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Foraged fall leaves and flowers create a warm and welcoming table design. 

Wine Industry
Warren Winiarski reflects on Napa's wine industry on eve of his Hall of Fame induction

On a recent afternoon at his home atop the hill adjacent to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Warren Winiarski flips through the June 1976 issue of Time magazine, hunting for an elusive story. He finally spots a short column by reporter George Taber, tucked on the right-hand side of the Modern Living section.

The story today is considered the catalyst for the ascendance of American wine on the global stage. It tells of Winiarski’s 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars cabernet sauvignon besting a host of supposedly superior French red wines in a blind tasting dubbed the Judgment of Paris.

At the same competition, Jim Barrett’s 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay took first among the white wine contenders.

“That’s all it was,” Winiarski laughs — a story but a few paragraphs long. “Nobody thought it was very much. No one assessed the full meaning.”

Indeed, when Winiarski’s wife Barbara told him the wine had won, “I didn’t know there was a tasting … which wines were in it or who the tasters were. It was only the next day that the story began to develop its magnitude.”

In the decades since, as Napa and the rest of California’s place have been cemented in the world of wine, so too has Winiarski’s place in American history. On Tuesday, the 89-year-old winemaker will be memorialized once again, joining the ranks of fellow lauded Californians as filmmaker Steven Spielberg and quarterback Jim Plunkett in the state’s Hall of Fame.

To coincide with the induction ceremony being held in Sacramento, that 1976 issue of Time magazine will be making its way to a commemorative exhibit in the California Museum along with other mementos, including a bottle of the winning 1973 Stag’s Leap wine, of which there are still a few, Winiarski says.

This latest recognition has offered Winiarski a time to reflect on his legacy and to ponder the future of the region his efforts have so helped to define today.

“I am, I think, most remembered as the one who made the wine in the Paris tasting,” he acknowledges. “So it would be hard to change that perception.”

Deeper still is Winiarski’s impact on the course of wine history in America, having spurred a rebuilding of the “tradition” of wine that existed prior to Prohibition.

“It gradually dawned on me that that has to be brought back and restored,” he says. “That America should be a wine-drinking country.”

More locally, Winiarski maintains hope that his efforts to preserve Napa Valley, which has successfully revived that wine tradition, will endure. Among those efforts, for which he is also being lauded with Tuesday’s induction, is his work at the forefront of the passage of the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve in 1968. Safeguarding agriculture and open space as “the highest and best use of the land,” the preserve was the first of its kind in the country, helping to keep Napa sheltered from rampant development.

The Agricultural Preserve will mark its 50th anniversary next year, though its ability to maintain the agrarian ideal of Napa Valley for the next 50 years remains to be seen. A crucial policy in support of the preserve is Napa County’s Measure P, which requires approval by voters for any agricultural property to be converted from an agriculture use to a non-agriculture use.

Land-use policies that support agriculture are working, Winiarski says. “But as the valley fills up with people who are not anchored in agriculture and vineyards, that might change,” he cautions.

He extends a similar caution to the intersection of the wine industry and tourism in the region.

“I hope it will become another Bordeaux,” he says of Napa, in tribute to the famed wine region in France. “Like Bordeaux, perpetuating itself on the beauty of its product, and it doesn’t overwhelm itself with tourism, which is a danger that the Ag Preserve may not be able to forestall.”

While confident that Napa’s stature as a tourism hub has not overshadowed its wines, he cedes, “It’s certainly more than it was in the past. And is there a limit? … There’s certainly a danger that it gets to be more important than the primary thing.”

As for the wines of Napa today, compared to those he made for the Paris tasting, Winiarski alluded to a pendulum of sorts in terms of style that has in recent years widely swung the way of extravagance.

He notes the 1973 winning wine had an alcohol content of 13 percent, “and, in general, the wines were much less powerful, much less extravagant,” a style he cites as being set by winemaking legend Andre Tchelistcheff with the Beaulieu Vineyard Private Reserve.

