Exactly forty years ago, Napa Valley wineries were quietly making a name for themselves with worldwide acknowledgment only a slim hope. While the wineries around Modesto, California still reigned as the center for American wines, Robert Mondavi was traveling the world praising the Napa Valley as a future home for great wines. The French Wine industry believed – and made the world believe – their wines were the standard of excellence. This was about to change.
In 1976, Steven Spurrier, an Englishman and purveyor of fine wine in Paris, created a promotion for his wine shop by organizing a blind tasting to coincide with America’s Bicentennial celebrations. He brought together the top French judges, the finest French wines and he added in a few wines from some upstart winemakers in California. He had previously traveled to California and selected a few wines from the Napa Valley to take back to France where some of his wine shop’s clientele included a number of expats who might be interested in learning how California wines had evolved.
Then the unimaginable happened. The Château Montelena 1973 Chardonnay, crafted by Mike Grgich, won with a total score of 132 points. At the afternoon red wine tasting, the French judges awarded top ranking with 127.5 points to Warren Winiarski for his 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar’s Cabernet Sauvignon, beating the best Cabernets of Bordeaux!
Afterwards, George Taber, with Time magazine, wrote an article about this American triumph that sent shock waves throughout the wine world. Thirty years later, Taber wrote a fascinating account of this significant tasting in his book, Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine.
Both bottles of the 1973 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon and Château Montelena Chardonnay are currently on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. and with this momentous event celebrating its 40th anniversary on May 24, I had the opportunity to interview four individuals integral to the production of these wines, including two of the winemakers, Mike Grgich and Warren Winiarski. The owner of Château Montelena, Jim Barrett, passed away in 2013 but Bo Barrett has carried on the legacy. I also interviewed cellar worker and current business owner, Ron Scalatti, about working at Château Montelena in the early 1970’s.
It was an era of honest, solid, hardworking men with a passion for excellence but now, 40 years later, it is still worth noting it is the French who put Napa on the map. Viva la France!
When I arrived at Château Montelena to interview Bo Barrett, he and his wife, Heidi, were out flying their helicopter so, I had a chance to walk down memory hall where the famed 1973 Chardonnay was on display in a glass shrine along with photos and a copy of Time Magazine article written by George Taber. Not long after, Bo, who has long since lost his famously “big hair” from when he was younger, came strolling in. We sat down with a cup of coffee and Bo immediately started talking about how proteins, whether it is half and half or egg whites, can lower the tannins in wine and coffee. “Good to know,” I said. “I prefer my coffee black,” but it was too late.
K: Let’s talk about the Paris Tasting.
B: My philosophy is that we as a team won the Paris Tasting. Mike Grgich was our star pitcher and everyone else who worked on it. The growers were the outfields and the infield was the cellar workers who managed not to screw it up. I was just one of the guys on the team.
K: What was it like to work with Mike Grgich?
B: It was a good learning experience. We were the workers and he was not. He called us his robots (laughing). He was a good teacher and would always say winemaking is 90-percent sanitation and 10-percent art. Then as we scrubbed the floors he would joke that he lied. He was old world worked eight to five. Other people I worked for later would say you stay until the job was done.
K: Your dad, Jim was in France when he learned about the Paris Tasting outcome. How did he find out?
B: George Taber tracks down my dad during a dinner. The long story is my dad was told he has a phone call and his immediate reaction was something happened to one of his five kids. He’s at French Chxateau and he’s a lawyer so he thinks fast on his feet. He didn’t want to offend the French so he came up with the quote “Not bad for a kid from the sticks.” Meanwhile the telegram came on a regular workday while we are filling racks. Grgich came out and said we won. Up to now, we had already won a lot of tastings so we weren’t that surprised that it did well in the tasting.
K: Everyone remembers the event differently.
