Ye builders of appellations beware. The bell tolls for thee.
Washington State corporation Ste. Michelle has joined forces with rapacious Italian giant Antinori to assimilate Napa Valley collectible Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, following in the footsteps of another appellation pioneer, Carneros Creek Winery, swallowed up just a year ago year, while a third namesake winery, Dry Creek Vineyards, struggles against insolvency to maintain independence.
In my view, these three groundbreaking enterprises sewed the seeds of their own destruction a third of a century ago by adopting and then building the fame of their respective districts as purloinable brands up for grabs. A decade later, Roy Disney and Don Carano confidently invested entertainment dollars from Anaheim and Reno to build opulent, well-appointed competition right next door which benefited through the mechanism of appellation from every success of their famous neighbors.
In 1976, all that your typical wine connoisseur knew about Stag’s Leap was the fine tannins and unique blueberry aromas we got from Warren Winiarski, fresh from his triumph over Bordeaux at the Paris Academie du Vin. Highway 29 winery row started in Oakville, where Robert Mondavi had a decade earlier broken with common wisdom to plant grapes south of everyone else in the supposedly chilly southern Valley.
If Stag’s Leap was considered too cold for grapes, Carneros was impossibly frozen tundra. That is, until Francis Mahoney’s brilliant clonal investigations paved the way for Pinot Noir to supplant pastures for grazing sheep throughout the region. Shown the light, Transamerica-spawned Sterling Vineyards snapped up neighboring Winery Lake in 1979, and the land rush was on.
Meanwhile, M.I.T. grad Dave Stare studiously explored the potential of his remote, hippie-infested valley for brash but stylish zinfandels and weedy-but-complex fumé blanc. Today the road from Healdsburg contains many other distractions, so tourists aren’t as thick at Dry Creek as they once were, and a 2005 SF Chronicle tasting examined 50 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandels. Stare’s wasn’t in the Top Ten. So it goes. As Schramsberg founder Jack Davies told me in 1980, "Knocking 'em dead is a dyin' art."
Crazy Warren, crazy Frank, crazy Dave. I wonder where they’d be today if they’d just named their fledgling enterprises Winiarski Winery, Chateau Mahoney and Stare Cellars. Life might not be any easier, but I’ll bet these three bravehearts would still be hard at work exploring how to get the best from their terroir.