Today, Winiarski says, “we’ve gone beyond that because there seems to be an idea that wines of more massive character represent California and California’s potential to a greater degree.”

Referring to what he calls “the Three R’s,” Winiarski says, “We have richness, we have ripeness and we also need restraint. And restraint was taken away.”

“The question is, in something you make that’s meant to be tasted and drunk, whether we should explore more, further? Whether the idea of more is a good aesthetic principle? More for the sake of more, and not for the sake of beauty.”

Winiarski no longer makes his own wine, having sold Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in 2008 to Washington-based Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, though he still grows grapes on his Arcadia Vineyard property in the Coombsville area. The property was damaged during the October wildfires, he notes, but recovery efforts are well underway.

But despite no longer having a direct hand in winemaking, even as the wines of Napa continue to evolve, along with the valley’s challenges, Winiarski remains active as one of California’s most storied vintners.

“Winemaking is two parts, head and hand,” he says. “And the hand part I don’t have any more. But I can do it in my mind … It’s still fascinating to me to go over the steps. So I’m still sort of making wine.”

Hit hard by Tubbs Fire, Calistoga's Pochini Tree Farm opens for the holidays

CALISTOGA — The Tubbs Fire destroyed Bud Pochini’s home and torched about 1,500 fir trees on his Christmas tree farm, but it didn’t crush his holiday spirit and determination to open the popular Pochini Family Farm after Thanksgiving.

He tries not to think about all he lost – including his house, a welding shop, a 1966 Chevy Bel Air that had less than 8,000 miles on it because only Pochini, his dad and grandfather ever drove it, a couple motorcycles, a boat, and a Jeep he bought the day before the fires started.

“I’m like Dory, I just keep on swimming,” he said.

Regretfully, the Bel Air was underinsured, he said, and there was no insurance on some of the other items he lost including the welding shop and Christmas trees.

He barely nets $10,000 from the annual tree sales, he said. And given that he spends about 1,000 hours – not including the holiday season selling — each year working on the farm, he makes about $10 an hour, probably less, he said.

Bud’s Mobile Welding is what “allows” him to be “a Christmas tree farmer,” Pochini said of his welding business.

He grows mostly Douglas fir and white fir, with some other varieties. Some 300 to 350 trees were ready to be cut this year, plus he’s bringing in about 500 fresh Noble fir, Frasier fir or Nordmann fir from the Pacific Northwest.

Prices for wreaths, choose-and-cut and pre-cut trees at Pochini Tree Farm range from $29 to $300. The fresh-cut trees are $59 for anything under six feet, and any tree six feet and taller is $69.

“That’s a pretty good deal,” he said.

The Tubbs Fire took about a third to a quarter of the trees growing on the farm, which will affect his business in coming years, he said.

The night the fire broke out, Pochini – a longtime volunteer firefighter with Knights Valley Volunteer Fire Company — and his teenage daughter, Alyson, spent six hours clearing debris off the road so evacuees could leave and firefighters could get through.

They left at about 9 p.m. wearing motorcycle helmets because trees and branches were falling all around them.

They would clear one lane headed north on Highway 128, and by the time they turned around at Franz Valley Road to head south, they would again need to clear a path because the windstorm kept ripping branches and downing trees left and right, Pochini said. They did this until 3 a.m.

Alyson, a 17-year-old senior at Calistoga High School, didn’t have much choice in helping him. “It was a do-or-die situation,” he said. She “learned a lot” that night, he said. “I’m really proud of her.”

His own home off of Highway 128 was littered with debris, he said. There were “so many logs, the driveway looked like (the game of) Pick-up Sticks.”

He was leaving the fire station on Spencer Lane – normally a five-minute drive from home, but because of the road conditions took 15 to 20 minutes — when he got a call from Rick Williams at Storybook Mountain Vineyards asking Pochini to come help save his home there. Pochini said he drove past his house, his sister’s and another neighbor and saw fire engines there doing structure protection, he said.

He doesn’t know why, but the fire trucks were called away and left the houses unattended.

“All three (houses) were perfectly fine,” Pochini said.