B: Ron, Roam and I certainly didn’t recognize what a big deal it was. Mike got the telegram the day after and he was excited. He danced around the cellar. My dad was in France on a learning trip to Bordeaux. Mike remembers the event slightly different then Jim, which was slightly different than Warren remembers it. It’s like the movie where seven people see the crime, but they all describe it differently, same thing with the Paris Tasting. George, who wrote the book did ask me to fact check and make sure the science, was correct. I did read the book and it’s the most accurate as it could be and it’s how I would describe it.
K: How accurate was the movie?
B: Now the movie Bottle Shock needed to have romance and conflict to be a good story.
K: Did you have an affair with an intern?
B: Ha! No there was no intern at the winery then. I did date a former intern from Silver Oak a few years later and she became my wife, Heidi. The movie took things in different timelines and made it appear it all happened at the same time to make it more dramatic.
K: There was slight growth in the wine business in the early 1970’s. What do you attribute that to?
B: The wine business in the early 70’s was really taking off. Two thoughts; in 1971, there was a tax credit and you ask why did 25 wineries start in 1972 in California? Second, there was a bunch of visionaries that all knew before the Judgment of Paris that the wine business was going to work. Napa was a little sleepy then. There were only five wineries really running in the 1960’s. When Robert Mondavi started his winery in 1966, the newest winery prior to that was Louis Martini built in 1933. Modesto was the center of winemaking at the time. The Gallo’s revolutionized wine by taking nasty sweet wine and made it into good table wine. Ex Gallo employees started drifting up to the Napa Valley.
K: What happened to Château Montelena after the Paris Tasting?
B: What seemed like 10 minutes after the announcement that we won, Mike Grgich was getting recruited away to start his own winery and why wouldn’t he. There is nothing wrong with that.
K: Mike Grgich claims that the 1973 Chardonnay grapes were perfect.
B: They might have been perfect grapes, but I looked up the tag and it was 95 degrees and they were picked in mid afternoon. We ran the grapes through an old Healdsburg disstemmer designed to macerate the grapes. It’s like a Cuisinart. They might have been perfect grapes, but our equipment at the time was so crappy and antiquated. What’s amazing is how great this vintage turned out. It was total skill on the winemaking process. We did a lot of extra work back at the time to take pristine grapes, grind them up and then make them pristine again. It’s an art. Now we are so gentle with the grapes to keep them pristine. We harvest at night. We kept that disstemmer until 1989 and always made great wine. Now I look back at our fancy pants stuff and go holy cow, how did we do it? There was a lot more enology back then. If you look at the wine process in art, science and farming, we are more artful now where back then we had to be more scientific.
K: Did anyone realize the effect this win would have on the winery and the Napa Valley?
B: Not until it came out first in Time and then the L.A. Times did the steamrollers start going. No one was interested in picking up these mom and pop wines nationally until the Paris Tasting. Once they read the L.A. Times, distributors said we need to try to this new wave of California wines and then they came out to visit us and we started signing up accounts on a national basis.
K: How much wine were you making in 1976?
B: 30-35,000 cases. Today we do about 45,000 cases. That’s our desired size and has been for about 15 years. Being privately owned we don’t need to make more money.
K: When did you become the winemaker?
B: 1982, my dad called me and offered me the job as winemaker (after a recommendation from a winemaker who was leaving). I had never worked for my dad. I love my dad, but when I turned 18, I couldn’t live in the same house as him. That’s why I moved to Calistoga while the family was still in Southern California at the time. He thought that was cool. Unlike the movie we didn’t have a big fight. I told my dad if he treated me like a professional like he did Mike and Jerry, I would come work for him. He said if you don’t do a good job then that means I can fire you. That’s how we started out and I ended up working with him for the next 30 years until he died. Today, I am the master winemaker and I create the style, but Matthew Crafton handles the day-to-day winemaking activities.
K: How did the Judgment of Paris affect the Napa Valley in your view?
B: It was important that both Napa houses were represented. For the third California wine boom, the center for American winemaking instantly and irreversibly moved to its natural home in the Napa Valley. As a producer and not a consumer, having Château Montelena and Stags Leap Wine Cellars take the gold in Chardonnay and Cabernet rekindles the catalyst to set up a foundation to launch Napa Valley into the cult wine phase and an exciting wine environment. For Château Montelena, we won the Paris Tasting for the Chardonnay and we stayed on track to establish exceptional Cabernet. It’s a magical place and a magical first growth vineyard. We appreciate the accolades we get for the Chardonnay but our focus is on Cabernet.
