual chief operating officer, along with new winemaker Marco Notaro, who came from the Ste. Michelle-Antinori partnership Col Solare winery on Washington’s Red Mountain and Kirk Grace, the winery’s viticulturist.
Cotarella, who also overseas Antinori’s Antica Winery in Atlas Peak, commented that the wines are distinctive, ranging from rich and hearty to silky and easy. “They’re elegant and refined, but age well.”
In addition to the S.L.V. and Fay cabernets, the winery produces a blend of the best of both called Cask 23.
The 2008 vintage marked the first wines crafted from bud break to bottle by the partnership.Cotarella noted that the newer show a stylistic enhancement to even more upfront fruit character and sense of place, but without excessive alcohol. “None are made from overripe fruit,” noted Cotarella. “None are over 14.5 percent,” he added to long-time wine expert and merchant Darrell Corti’s acclaim.
Corti and some other observers accuse some expensive Napa Valley wines of being excessively alcoholic, and he does sell such wines in his destination Sacramento store.
The guests also tasted the 2010 wines. Interestingly, the winery didn’t make a Cask 23 wine in 20111, a particularly difficult year in the valley, but the wines from 2010, another challenging year, exhibited refined winemaking to compensate.
Ste. Michelle also owns Conn Creek Winery in St. Helena, as well as Erath Vineyards in Oregon and Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, Northstar and other brands in Washington.