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When he came here 36 years ago, Warren Winiarski was unsure what would befall him. His vision to make great wine wasn't obscured by the light of publicity; it was clouded by obscurity itself.

At the time, in 1967, the Robert Mondavi Winery, just the second to be opened in the Napa Valley since the end of Prohibition, had been open just one year.

Of the other wineries in the valley, about a dozen in all, most were underfunded, and a few were so small they sold all their production out the door of their cellar. There were no BMWs, no mansions scarring the hillsides, no roadside gourmet delis.

Leaving a professorship at the University of Chicago for this barren home to grapes, prunes, walnuts and dust seemed foolhardy and more.

But it was hard to see that bleak start when Winiarski's world-famed Stag's Leap Wine Cellars staged an event two weeks ago that had history as its theme and warmth and reflection as its mode.

"The Hands of Time" was the name of the event, and the major activity came early. Thirty former and present employees arrived, sipped bubbly and then placed their hands into moist French limestone aggregate. When hardened, the hand stones will adorn the winery, reminding all those who enter in the future of the mentoring that went on in the past.

That mentoring has had a profound impact on the Napa Valley and indeed on much of New World winemaking.

Winiarski, a stern, detailed, hands-on winery owner, by all accounts, was clearly the driving force in the lives of the 30, many of them today prominent winemakers.

Many spent the formative years of their winemaking experience here and now have graduated to positions of prominence on their own. All paid homage to Winiarski as the guide who taught them to be passionate about what they do and to pass on their skills, just as Winiarski learned them from masters now long gone.

It all (or at least part of it) was told in the numerous tales they shared, with many of them using the same words to refer to Winiarski: "attention to detail."

One, winemaker John Kongsgaard, recalled a time when Warren left his bedroom well past midnight, in pajamas, to wander through the stacks of barrels, fretting over some fermentation he believed would go awry without his presence. Among the alumni here were Bob Sessions of Hanzell Vineyards, who helped build the place; John Williams, whose Frog's Leap Winery was named in respect for Winiarski; Dick Ward, co-founder of Saintsbury; Ricardo Herrera, now with Screaming Eagle; and Michael Silacci of Opus One.

The widows of two of the Napa Valley's greatest pioneers also were there: Dorothy Tchelistcheff, whose husband, Andre, was one of California's greatest winemakers, and Mary Jane Fay, whose husband, Nathan, was the first to plant cabernet sauvignon at the southern end of the Napa Valley.

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It is Fay's land that now makes a huge contribution to Stag's Leap's great Cabernets.

Also in attendance was George Taber, the reporter who broke the story of Stag's Leap's 1973 Cabernet winning a major tasting in Paris, beating out a slew of great Bordeaux.

Taber then was with Time magazine. Today, he is writing a book about how important that tasting was, as was its aftermath for the entire California wine industry.

Also there were members of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, to record attendees' remarks for their "American Wine and Food History Project."

Tasting through many of the winery's classic Cask 23 Cabernets, it was easy to see why the winery now is rated among the finest in the Napa Valley and why the Stag's Leap District is one of the most important appellations in the region. No one commented, on this occasion, that the current release of Stag's Leap's Cask 23 sells for $150, making it one of the most expensive of California wines. But one winemaker noted quietly that, as far as he was concerned, the wine was better than any First Growth Bordeaux.

To which Taber could reply: The world knew that 27 years ago.

WINE OF THE WEEK: 2001 Blackstone Pinot Noir, Monterey County ($13) — Light aroma of pepper and cherry, with trace of earthiness. Nice fruit, not particularly deep or rich, but elegant and tasty. Often discounted to $11 or even less.

Dan Berger resides in Sonoma County. Berger publishes a weekly newsletter on wine and can be reached at

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