Home Wine Business Editorial Wine’s Most Inspiring People 2023: Warren Winiarski — Viticulturist, Preservationist, Philanthropist

Wine’s Most Inspiring People 2023: Warren Winiarski — Viticulturist, Preservationist, Philanthropist

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By Laura Ness

It’s hard to imagine what the wine world would be like if not for Warren Winiarski, the visionary who saw something special in an old prune orchard in Napa, which he converted to a vineyard in 1970. By then, he had already learned the ropes of winemaking from two of his mentors, Lee Stewart of Souverain and Robert Mondavi

“Lee Stewart was the best thing that could have happened to me,” says Winiarski. “No detail was too small. Mondavi, on the other hand, was the opposite. No goals could ever be so exalted that they could not be exceeded!” 

And then there was André Tchelistcheff. “For him, the most important thing about wine was its beauty,” Winiarski remembers. “He disliked sloppiness and thoughtlessness: his goal was always beauty. This led to me buying the land next to [grower] Nathan Fey. When I tasted Nathan’s wines, I found everything that had been absent in other Cabs. It was a full stop moment. The barrel literally did not go over Niagara Falls!”

A classic style

Using the lessons learned from his mentors, and following his love of the classic style, Winiarski created a Cabernet Sauvignon from the vineyard he had christened Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. It was 1973 and his first harvest. Lo and behold, the wine exhibited beauty and completeness. “The definition of ‘complete’ is Aristotle’s,” he says. “To be complete, it must have a beginning, a middle and an end.”

Winning the Judgment of Paris in 1976 for this very Stag’s Leap Winery Cabernet Sauvignon would be Napa’s shining debut on the world stage. But for Winiarski, it was simply making a classic wine. “The Judgment of Paris proved there is a classic style. The French judges clearly recognized it in the California wines, which they assumed were French.” 

Winiarski would stay at the center of Napa’s juggernaut into world prominence — if not dominance — through the following decades, working both in the spotlight and behind the scenes to further the region’s reputation.

How it started

Exactly how did a Liberal Arts scholar and professor — who earned his undergraduate degree from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., and was teaching at the University of Chicago — become entangled in the wine world?  Blame Machiavelli and a university colleague who brought a bottle of east coast wine to lunch one day. Winiarski doesn’t know what that wine was, but it spoke to him. “It literally said, ‘Pay attention to me!’” 

Arriving in Italy soon after to pursue graduate studies in Machiavelli, Winiarski and his wife, Barbara, immersed themselves in the Italian lifestyle of food and wine. Captivated, they vowed to become part of the emergent wine scene in Napa. And so, upon returning to the states, the family piled into a station wagon and headed west. 

He worked ever-so-briefly for the famed Martin Ray, which gave him a taste of the intensity and lean power of the Santa Cruz Mountains. But recognizing that a wine cellar might not be big enough for two headstrong men, Winiarski was fortunate to find an apprenticeship at Souverain. From there, he went to work for Robert Mondavi, becoming the brand’s first vintner. Talk about a fast track to stardom. 

Working for a master

John Konsgaard met Winiarski in the summer of 1977 while a graduate student at UC Davis looking for a harvest job. Winiarski was a renowned taskmaster, always very precise in his instructions but also rigorously checking on the cellar hands. “At one point, another colleague and I had the night shift. Occasionally, Warren would appear at 2 or 3 in the morning, in his bathrobe, with a little variation in how he wanted something done,” says Konsgaard. 

“The lesson was that everything we did in the vineyard and in the cellar had to have a reason behind it.  Nothing was to be taken for granted, and there was logic behind every move.” For Winiarski, this is all part of the symmetry of wine, akin to classical music, of which he and Konsgaard are both fond.  “All of us who had the pleasure of working with Warren remember that wine is to be beautiful and classically proportioned, “ says Konsgaard. 

Michael Silacci of Opus One shared this tidbit: “Shortly after beginning my work at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, I asked Warren when I would receive a mobile phone. 

“‘Why do you need a mobile phone?’ he asked.  

“‘So, I can make phone calls while I am driving to the vineyards,’ I explained. 

“‘I don’t want you talking on the phone when you are driving,’ Winiarski said. ‘I want you dreaming about how to make better wine.’”

The Winiarski legacy

The Judgment of Paris will forever be viewed as the moment the world became aware of Warren Winiarski, but in truth, his legacy stretches far beyond that fatefully far-reaching competition.

In 1968, well before his world-winning wine, he joined with a group of his fellow vineyard owners and farmers to support protecting the farmlands of Napa Valley from urban development by creating the nation’s first Agricultural Preserve — a radical proposal that has ensured the valley’s continued focus on farming (as opposed to hotels, shopping malls, and housing and commercial developments). Winiarski credits the then-administrator for Napa County, Christmas tree farmer Albert Haberger, for establishing the original Agricultural Preserve, which was backed by Winiarski, Jack Davies of Schramsberg, Chuck Carpy of Freemark Abbey and Robert Mondavi of Robert Mondavi Winery, among others. 

Winiarski and his family have also been active with the Napa Land Trust, to which they have donated more than 200 acres over the years, including the Paris Tasting vineyard at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and his current property, Arcadia Vineyard, in the Coombsville AVA. These donated lands will forever be protected from development, reverting to open space if and when farming ceases.

In years to come, environmentalists may cite his lasting legacy as funding an update of the Amerine-Winkler Index to reflect the impact of climate change. Developed in the 1930s and ’40s, the index tracks climactic heat and weather as they affect California’s vineyards. With climate change accelerating in recent years, Winiarski has donated $800,000 to fund this research at the University of California, Davis.

“Because we are in a period of climate change, we need more refined and comprehensive ways of measuring the effect of heat on plant physiology and grape maturity,” Winiarski told UC Davis’ John Stumbos in 2021. “The development of new methods of measurement would be extraordinarily helpful. With better knowledge of changes in the compositional elements in the grapes in the vineyard, we’ll have better guidance on how to respond in the winery and create the wines we want to make.”

Museum quality

Winiarski’s 1973 Stag’s Leap Cab is enshrined at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., and the Winiarski Family Foundation established a permanent position known as the “Winiarski Curator of Food and Wine History” at the institution. He has also endowed efforts to build the world’s most comprehensive collection of wine writers’ works about California at the UC Davis library. 

In 2019, Winiarski was awarded the Smithsonian Institution’s James Smithson Bicentennial Medal, conferred by the National Museum of American History. He’s the first winemaker to ever receive the award. High praise for one of winedom’s most inspiring people ever — and he continues to inspire us all to dream.

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Laura Ness
Laura Ness

Laura Ness

Laura Ness is an avid wine journalist, storyteller and wine columnist (Edible:Monterey, Los Gatos Magazine San Jose Mercury News, The Livermore Independent), and a long time contributor to Wine Industry Network. Known as “HerVineNess,” she judges wine competitions throughout California and has a corkscrew in every purse. However, she wishes that all wineries would adopt screwcaps!

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Wine's Most Inspiring PeopleAbout Wine’s Most Inspiring People: Each year, Wine Industry Advisor chooses 10 individuals from within the wine industry who showcase leadership, innovation and inspiration. For the first time in 2021, WIA opened submissions to the industry at large, and the success of this new nomination process was quickly recognized, as honorees came from more diverse wine regions and had more distinct stories to tell. With more than 100 nominees in 2022, the editorial team selected the top 10 individuals who, they felt, had truly positively impacted the U.S. wine culture over the past year.

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