The drive to Mike Grgich’s home in Calistoga is one of the most breathtaking with rolling hills and panoramic views. This is my third visit to his home. The first was a few years ago when he and I walked out into his vineyard to see the 100-year old zinfandel vines on his property. The second was to pick him up to take him to lunch. Born Miljenko “Mike” Grgich in Croatia, he left home at age 10 and often jokes that we are cousins since my mom’s family is from Slovenia. Napa Register’s Sasha Paulson helped Mike write his memoirs in a book recently release entitled A Glass Full of Miracles. In 1954, he left communist Yugoslavia for West Germany, obtaining a fellowship to study there and then immigrated to Canada before finally receiving a job offer from a winery in California, at age 34. My good friend, Mike, wearing his signature beret at age 93, still speaks English with a accent reminiscent of the old
K: How do you remember the Paris Judgment? Before I came here I spoke with Bo Barret and he said when the telegram arrived about the Paris Tasting you danced around the cellar proclaiming ‘We won. We won.’ Is that how you remember it?
M: I have different version. The first telegram came from Jim Barrett and all it said was we won in Paris. I didn’t know that our Chardonnay was in the tasting. No one told me. When I was excited was when I received the telegram from Time and they wanted to interview me.
K: Bo said the Chardonnay had already won a number of tastings so, they weren’t surprised that it did well in the tasting.
M: For me, the biggest event was getting the telephone call from the New York Times to interview me. I asked what did I do wrong because newspapers usually only write about bad things. They said no, its positive. Your wine, the 1973 Chardonnay won the Paris Tasting and we would like to interview you. They sent three people out to Calistoga. That was an important event for Calistoga. Me too. They took my picture and published it in June 9, 1976.
K: What was it like for you in 1976?
M: There was a small amount of wineries, but we made amazing wines. The Paris Tasting showed that a young country like America compared to the European countries could make great wine. Then not only in American, but a small valley called Napa Valley can make great wine. This was most significant event for the Napa Valley. Grapes and land became three times more expensive than Sonoma.
K: Are grapes better in the Napa Valley over Sonoma since you mentioned it?
M: As a winemaker, I favor Napa Valley, however, objectively speaking Sonoma grow grapes as good as us. But we make better wine. We had Andre Tschelistcheff, who was a great winemaker and many of us learned a lot from him.
K: You worked with Robert Mondavi, too?
M: When I worked with Robert, we had tastings every Monday that always included French wines. He always believed Napa Valley could make wine as well as the French and that was his purpose. In the book the Judgment of Paris, Robert wrote in the forward that he knew Napa had the soil, the climate and the varieties, but for the first time Napa Valley beat the French thanks to his students Mike Grgich and Warren Winiarski. That made me proud to read that.
K: When the script came along for the movie, Bottle Shock, you chose not to participate in it because you felt it was too Hollywood and wasn’t accurate. Now there is a new version of the Judgment of Paris coming out by well-known Hollywood screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen. They shot the first part of the movie with you at the winery. Talk about that.
M: I am the winemaker in this movie. I was the winemaker at Château Montelena.
K: Bo Barrett said he always worked under you and spoke highly of you. You were the artisan of winemaking.
M: They still make Chardonnay in the same style that I started. I established my style from Andre Tschelistcheff. The first vintage of 1972 and 1973 was tasted in San Diego comparing among 80 people and they came in first and second place. For me that was as big a deal as the Paris Tasting.
K: What was it like working at Château Montelena in 1972 and 1973? I understand it was three hippies and a Croatian. Ron Scullati said when you tasted the 1973 grape you knew it was special.
