Home Industry News Releases Warren Winiarski, Famed Napa Valley Winemaker, Dies at 95

Warren Winiarski, Famed Napa Valley Winemaker, Dies at 95

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Renowned for Judgment of Paris Win and Lifelong Philanthropy
 

NAPA, Calif., June 9, 2024 —Warren Winiarski, co-founder with his wife Barbara of the famed Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, passed away June 7, 2024, as he was preparing for his 60th harvest in the Napa Valley. He died, peacefully at home, at the age of 95. He is survived by his three children, Kasia Winiarski-Amparano, Stephen Winiarski, and Julia Winiarski, as well as six grandchildren: Gabriel and Noah Amparano; Matin, Arren, Kiann and Maia Winiarski.
 
Winiarski was born in Chicago in 1928 and grew up in its close-knit Polish community. Although the name Winiarski is a derivative of “winemaker” in Polish, Winiarski did not grow up planning to be one. His interest in the humanities led him to attend St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, where he met his late wife, Barbara, a painter. He studied the western classics curriculum there and graduated Class of 1952. 
 
Winiarski returned to Chicago and taught as a Lecturer in the Liberal Arts at the University of Chicago while completing his master’s degree in political science and working toward a doctorate. His studies on Niccolo Machiavelli took him to Italy where he was exposed to a lifestyle that includes wine with daily meals. He became preoccupied with the idea of making wine and approached the subject with characteristic scholarly rigor – reading everything he could find on the subject and seeking out knowledgeable mentors.  In 1962, he graduated from the University of Chicago with a Master of Arts degree from the Social Sciences Division (John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought department) with a specialty in Social Thought.
 
His career trajectory changed dramatically after a visiting friend brought the Winiarskis a bottle of wine from an East Coast winery. At that luncheon Winiarski had an epiphany—not because the wine was the best he had ever tasted, but because it seemed to reveal to him the special character of all wine. Soon after, the couple began exploring the idea of moving to the Napa Valley to join a burgeoning renaissance in California winemaking.
 
In 1964, the family drove to the Napa Valley where Lee Stewart took Winiarski on as his sole apprentice at Souverain Cellars. As the second man in a two-man operation, Winiarski said he “spent his days working over wine vats and his nights poring over books about winemaking”. The following year, he and Barbara bought a small plot of land on Howell Mountain. They planted Cabernet Sauvignon vines on their small plot of land, even though that variety had never been previously planted at such an elevation. Later, Howell Mountain gained notoriety for its Cabernet Sauvignon wines.  
 
In 1966, while Robert Mondavi’s son Michael was serving in the military reserve, Robert tapped Winiarski for Assistant Winemaker at the new Robert Mondavi Winery. After working for Robert for two years, in 1968 he went on to help a Denver dentist named Gerald Ivancie source California grapes, which were then shipped to Colorado, where he and Ivancie produced the first Vitis vinifera wines in that state. Today, Winiarski and Ivancie’s winemaking legacy continues through Colorado Mesa University’s Winiarski-Ivancie Viticulture and Enology Institute in Palisade – thus far, the only V&E program in the state.
 
A visit to Nathan Fay’s home in Napa’s Stag’s Leap area to discuss an irrigation technique Fay had devised once again proved to be a fateful moment for Winiarski. After tasting Fay’s homemade Cabernet Sauvignon wine at that meeting, Winiarski described it as “a revelation”. It convinced him that the Stag’s Leap area was the place where “classical style” wines could be made and perhaps materialize Thomas Jefferson’s prediction that America would one day make wines “doubtless as good” as any in Europe. 
 
In 1970, Winiarski and several investors bought a 44-acre prune orchard not far from Nathan Fay’s vineyard and replanted it to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot vines. They named their new land, Stag’s Leap Vineyard, known today as S.L.V. In 1972, the family and a group of partners—some new, some from the vineyard partnership—bought a second parcel nearby as a winery site and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars opened its doors in 1973.  
 
Fame came quickly. At a tasting in Paris now known as “The Judgment of Paris” a panel of French wine experts picked Winiarski’s 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon – his first commercial release – as the top red wine over some of the most prominent French wines.  A bottle of that award-winning 1973 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon is now displayed as part of the permanent collection at The Smithsonian’s Museum of American History in Washington D.C.  It was also selected from among 137 million artifacts, works of art, and specimens in the Smithsonian collection to be included in the Institution’s book: History of America in 101 Objects.  
 
