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.”