This man changed US wine in­dus­try

Orlando Sentinel - - COOKING & EATING - By Dave McIn­tyre

It all started with a phone call, in 1994 or there­abouts. War­ren Winiarski, founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cel­lars in Napa Val­ley, Cal­i­for­nia, di­aled up the main switch­board of the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion, in the era be­fore web­sites and email, and asked the non­plussed op­er­a­tor what the na­tion’s mu­seum was plan­ning to com­mem­o­rate the 20th an­niver­sary of the 1976 Judg­ment of Paris wine tast­ing, where Cal­i­for­nia wines beat the best of France.

Noth­ing, as it turned out. Winiarski’s in­quiry was bounced around from of­fice to of­fice un­til it landed with the ar­chiv­ist of the Na­tional Mu­seum of Amer­i­can History. A quick check of the col­lec­tions turned up a few desul­tory wine la­bels and an empty bar­rel, but lit­tle else. When mu­seum of­fi­cials re­searched the Judg­ment of Paris, they re­al­ized its sig­nif­i­cance to the history of Amer­i­can wine. And they sensed an op­por­tu­nity.

Winiarski’s phone call prompted the Smith­so­nian to host a sym­po­sium in 1996 called “Red, White and Amer­i­can,” in­clud­ing a restag­ing of the fa­mous Paris tast­ing. (Amer­i­can wines won again.) As part of the event, Winiarski do­nated a bot­tle of his 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cel­lars SLV Caber­net Sau­vi­gnon, the top-scor­ing red wine in the Paris tast­ing, to the mu­seum’s col­lec­tion. Chateau Mon­te­lena also do­nated a bot­tle of its 1973 chardon­nay, which scored high­est among white wines. The bot­tles were later des­ig­nated as na­tional trea­sures.

More re­cently, the Smith­so­nian awarded Winiarski, whose name means “from wine” or “from the wine­maker” in Pol­ish, its James Smith­son Bi­cen­ten­nial Medal in a cer­e­mony Nov. 21 at Stag’s Leap Wine Cel­lars, in a room over­look­ing the vine­yard that pro­duced the win­ning wine. He is the first wine­maker to re­ceive the medal, which hon­ors peo­ple for con­tri­bu­tions to Amer­i­can art and cul­ture. Pre­vi­ous re­cip­i­ents have been prom­i­nent in cin­ema, mu­sic and lit­er­a­ture.

The seed Winiarski planted in the minds of the Smith­so­nian cu­ra­tors al­most 25 years ago grew into the Amer­i­can Food History Pro­ject at the Na­tional Mu­seum of Amer­i­can History. That’s the pro­ject that gave us Ju­lia Child’s kitchen and cre­ated the ex­hibit “Food: Trans­form­ing the Amer­i­can Ta­ble 1950-2000,” which opened in 2012 and re­opened in Oc­to­ber with fresh dis­plays, in­clud­ing some on beer.

“Re­search is like a healthy grape vine,” said Paula John­son, the pro­ject’s di­rec­tor since 1997. “Shoots and ten­drils grow, berries form and ma­ture, and for our team, ev­ery in­ter­vie­wee named yet an­other per­son, a place and a story that we wanted to pur­sue.”

The pro­ject has spon­sored an­nual wine­maker din­ners, high­light­ing is­sues of la­bor rights, Mex­i­can Amer­i­can wine­mak­ers, and the rise of wine and food in Amer­i­can cul­ture. It col­lab­o­rates with the Ju­lia Child Foun­da­tion for Gas­tron­omy and the Culi­nary Arts on an an­nual Food History Gala, and has re­cently in­stalled a demon­stra­tion kitchen in the mu­seum “for pro­grams that com­bine history, cooking and con­ver­sa­tion,” John­son said.

“The history of Cal­i­for­nia wine is a won­der­ful lens to ex­plore shift­ing de­mo­graph­ics and economies, land­scape and land use, en­trepreneur­ship and la­bor,” Anthea Har­tig, di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Mu­seum of Amer­i­can History, said in her re­marks at the award cer­e­mony.

Winiarski, now 91, dis­cov­ered his love of wine in the 1950s while re­search­ing the po­lit­i­cal writ­ings of Nic­colo Machi­avelli in Italy. He aban­doned an aca­demic ca­reer and moved his fam­ily to Cal­i­for­nia in 1964, where he took a job at Sou­verain win­ery. Two years later, he be­came the first wine­maker at the Robert Mon­davi Win­ery. As a con­sul­tant, he helped es­tab­lish Colorado’s wine in­dus­try, pur­chas­ing grapes in Cal­i­for­nia to be sent to Colorado for pro­cess­ing.

In 1970, Winiarski and some in­vestors pur­chased an old prune or­chard off the Sil­ver­ado Trail, a few miles north of Napa in what is now known as the Stags Leap Dis­trict Amer­i­can Viti­cul­tural Area. When the 1973, his sec­ond vin­tage, made history in Paris, he fa­mously quipped, “Never un­der­es­ti­mate what you can ac­com­plish with a prune or­chard.”

Winiarski sold the win­ery in 2007 to a part­ner­ship of Ste. Michelle Wine Es­tates and Ital­ian vint­ner Piero Anti­nori for $185 mil­lion. He still owns Ar­ca­dia Vine­yards, in the Coomb­sville area of Napa Val­ley, and sells the grapes to Stag’s Leap Wine Cel­lars. Through the Winiarski Fam­ily Foun­da­tion, he sup­ports var­i­ous Napa land preser­va­tion cam­paigns, the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Davis wine li­brary, St. John’s Col­lege in An­napo­lis, Mary­land, (his alma mater), and the Na­tional Mu­seum of Amer­i­can History.

Dur­ing his re­marks af­ter re­ceiv­ing the Smith­son Medal, Winiarski noted that in 1996, when he helped launch the Food History Pro­ject, wine was a sen­si­tive sub­ject.

“We had to be care­ful about the way we talked about it in a pub­lic in­sti­tu­tion,” he said. “There were peo­ple who con­tin­ued to as­so­ciate wine with Pro­hi­bi­tion — it was booze!” The Smith­so­nian, he said, helped move wine be­yond its im­age as a mere al­co­holic bev­er­age by doc­u­ment­ing its role in Amer­i­can cul­ture, life and pol­i­tics. “They el­e­vated it!”

SMITH­SO­NIAN IN­STI­TU­TION

War­ren Winiarski hold­ing a bot­tle of his 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cel­lars Caber­net Sau­vi­gnon, which took first place at the Judg­ment of Paris tast­ing in 1976.

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