M: (Smiling) We bought 14 tons of Chardonnay grapes that went into 1973 chardonnay. The owner of the vineyard said she had a lot of people buy her grapes, but every time Mike Grgich came, he tasted the grapes. The others relied on a machine to measure the sugar. I tasted it. My mouth was checking on the acid and aroma for the optimum taste. I believe no other Chardonnay was made like the 1973.
K: I understand these pristine grapes were not crushed under ideal situations, but you were able to make the wine pristine again.
M: Yes. It takes an artist feeling and the nose and soul. There is much more that goes into winemaking. But I feel it is in my blood. My father made wine and when I was a baby my mother gave me wine mixed with water. The water was not good to drink so most of us drank more wine than we drank water. I started stomping grapes as soon as I could. Then I went to the University of Zagreb to studied viticulture and enology. I heard about California and I wanted to come here, but after waiting 18-months I had to go to Canada first. When I came to Napa Valley I met Andre Tschelistcheff who was from Russia, but he could speak Croatian. Can you imagine? I was lost in America speaking broken English and this great winemaker could speak my language. I was now American and no longer wept on my pillow at night because I now felt welcomed. I received all my instruction from him on how to make French style wines.
K: You had great teachers along the way, but you have a natural ability to taste the wine.
M: When I was young we would catch water in the cistern, but it wasn’t sanitized so we drank wine half and half so the wine sterilized the water. That was a big part of it. Andre Tschelistcheff started high quality wines and he was an immigrant. Meeting him, the sun started to shine down on me. He told me I could have a job if I could look at 25 samples and analyze them correctly and I did it. I was paid $3.25/hour.
K: After the 1973 Château Montelena Chardonnay won the Paris Tasting, you were called to start your own winery with Austin Hills of Hills Brothers Coffee?
M: I had collected all this knowledge from my father, from the university, from these great vintners and great winemakers and the Christian Brothers. I was very proud with all the miracles I can create in a bottle. Yes, I started my own winery.
K: How did feel when you realized finally that you had beaten the French?
M: I was dancing around the cellar. The second great thing I was proud of was when my Grgich Chardonnay won the Tasting in Chicago in 1980. Of the 221 Chardonnays in that tasting our Chardonnay came in first in the world. At the Paris Tasting we beat out four French Wines, but in Chicago my Chardonnay beat out 221 wines.
K: I always thought it was Cabernets that can last many years and that Chardonnays need to be consumed sooner but according to you, if you make a quality Chardonnay, it could last 40 years?
M: Sometimes when I write about my wines, I claim age is relative if the quality is there.
K: What was your inspiration to be the success you are today?
M: I was very poor and was a shepherd. Neither my father nor mother could write. There was no book in my house. No television, but I was born to be interested and move forward. From shepherd to school to manager of a grocery store at age 14, I was in charge of my cousin’s store. I went to business school and did one year of accounting, but I wanted to make wine. My personality was developed from being poor, but I was looking to be better.
K: You were 53-years old when your Chardonnay won the Paris Tasting so you had been at the winemaking process 20 years?
M: In my case, I had the ability to absorb knowledge of a lot of people. Andre and I both had the European attitude towards the wine and continue that all the way through. My style is different from young winemakers graduating today from U.C. Davis. Always look forward. Never backwards.
K: I’ve asked this of everyone I’ve interviewed, but how has the Judgment of Paris affected the wine industry?
M: After the Paris tasting, the Australians started making better wine. New Zealand and countries all over the world woke up to the fact that they can make better wine than the French. Paris Tasting is a victory for the Napa Valley and the whole world because the France claimed their soil or terrior was the best and now we know there are other places good too.
K: One of the phrases you are known for is the word “Moooore.” Describe that for me.
M: (Smiling) I tell my customers when they ask me which wine should they buy. I always tell them, taste it first and when the wine goes through your throat, if it says more, that’s the one you want. My life is always been about wanting more…more knowledge…being a better expert in wine….and I never ignore people. My father told me you can always learn from someone else and be sure to learn something every day.
K: What did you learn today?
M: I learned that I received this proclamation that the city I go to every winter, La Quinta in Palm Dessert, has proclaimed April 1, my birthday, Mike Grgich Day. I’m fortunate that I am getting better.
