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Marcus Notaro builds Red Mountain-Napa Valley connection
Three years ago, Marcus Notaro made the jump from Col Solare to Stag’s Leap – all without changing employers. Both wineries are co-owned by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in Woodinville, Wash., and Marchesi Antinori in Florence, Italy.
While Col Solare focuses primarily on producing a few thousand cases of one wine, Stag’s Leap is a 150,000-case winery, including about 14,000 cases of high-end estate wines.
We recently caught up with Notaro while he was tasting wine in nearby Sonoma, so we sat down to chat about his life in California and what some of the differences are between Napa Valley and Washington’s Columbia Valley.
Here’s the interview:
From Columbia Crest to Col Solare to Stag’s Leap
Notaro was born in New York, grew up in Connecticut until his family moved to Los Angeles, then ended up in Seattle when he was 10 years old. While finishing up his engineering degree at the University of Washington, Notaro landed a part-time job pouring wine in the tasting room at Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville.
It was an opportunity that changed the direction in his life.
“It was a great college job,” Notaro said with a smile. “You got a great discount, and you got a chance to taste some great wine.”
Notaro grew up in a home surrounded by wine. His father was a home winemaker, so he was used to having it around. But he hadn’t planned on turning it into a career. However, at Ste. Michelle, he began to understand a little bit about such winemaking tools as yeast and barrels, and that piqued his interest.
In 1994, he took a job across the state at Columbia Crest in the Horse Heaven Hills community of Paterson. By 1995, a job came open in the Crest lab, and he took it.
“That was an entry-level way to get into winemaking,” he said.
In 1996, he was joined by Darel Allwine, an Air Force veteran who answered a newspaper ad for a job opening in the Columbia Crest cellar. The two became fast friends and colleagues. Both were on the winemaking team through the 2005 vintage, by which time Notaro had been promoted to red winemaker under head winemaker Ray Einberger. Notaro and Allwine played an early role in the now legendary Columbia Crest 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which was named No. 1 wine in the world in 2009 by Wine Spectator magazine.
In 2006, Col Solare opened on Red Mountain. It was a winery that began a decade earlier as a collaboration between Ste. Michelle and Antinori, with the wines always made at other facilities. But now it had a home near the top of Red Mountain, a warm ridge in the eastern Yakima Valley. The road that goes from the highway to the winery is called Antinori Road.
That year, Notaro and Allwine moved to Col Solare, with Notaro named head winemaker. He worked closely with Doug Gore, Ste. Michelle’s vice president for winemaking, and Renzo Cotarella, director of winemaking for Antinori in Italy.
“The fun part of Col Solare was seeing how it evolved,” Notaro said.
Early on, it used grapes from throughout the vast Columbia Valley, but since its arrival to Red Mountain a decade ago, the focus has narrowed to that 4,040-acre American Viticultural Area. Today, all Col Solare wines carry “Red Mountain” on the label.
“I loved working on that wine,” he said.
In May 2013, Notaro took over as head winemaker for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in the Stags Leap District of Napa Valley.
“It’s an iconic Napa Valley winery,” he said. “It has a great history. The wines themselves are legendary, but so is the growing region.”
Marcus Notaro takes over at Stag’s Leap
Warren Winiarski launched Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in 1970, planted Cabernet Sauvignon and made his first vintage of Cab in 1972. The 1973 Stag’s Leap Vineyard (SLV) Cab was the first that was commercially big enough to sell.
It was entered in the 1976 Judgment of Paris, a blind tasting that pitted Cabs and Chardonnays from upstart California against great red Bordeaux and white Burgundys. To France’s horror and America’s delight, California wines won the day. Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay was the top white, and Stag’s Leap’s 1973 Cab was the best red.
Forty years ago, the Judgment of Paris was responsible for the rise of California and – by extension – American wine. Forty years later, the tasting remains a relevant part of the history of Napa Valley, and it is being honored.
“We’ve been doing several things to celebrate it,” Notaro said.
On May 16, Stag’s Leap will take part in a special dinner at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., to mark the 40th anniversary. This spring, Notaro and the winemaker for Chateau Montelena have been doing a series of tastings together of various older vintages from both wineries.
In June, one bottle of each 1973 wine will be part of Auction Napa Valley. In Chateau Montelena’s case, one of the nine remaining bottles of the winning Chardonnay will be a separate lot.
Notaro said a couple of cases of the ’73 Cab are still locked up at the winery. He doesn’t know the combination, but he has tasted the legendary wine a couple of times, including a month ago at Flavor! Napa Valley.
“A consumer brought a bottle, and we opened it,” Notaro said. “This one was particularly good. It still had a fresh nose to it. The aromas lasted a good hour or so before they started to fade away.”
Two wineries, two continents
As was the case at Col Solare, Notaro works with the directors of winemaking for two companies on two continents. It’s an arrangement he relishes.
“I’ve been tasting wine with Doug (Gore) for 20 years now,” he said. “He’s a mentor. I see Doug about once a month. It’s great to taste with someone you know.”
Cotarella also comes to Napa Valley a few times a year, both to taste with Notaro and to visit the other Antinori property in the Napa Valley: Antica.
“It’s very similar to Col Solare,” Notaro said. “I get to taste wine with Renzo three or four times a year. We taste and share ideas and thoughts on what we’re doing. You never stop learning. That’s why I came down here.”
One might think that winemaking is winemaking and there are few differences between Washington and California, but Notaro would tell you the changes are vast.
First is the traffic.
“I lived in Prosser, which I certainly miss,” he said. “But I’ve gotten much better using the “sport” mode in my car to accelerate because there’s a heck of a lot of traffic.”
Second is the space.
In Washington, Notaro knew he’d need to budget a couple of hours to drive from the southern Horse Heaven Hills to the Wahluke Slope when he wanted to check on his grapes. Napa is a lot more compact.
“It’s only 30 miles long,” he said. “I can come look at Chardonnay in Carneros, then a half-hour later be up in Calistoga looking at Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s like driving from Prosser to the Tri-Cities.”
Third is the climate.
Notaro said Cabernet Sauvignon from Red Mountain and Napa Valley bring their own personalities and expressions. Napa Valley has a longer growing season, but Red Mountain is much warmer during the day and cooler at night.
“One of the huge differences is moisture,” he said. “We actually get some rainfall here, and the soil actually holds it.”
Notaro recalls a thunderstorm on Red Mountain that dropped an inch of rain in a short period of time. He figured there’d be no need to irrigate the vineyard for a few days after that.
“That was the wrong decision,” he said with a laugh. “It just goes through through the soil.”
All of this results in Red Mountain Cabs that are powerful and Napa Valley Cabs that are rich yet round.
“They have a soft power.”
Notaro cherishes the years he spent in Washington wine country and is relishing his opportunity in Napa Valley. And now he is an important connection between the two regions.