Winiarski was a crusader for wine quality, appearing frequently in symposia around the world and publishing articles in several wine journals. Preservation and philanthropy were also extremely important to both Winiarski and his family for over 50 years.  During the Winiarskis early years in the Napa Valley, they were among those advocating for the then-radical notion of creating an Agricultural Preserve to protect the Valley from the suburban sprawl that was fast eliminating farmland in most other Northern California counties. The first of its kind legislation, Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve, became Napa County law in 1968. Winiarski continued to advocate politically for preserving the Valley’s rural beauty, backing Measure J in 1990, its extension Measure P in 2008, Measure I in 2006, Measure Z in 2017, and Measure C in 2018. Since 1990, the Winiarskis have donated nearly 200 acres, including S.L.V. and their Arcadia Vineyard, to the Land Trust of Napa County, thus protecting these lands from development in perpetuity.
 
In 1996, Warren and Barbara Winiarski initiated and provided generous support for an oral history and
documentation for the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s ‘American Food & Wine History Project.’ The project focused on food and wine history as a lens for understanding American history and tracing the long and diverse history of wine in the United States. This was the beginning of a long relationship Winiarski maintained with the Smithsonian promoting wine as food on the American table, culminating with a Winiarski Family Foundation grant funding a permanent Food and Wine Curator position.
 
The Winiarskis never forgot their St. John’s College alma mater. For 20 years Winiarski shared his love of literature and the classics with participants from around the world by leading courses in the St. John’s College Summer Classics program at its Santa Fe campus. They also made generous donations to ensure the continuation of the school’s unique curriculum, as well as funding for tuition and campus infrastructure projects.
 
For his global efforts to showcase and preserve the quality and history of California wine, Winiarski was inducted into the California Hall of Fame by Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. in 2017.
 
Winiarski’s mission to maintain wine as part of American culture was cemented when he donated $3.3 million in 2018 to build the world’s most comprehensive collection of wine writers’ works in the world at the University of California, Davis library. In 2024 Winiarski created the Spurrier-Winiarski Wine Writer-in-Residence Award granting a recipient $50,000 for a three-month residency at the University of California, Davis, including a $20,000 prize to support publication through the late Spurrier’s Académie du Vin Library.  
 
In 2019, the Smithsonian Museum of American History recognized his contributions to American winemaking and the museum’s American Food & Wine History Project by awarding him the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal. Other recipients include Stephen Hawking and Sir Edmund Hillary.
 
The Winiarski Family Foundation  has also supported many large and small local Napa Valley organizations. NEWS (Napa Emergency Women’s Services) and Samaritan Family Shelter were both causes strongly supported by Barbara, personally. The Winiarski Family Foundation also provided $5.1 million to Providence Queen of the Valley Medical Center in 2021 which funded the Barbara Winiarski Stroke and Diagnostics Center, a 208-bed acute-care facility in Napa. 
 
In 2022 Winiarski received the University of California, Davis, Distinguished Friend of the University Award for his contributions to scientific research and preserving the history of California’s wine industry. One of the most important research commitments is the Warren Winiarski Fund for Advancing the Amerine-Winkler Index. This research will help present and future winegrowers and vintners meet the challenges of climate change.
 
In 2024 The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts bestowed Winiarski with the Foundation’s inaugural Trustee Medal of Honor in recognition of a lifetime creating long-lasting change in the world of American food and wine. 
 
Winiarski sold Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in 2007 but continued to grow grapes at Arcadia Vineyard in the Coombsville AVA, until his death. The Winiarski Family Foundation has generously funded the preservation of wine history across America, as well supported many local Napa Valley causes. The Winiarskis were major supporters and donors to the Smithsonian Museum, University of California, Davis, St. John’s College, Providence Queen of the (Napa) Valley Medical Center and many other institutions and non-profits. 
 
Services for Winiarski will be held privately, by invitation only.   The Winiarski family looks forward to a welcoming and joyous celebration of life for Warren and Barbara in the coming months.
 
About Warren Winiarski
 
Warren Winiarski came to Napa Valley in 1963.  He was a grape grower, winemaker and philanthropist, preparing for his 60th harvest upon his death on June 7, 2024. His Arcadia Vineyard in the Coombsville AVA of Napa Valley is planted to Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  He planted his first Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard in 1970 and established Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars with his wife, Barbara, and their three children. A longtime advocate of Napa Valley land preservation, Mr. Winiarski has backed legislation over the past 50 years to protect agricultural and open space for future generations. He has donated six conservation easements to the Land Trust of Napa County, protecting almost 200 acres of wild land and vineyards in perpetuity. His was the first producing vineyard ever donated, protecting the site of the Paris Tasting grapes. He is an avid supporter of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s American wine programs and has established funds to support the UC Davis Library’s collections of prominent wine writers’ manuscripts and papers.  Also at UC Davis, Mr. Winiarski has funded the research to update the Amerine-Winkler Index to help winegrowers meet the challenges of climate change. Mr. Winiarski is a Napa Valley winemaking icon with a profound legacy which commenced in 1976 when his 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon – his first commercial release – won the “Judgment of Paris” tasting. The triumph helped establish Napa Valley as one of the world’s premier winegrowing regions.
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