Side Note: Gustavo Brambila, who was portrayed in the Movie Bottle Shock didn’t come to Château Montelena until 1976. Gustavo joined Mike Grgich when Grgich Hills Cellars opened in 1977. There, Gustavo made wines for more than 20 years.
Intermittent rain welcomed me to Calistoga when I pulled up in front of Roam Antiques to talk to former Cellar worker at Château Montelena, Ron Sculatti. He described himself has a young hippy who thought he wasn’t very smart until he realized he learned by experience. He spent four years in the Air Force and then traveled around the world before landing a job at the winery in 1972. The St. Helena native would go on to work at several wineries and travel around the world once more before finding his niche in the retail sector owning several shops in the North Bay.
K: What were you like when you started at Château Montelena?
R: I just got back from world travels and my hair was down to my shoulders. I immediately became good friends with Roam Steineke, the winery’s Cellar Master. This shop we are in right now that is named after him. My son, Mario’s middle name is Roam and he owns the shop. Roam is the one who hired me. I remember when I came for the interview his hair was twice as long as mine and we hit it off. I was an easy-going guy and he hired me on the spot. He passed away about ten-years ago.
K: What made you decide to apply at a winery? You needed a job and just returned to the Napa Valley?
R: Wine has been in my family history. My uncle was Otto Beringer. Through that I grew up in the industry, not making wine, but working developing ranches and building ponds and driving tractors. I grew up with the Trincheros kids and Daryl Sattui so I was exposed to it. It was a natural thing and it was near harvest. I didn’t want to work at a large winery. I wanted something more hands-on and boutiquish. It was my first interview and I got the job.
K: I understand when Jim Barret bought the winery the property had been dormant for a while.
R: When I got there it was up and running. We continued to make improvements.
K: What was your role at the winery?
R: I was hired as a cellar worker. Primarily to do all the tasks that were needed to assist the winemaker, Mike Grgich and how he wanted to care for the wine. It was just Roam and I most of the year. Bo was there during harvest early on. We didn’t add chemicals like many wineries did. Mike was funny. He was quite conservative and he had three hippies working for him. His communications skills were not quite the best and we would tease him, but we all got along. What he asked of us, it got done. Mike was a fascinating man. In the book (Judgment of Paris) it referred to us as three long hairs that drank Tequila and a Croatian. We didn’t drink Tequila back then. During harvest in 1973 we put in some long hours. I distinctly remember when the Chardonnay grapes came and we were crushing them, Mike said one thing that stands out to me to this day – ‘These grapes are perfect, they’re perfect. What we don’t want to do is interrupt the process of these grapes producing world-class wine. Let nature take its course.” He knew that the day the grapes came in. That’s what we did. We barreled it, fermented it and bottled it. All along the way Mike sampled the wine and continued to say how good it was. I was naïve at that point. I didn’t know much about wine because I didn’t drink much. But, it sure smelled good.
K: Did you know Warren Winiarski back then?
R: He was a lot like Mike. Their passion for winemaking is incredible. He is a wonderful man like Mike. Both are giving men and have done a lot for the community.
K: Do you remember where you were when you found out about the Paris Tasting results?
R: I don’t remember the exact moment. I wasn’t at the winery at the time. I had left the winery, but it had become big news and I thought ‘Hey that’s cool’, but I didn’t know what the impact was going to be and for future generations. A lot of people felt that way. Then there were stories written. After a month or so it hit home. Everyone started realizing, yes, we do produce good grapes and make great wines and the French aren’t the only ones who can do that. It’s taken years with people like Robert going around the world and promoting the Napa Valley. Robert and the Paris Tasting are two things that changed the Napa Valley. I just happened to be at the right spot in the right time in history. Mike did not have the most sophisticated cellars workers there were. We just had the perfect grapes and Mike knew that when he saw them. We handled them that way. That was the formula for the success of this vintage. The winery was always immaculate. It was sterile and clean.
