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Stags Leap Wine Cellars' new visitor center honors visionary Nathan Fay

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In a tribute to pioneering grapegrower Nathan Fay, Stags Leap Wine Cellars has opened the Fay Outlook and Visitor Center, offering sweeping views of its lush vineyards and the Stags Leap palisades that help frame the historic estate along Silverado Trail east of Yountville.

The new $7 million visitor center — located next to the winery where vintner Warren Winiarski crafted the 1973 cabernet sauvignon that was judged the best cabernet at Steven Spurrier’s celebrated Paris tasting in 1976 — opened last week to curious locals and out-of-towners who enjoy and collect Stags Leap Wine Cellars portfolio wines.

Designed by world-renowned architect Javier Barba, the new center allows employees and visitors alike to celebrate a pair of historic estate vineyards, Fay and S.L.V. (Stags Leap Vineyard), along with the wines produced from them. They have several options for tours and tasting, the latter conducted inside the spacious new center or outside on wide decks that incorporate fire pits for after sunset rendezvous.

Calling the new center a “true jewel,” winery principal Ted Baseler, president/CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, said at last week’s grand opening ceremony that “there’s no question Stags Leap Wine Cellars is one of the world’s most highly regarded winery estates. We are delighted to open this incredible Fay Outlook and Visitor Center to give our customers a tasting experience worthy of the world-class wines being produced here and one that offers spectacular views of two of Napa Valley’s iconic cabernet vineyards.”

Baseler said the new visitor center had been part of “Warren’s vision” for the property, even though it required the removal of an acre of vines to do it.

Ste. Michelle and Italian vintner Piero Antinori teamed up in 2007 to acquire Stags Leap Wine Cellars. “We invested in technology, the vineyards and the cellar to continue to make the best wine in the Napa Valley,” Baseler added. For some 30 years, visitors to Stags Leap Wine Cellars were directed to a small tasting room just off Silverado Trail, he continued. “But it’s no longer fashionable to have a quaint tasting room. This is tasting room terroir,” he said, gesturing to the new center and its vistas.

Maintaining it was a project built with “love, passion and emotion,” Spanish architect Javier Barba created the design for the new visitor center to take advantage of the views of the estate vineyards and the palisades as the rocky hills and an attendant legend are central to the Stags Leap Wine Cellars story.

Using extensive glass in the design, the new space is bright with natural light. More importantly, Barba said, it also “allows visitors to witness the changes the seasons and climate have on our vines in a way that has never been seen before.”

Barba also designed and oversaw the building of the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Arcade, the Great Room and the Round Room in the wine caves — some 34,000 square feet, a four-year project that was completed in 2000. The new Fay Outlook and Visitor Center shares a similar contemporary look and uses materials that blend with the winery setting and elements from the land. Dan Macdonald of Daniel Macdonald AIA Architects, Inc., and landscape architect Sandra Reed of ZAC Landscape Architects brought Javier Barba’s vision to life.

The design team sourced the stone for this project from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars land so that visitors can appreciate the natural beauty of the earth occurring in the cliffs of the palisades up close. “Those rocks and these rocks are having a conversation,” Barba quipped.

Stags Leap Wine Cellars broke ground on the 6,000 square-foot visitor center in early July of 2013. The new center cost about $7 million to build; a financial commitment shared by the joint venture partnership of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Marchesi Antinori. Together, they purchased Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in August of 2007. The sale included the estate’s historic brand, the Napa Valley winery and its signature Napa Valley estate vineyards, S.L.V. and Fay.

In addition to Baseler and a host of wine industry notables, also attending the grand opening festivities last week were Warren and Barbara Winiarski (who founded the winery in 1970), General Manager Steve Spadarotto, winemaker Marcus Notaro, vintner neighbors John and Barbara Shafer, Steven Spurrier (who organized the 1976 Paris Tasting) and George M. Taber (who wrote the account of the Paris tasting for Time magazine and a subsequent book about the event).

The 1973 cabernet sauvignon, produced from the vineyard’s first commercial crop, stunned the wine world when it bested four top-ranked Bordeaux wines, including two First Growths, in a blind tasting held in Paris. At that time, California wines were considered curiosities, hardly in the same class as the best French wines. This seismic event has been described by wine writers as “sparking a staggering revolution in vineyard technology,” “a major turning point in consumers’ attitudes,” and “a moment that shook the global wine establishment to its roots.”

With a twinkle in his eye, Winiarski recalled purchasing the treasured S.L.V. vineyard from farmer Fred Heid. “it was a prune orchard turned into a vineyard (whose fruit) ended up in Paris,” he reminded those present at the celebration. “Never underestimate what you can do with a prune orchard.”

Marcus Notaro, a seasoned cabernet sauvignon specialist, was named winemaker at Stags Leap Wine Cellars in May of 2013. Now in his second harvest at the winery, Notaro says his “wine style is in line with the tradition at Stags Leap Wine Cellars, which favors balance and complexity, richness and elegance while capturing the unique characteristics of the vineyard.”

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