Later that day, his property would burn while he was a half-mile away at Storybook. When he heard what sounded like propane tanks explode at his sister’s house, which is near his own, he said he knew that meant trouble, but he didn’t stop fighting the fire at Storybook — which lost a building where 40 years of library wines were stored — to save his own home or his sister’s, which also burned.

Knowing the terrain in the area well, he was strategically creating fire breaks down to the “narrowest spot to choke the fire,” he said.

Between the road clearing, firefighting and phone calls he and his sister made telling people to evacuate, he figures he “had a hand in saving around a dozen” properties. That’s what makes it all worth it to him, and it “feels pretty good” knowing that he helped.

“If I had to do it over again, I would,” he said.

Possibly the most gut-wrenching part of the ordeal was telling his daughter and sister that their homes were gone. He wasn’t sure where they fled when he told them to evacuate, and cellphone service was spotty. When he finally reached them, that was about the only time he allowed himself to have a moment.

“We all kind of broke down,” he said.

Anne Ernst / Anne Ward Ernst photos, Weekly Calistogan 

Bud Pochini uses a machine to shake a freshly cut tree at his Pochini Tree Farm to get rid of any loose needles or tiny critters that may have taken up residence. The Tubbs Fire wiped out at least a quarter of his trees.

J.L. Sousa, Register file photo 

Steve Abbs, vice president of Davidon Homes, leads a tour of the Napa Oaks II property near Old Sonoma Road on Nov. 27. Abbs took his case for the 51-home development to community members at a public forum the next night, ahead of a scheduled review by the city Planning Commission on Thursday.

SHAPE committee ‘embarrassed’ by St. Helena’s public buildings

ST. HELENA — The city should step up its building maintenance, hire a facilities manager, make better use of its office space, and give city workers a less depressing place to do their jobs, said members of a committee charged with analyzing St. Helena’s public facilities.

The St. Helena Assets and Planning Engagement (SHAPE) Committee has just begun meeting, and members stressed that they’re still in the information-gathering phase. But last Wednesday evening, members got their first chance to share their impressions after their tour of the city’s facilities on Nov. 16.

Problems like leaky roofs, roaches and dirty carpets need immediate attention, committee members said. Then the city should hire someone to be solely responsible for building maintenance, they said.

“There are clearly significant maintenance issues across the board due to years of neglect,” said Tim Nieman.

Members highlighted poor working conditions at City Hall and the corporation yard on Charter Oak Avenue, where much of the Public Works staff is based. The corp yard, where a chronically leaky roof had soaked floors and an office the night before the committee’s tour, was called “pitiful” and “just a disaster.”

“I was embarrassed and I was a little bit ashamed at having our city workers work under these conditions,” Oliver Caldwell said. “They’re having to walk around buckets with water dripping into them, having to trip over carpets with uneven flooring … some of the buildings have mold. Enough – you can’t expect people to work under these conditions and expect optimum output.”

Susanne Salvestrin said she “can’t imagine” having to work at the City Hall/police station. “It’s awful,” she said.

Members also talked about how to alleviate overcrowding at City Hall by making better use of underused space at the Teen Center, a soon-to-be-vacated office building next to it on Railroad Avenue, and the Head Start building at Crane Park. A few committee members suggested moving a city department into the office building, which is in much better shape than City Hall.

The committee also has to figure out where the Carnegie Building fits into the puzzle, given its faulty elevator, idiosyncratic floor plan, and a basement that’s been prone to flooding.

Pat Dell said the Signorelli Barn, a charming and historic structure that’s been battered by errant cars, “is just crying for theater,” community functions and private events like weddings.

The committee is tentatively scheduled to report to the City Council next April, and members said they’re eager to find solutions.

“This town can’t be living with these buildings,” Salvestrin said. “We have to do something now – not five years from now.”

Committee members encouraged the public to see the buildings for themselves during guided tours at 1 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 7; 9 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 9; and 9 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 12.

Tours are limited to six people, so RSVP to to reserve a space. The first and second tours are fully booked, but four spaces are still available for the Dec. 12 tour.