K: You have owned Mario’s Menswear in St. Helena for over 30 years. How did you transition from the wine business to retail?
R: It’s been 32 years. After Château Montelena I went to Charles Krug and got married to my former wife, Renee. She had heard about my travels around the world so I took her on a trip around the world. We followed the spring around the world. When we came back it was Harvest and I went back to Charles Krug. After harvest they ended up hiring another co-worker full-time instead of me. George Veara called me into his office and said we decided hire someone else. It kind of hurt my feelings because I know I did a good job. I asked could you tell me what mistakes I made. George replied you didn’t make any mistakes. You don’t belong here. You are too creative and have too many possibilities in life, but you don’t see them yet. He said trust me. I was shocked. He saw something in me that I didn’t recognize myself. During that transition Renee got in a bad car wreck and couldn’t work for six months. She had been working at a shoe store and I said I would take her place. I was hooked on retail after that. We have two kids; Mario Roam and Amelia Claire and we named our two stores after them. I also had a clock store and had opened several other stores. In the end it was easier to run just two stores. I help out here at Roam for Mario because I love Antiques.
K: What do you want people to do know about you?
R: Mike always said dreams do come true in the Napa Valley. We have been friends over the years. I was so proud of him. He was a big supporter of Vines for Mines to replace mines in the Croatian fields so kids didn’t get hurt. Thirty years ago, he had a fundraiser event and I went. I was scanning the silent auction tables and I noticed a bottle of the 1973 Château Montelena Chardonnay that won the Paris Tasting and I mentioned to Violet, Mike’s daughter that it was there. I wanted to bid on it, but then Violet announced the bottle was part of the silent auction. Everybody flocked to the table.
K: Did you get it?
R: I stood there until the very end to snatch up the bid sheet so I could put my name on it. I don’t remember what I paid for it, but it was reasonable. I took the bottle to Mike to sign. He wrote on my bottle. Mike, Roam and Ron made this wine together and then he signed it. We were the three full-timers and Mike acknowledged that.
K: Any stories you would like to share during your time at Château Montelena?
R: Interesting you should ask. Whether folklore or true it’s now been 40 years and this is a story I have told close friends. Accurate? Hmmm, I believe so because I told it so many times. I did mention it to Mike twenty years ago and he didn’t remember it, but I do know this happened. Was it the 1973 Chardonnay? Questionable, but Roam and I were pumping out a white wine out of the barrels into the tanks. When you do this you cover it with nitrogen so it doesn’t oxidize and positive move the wine. As it was filling up, I went to the top and peered in and my flashlight fell in. The wine was such a golden beautiful color it was magical, but I thought Oh God what am I going to do. I told Roam, ‘dude you won’t believe what just happened, but I dropped my light in the tank.’ He said ‘you what?’
It was one of those yellow flashlights that has the O-ring and doesn’t leak. Roam and I sat there for 20 minutes wondering what to do. We finally told Mike. Mike said ‘I know it will be fine, but we’re going to move it.’ There was a stainless steel tank empty next to us. We gravity fed from one tank to another and of course added nitrogen and positive fed. Then we recovered the flashlight. For years I joked that it was that last move that made the wine famous. That did happen, but I’m not positive today if it was that Chardonnay. I’m also not trying to take any part of the success of that wine. I just think it’s a funny story because the three of us panicked for a bit.
K: What’s next for you?
R: I love what I do and kept growing by learning by doing. I ended up inventing two items. I have two patents – one on a toy rocket and one on an alarm clock for fisherman. I thought it would be great for some place like Cabella’s, but it was picked up by the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog. I sold thousands. I bought my ranch in Pope Valley with the profits. Going back to Mike believing dreams are possible in the Napa Valley, I too, believe they are possible.
Warren Winiarski originally sold his house in 2007 with the sale of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, and has since purchased the residence back. Situated atop a knoll above the winery, the east side of the house is mostly glass, and the incredible vista through the long set of windows was a fitting backdrop for our interview. At one point Warren stopped, stood up and asked me to join him as he pointed to the rugged landscape in the distance and described how it was the first appellation designated an AVA based on the unique characteristics of its soil… but that’s for a later story.
