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:: By Carrie M. Golus, AB’91, AM’93

:: Illustration by Richard Thompson

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Peer Review ::


Days of Wine and Prizes

Warren Winiarski, AM’62, changed the way the world views American wine.

illustration by Richard ThompsonParis, 1976. An English wine merchant decides to celebrate America’s bicentennial—and promote his shop—by inviting France’s top wine critics to a blind tasting of French and Californian wines. Among the French entries, two Premier Cru Bordeaux: Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Chateau Haut-Brion. Among the Californian: a 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, a winery founded by Warren Winiarski, AM’62, only a few years earlier.

To everyone’s amazement, the nine French critics could not tell the French and American wines apart. Thinking Winiarski’s wine was French, they selected it as the best red. “That’s nice,” Winiarski said when his wife phoned him about the victory. Only later, after a report in Time magazine, did the event’s magnitude become clear. “The Paris Tasting destroyed the myth of French supremacy and marked the democratization of the wine world,” Robert Parker, publisher of the Wine Advocate, noted in 2001. “It was a watershed in the history of wine.”

Born in 1928, Winiarski grew up in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, then a Polish enclave. In Polish, Winiarski means “vintner’s son,” and while Winiarski’s father ran a livery business, as a hobby he made fruit, honey, and dandelion wine. Winiarski remembers pressing his ear to the bubbling barrels of fermenting wine and helping collect dandelion flowers from farms on the city’s outskirts.

Winiarski’s father never taught him to make wine. Instead, he says, when he was eight or ten he took over the family’s garden, growing carrots, lettuce, beets, and “fantastic tomatoes.” He also spent hours in the local public library, and when he had exhausted its collection he turned to the used bookstores of Old Town.

After high school Winiarski briefly majored in forestry at Colorado A&M, but he didn’t like the technical curriculum. Then he happened upon Mortimer Adler’s 1940 best seller, How to Read a Book. Enchanted with the idea of the Great Books, he transferred to St. John’s College—which he describes as “paradise”—in Annapolis, Maryland. Among the college’s 300 students was an aspiring painter named Barbara Dvorak, who would become his wife.

In 1952 Winiarski began graduate studies in political philosophy at the U of C. He spent the next year in Italy, doing research on Machiavelli at the Croce Institute in Naples and the University of Florence. More significantly, he first experienced wine as a daily accompaniment to meals—not only for special occasions, as was his family’s custom. Once again, he was enchanted.

Back in Chicago Winiarski worked as an instructor in the University’s Basic Program, a noncredit liberal-arts curriculum based on the Great Books. Caught up in academic work and married life, he forgot about his Italian experience. Then a friend came to lunch, bringing along a bottle of pleasant East Coast plonk. “It was a moment of epiphany,” he says, “when wine revealed itself in a stunning way.”

Winiarski became an autodidact, reading books about wine, visiting wine shops (at the time, a Premier Cru Bordeaux cost about $8), and making his own wine in his faculty-housing apartment. It tasted fine at first, but a few months later he realized the antique crock he used had probably once held pickles. Meanwhile, he continued his work on Machiavelli, which eventually became a chapter in the first edition of History of Political Philosophy, coedited by Leo Strauss. Winiarski had intended his research to lead to a dissertation, but when the chapter was done, he recalls, “I had said all I had to say about Machiavelli.”

Gradually, he realized he wanted his avocation to be his vocation. He and Barbara also longed for a more rural life for their children, Kasia, Stephen, and later Julia. In 1964 he managed to persuade Chateau Souverain, then one of California’s few quality producers, to hire him. As the tiny operation’s only full-time employee, he took part in every stage of production: pruning, harvesting, crushing fruit, and bottling.

In the evenings he experimented with his own winemaking, once using grapes passed over during the Souverain harvest. He kept reading everything he could about viniculture, and he took extension courses at the University of California, Davis. He left Souverain in 1966 to be assistant winemaker at the Robert Mondavi Winery, a business so new he worked in a building with no roof. During spare moments he helped with the carpentry, electrical work, and plumbing.

In 1969 Winiarski had another epiphany, when he tasted a cabernet made by Napa Valley farmer and amateur winemaker Nathan Fay. One of Winiarski’s aphorisms is that good wine depends on “the grapes, the ground, and the guy”—and now he had discovered the ground, a patchwork of volcanic and alluvial soil. He later theorized that the land brought together two antagonistic forces: fire (the volcanic soil) and water (the alluvial soil, deposited by water). The discerning palate can perceive these opposing elements in the wine, he says: fire’s “concentration and intensity” balanced with water’s “supple pliancy.”

By chance, a farm bordering Fay’s was for sale. In 1970 Winiarski and several investors paid $120,000 for a 44-acre parcel, which he named Stag’s Leap Vineyards after the nearby Stags Leap Palisades. Ripping out plum trees and undesirable grape varieties, he planted Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Quickly Stag’s Leap became the family business Winiarski had dreamed of. Barbara worked behind the scenes on the business side, while the children helped with simple tasks such as tying up vines.

In 1972 Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars produced its first vintage. (Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is often confused with another Napa vineyard, Stags’ Leap Winery; after a long legal battle, both were allowed to keep their names, distinguished by apostrophes in different places.) Two years later Winiarski launched Hawk Crest, an inexpensive brand intended to generate revenue, and a reserve line, CASK 23, named for a cask that held a particularly good batch in 1974.

But it was the Cabernet Sauvignon Winiarski had made in 1973—only his second vintage—that scored so highly at the 1976 Paris wine tasting. As reports of the triumph spread, Winiarski was overwhelmed with requests for the wine. Instead of selling, he tried to buy it back from distributors, to save for special occasions and as a tasting reference. Today he has only three cases left; one bottle is in the Smithsonian. The winning wine has aged reasonably well, making many oenophiles’ top-ten wish lists and selling for $400 to $500 a bottle.

Stag’s Leap became profitable in 1979 and has stayed so. Winiarski, who sees fate at work in his life, notes that significant events at Stag’s Leap have occurred on a ten-year cycle: in 1976 the Paris tasting; in 1986 he acquired Nathan Fay’s farm; in 1996 he bought the nearby Arcadia Vineyard, with limestone soil for outstanding Chardonnay.

The next cycle, 2006, will probably bring retirement, a subject he does not relish discussing—although his post-work plans will probably involve more teaching and philanthropy. Each summer for the past ten years, he has led a weeklong seminar at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on topics from Aristotle’s Poetics to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. His philanthropic interests include the Statue of Liberty–Ellis Island Foundation and the Smithsonian, to which he donated funds to help restore the flag that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Winiarski’s smooth, harmonious wines are more restrained than many of today’s high-alcohol Napa Valley creations, which focus on the taste of a specific grape variety. “Testosterone-driven,” one wine writer has described them. “Overstated and fatiguing,” says Winiarski. He credits a Chicago class he taught on Gotthold E. Lessing’s Laokoon with helping to form his principles of wine style. In the famous statue, Lessing argued, the priest’s agony is all the more powerful —and the work more beautiful—because it’s understated. “Beauty and fatigue,” says the philosopher-winemaker, “do not go together.”