Dunne on Wine

Warren Winiarski reflects on half a century of making wine in California

Warren Winiarski discussing vineyard management at the Western Colorado Research Center in Grand Junction.
Warren Winiarski discussing vineyard management at the Western Colorado Research Center in Grand Junction.

In 1973, Napa Valley winemaker Warren Winiarski made a cabernet sauvignon that became so legendary, a bottle of it is displayed in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

What’s more, a bottle of his Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was included three years ago in Smithsonian Magazine’s “101 Objects That Made America,” alongside Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit, Abraham Lincoln’s top hat and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet.

The wine’s rise to such standing began on May 24, 1976, when at a blind tasting in Paris timed to the American bicentennial, nine French judges, much to their dismay, declared it the best red in the roundup, which also included entries from highly regarded chateaux in Bordeaux. Another California wine, the Chateau Montelena 1973 Napa & Alexander Valleys Chardonnay, topped the field of white wines, which included several releases from Burgundy.

With each milestone anniversary of the “Judgment of Paris,” the legacy of that tasting and of those two California wines grows. This spring, on the 40th anniversary of the gathering, the U.S. House of Representatives adopted a resolution noting the “historical significance” of the tasting, while Gov. Jerry Brown signed a proclamation to recognize May 24 as “Judgment of Paris Day” throughout California.

In 2007, Winiarski and his family sold their Stage Leap’s Wine Cellars for a reported $185 million, though he kept 85 acres planted to chardonnay, merlot and cabernet sauvignon in Napa Valley’s Coombsville area. He continues to farm the vineyard, selling the grapes to the new owners of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

I caught up with Winiarski, now 87, in July on the campus of Metropolitan State University of Denver, the venue for the 2016 Governor’s Cup Colorado Wine Competition, for which we both were judges.

Q: What accounts for the strong showing of that 1973 cabernet sauvignon in Paris, and for the consistency it has shown in tastings since then?

A: I think that’s been due to the uniform ripeness of the fruit. There was no hollowness in the center of the wine. It was very uniform in moving across your palate. You have a nice fleshy beginning, then you have a nice steady stream going across your palate, and then you have a little peacock’s tail at the end that sprouted and filled in the back end of your palate. The extreme uniformity of ripeness in those grapes, and the understated alcohol and the understated extraction allowed the beauty of the ground to show itself in the fruit.

Q: Today’s Napa Valley cabernets often are riper and with more alcohol than they had in the 1970s. What are the prospects for them to age well?

A: I’ve tasted one of the 1973 cabernets within the last year, and it’s still plump. It’s a little tired, it’s not as energetic as it once was, but the plumpness and the loveliness of the structure is still there. I’m not sure that happens to 15 percent-alcohol wines. We haven’t had a lot of experience with longevity, but what strikes me with those wines is that I don’t get a sense of beginning, middle and end. I get a sense of all beginning, it’s all there in a rush. And I don’t get a sense of place with those powerful wines, either.

Q: When you say a wine must have a beginning, a middle and an ending, what does that mean?

A: A sense of completeness. It’s one of the things that wine has to offer, a sense of completeness. To us humans, because we are so incomplete in ourselves, that completeness is the source of the pleasure, to have that sensation or that intellectual apprehension. The wine is on the palate, but it goes to the head and you think “hmm” or “wonderful” or whatever words you use in having that sense of completeness. It gives pleasure to beings who are incomplete in themselves.

Q: What’s been the impact of the “Judgment of Paris?”

A: I think it was a Copernican moment, in that we never looked at wines from various places in the same way. It was an awakening to a possibility that had been denied to many places on the Earth because their aspirations were artificially limited. Those nine French judges were like astronomers who discovered that the sun didn’t only go around France, but that other places on the Earth could produce their own kind of beauty.

Q: In 1966 you were the first winemaker hired by Robert Mondavi as he built his Napa Valley winery. Thirty years ago you told Wine Spectator that you’d bought a bottle of that first 1966 cabernet sauvignon at Mondavi and were looking forward to tasting it and experiencing again “the sawdust and cement and all the other smells that go along with a construction project.” Is tasting, then, more of memory than the characteristics of the wine?

A: That was metaphorical, that’s memory. I tasted that wine recently at the 50th anniversary (of Robert Mondavi Winery). It had a kind of spiritual aspect because it evoked all these memories of plumbers getting in my way, and electricians getting in my way, and not having all the catwalks in place so we had to work from ladders that first year. All of these things were going on at the same time we were trying to make wine. It was really a very crowded amphitheater for making wine. Did I taste all those things? I thought I did, I thought all the memories were coming back. Did I really taste them? Who knows what the edge is between dreaming and being awake?

Q: In 1964 you were studying and teaching at the University of Chicago – political theory, social thought, literature, the classics – when you packed up your family and left for California with thoughts of growing grapes and making wine. Why did you leave academia?

A: Part of my work (at the University of Chicago) was on the political theorists of the Italian Renaissance – Machiavelli and others who were writing at that time. In pursuit of that I spent a year in Italy going through manuscripts in Naples and at the University of Florence. In Italy they drink wine as a daily beverage. My first experience with wine was the wine my father made during Prohibition and continued to make afterwards for family use. …We used it for ceremonial purposes, on the sacred holidays as well as the secular holidays. It was a celebratory beverage, not a daily beverage. Having it as a daily beverage (in Italy) finally made an impression on me. And my name is related to winemaking tradition, so finally it dawned on me that this is something I really loved and I had to make it. Once that happened there was a continued movement in that direction and doing it as a way of life, not simply as an avocation but as a way of life – growing grapes, making wine.

Q: In vineyard and cellar, you were recognized as a detail person, and you still spend time in the vineyard, but what are your interests aside from the farm?

A: I used to do a lot of ballroom dancing, but my balance is not as perfect as I would like it to be, so that is a thing of the past. I like to restore antique wooden furniture. I do work on political science kinds of things, and I prepare for teaching. I’ve been doing a lot of Shakespeare recently. (In Denver, he’d just come from teaching a seminar on “The Tragedy of King Lear” on the Santa Fe campus of St. John’s College; he is an alumnus of the college’s Annapolis campus.) I like to live within the scope of intellectual studies. And I’m still learning a lot about grape growing.

Q: Do you have aspirations to make wine again?

A: It depends. Family things are taking a lot of my time, and time is precious at my age, but it doesn’t preclude the possibility, with the right circumstances. I love growing grapes, and I always have, with winemaking as a kind of completion of the grape-growing functions. That part of it has now been separated. But who knows? The future is open.

Wine critic Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.