K: I’m assuming by your last name you have some Polish in you?
W: Winiarski means winemaker or son of a winemaker.
K: Was your father a winemaker?
W: My father made wine during prohibition. He made honey wine, fruit flavored and dandelion wine. We had the wine for special occasions, holidays and celebratory events.
K: After you graduated from the University of Chicago you went to Italy. What was that like?
W: I spent a year in Italy having wine as a daily beverage, not three times a year like when I was growing up. That appealed to me, as did the variety of wines I was exposed to. When I went back to Chicago, that ritual faded away because drinking wine was not part of the culture in the U.S. at the time. Then a friend came to visit and brought a bottle of wine from the East Coast and it all came back to me – this beautiful activity with the beautiful accompaniment of food. Wine struck me as something to explore, and I kept doing that until I decided that I have to be a winemaker.
K: How did your wife, Barbara react?
W: It would be a different life than life in the city and we both wanted a rural activity that we could do as a family.
K: So you moved the family out to California?
W: Yes, in 1964. We moved to Angwin so, I could work as an apprentice at a two-man winery, Souverain Winery. I was number two man. (laughing). I had read about Correspondent Maynard Amerine who was a top enologist at U.C. Davis and author of many wine books. He inspired me to come west.
K: Was it hard to adjust to a more rural area.
W: Barbara and I were city dwellers, but we had vacationed in Northern Wisconsin. I was teacher then.
K: After working two years at a winery in Angwin you shifted gears and went to Robert Mondavi Winery.
W: Yes, I was the first winemaker for Robert. I had the opportunity recently at the 50th Anniversary celebration of the Robert Mondavi Winery to taste the 1966 Cabernet, which I made. They had three bottles left of the 1966 vintage. I became Robert’s first winemaker because his son, Michael (Mondavi) had to serve his National Guard Service. When I was hired in July, there was no winery so, to make the wine we had to be in the company of construction workers, plumbers, electricians and painters. I was part of the planning of the winery.
K: In 1970, you branch off and bought your own vineyard.
W: Yes, that’s because I tasted Nathan Fay’s Cabernet that came from the vineyard next door to my vineyard. In 1961, when Fay planted his grapes there were only 600 acres of Cabernet grapes in the entire state of California and 387 of those were in the Napa Valley. Though they were all planted north of Rutherford because people said it was too cool down here to grow Cabernet. Nathan Fay didn’t believe it was too cool to grow Cabernet in the region now known as the Stags Leap District AVA. Nathan was also a risk taker.
K: When you purchased the property, now known as S.L.V. it had prunes, cherries, walnuts and a grape varietal?
W: Yes a varietal called Alicante Bouschet, The Italians called it the grape that pays the debt. Big berries that produces tonnage, but not good wine. I tasted a lot of unblended wines in the Napa Valley and when I tasted Nathan’s it seemed to me perfection for that variety. I wanted to plant as close to him as I could because the terroir was similar. So I took everything out and planted Cabernet.
K: What was the atmosphere like in 1972.
W: There was no one here. I was the winemaker and I had one assistant, Wes Schram, but he was Seventh Day Adventist and he couldn’t taste wine. He just followed directions and he did that very well. When it was grape juice he could taste it, but once it was fermented he would reframe from tasting. He couldn’t sense when to do what. I had to do a lot more thinking. He did the work. There is the hand part of wine making and the head part. I did the head part and he did the hand part. He later went into the construction business and was very successful. He never had alcohol.
K: Where were you when you found out the results of the Paris tasting?
W: I was in Chicago taking care of my parent’s estate. So I was in the house where I first heard wine (as Warren describes putting his ear to the barrel to hear the wine). Dorothy Tchelistcheff, wife of famed winemaker Andre Tschelistcheff called Barbara and told her the news. There was a group of Napa Valley Vintner’s that went to France during the Paris Tasting, but were not at the tasting including Jim Barrett and his wife. Then Barbara called me. She said you remember the tasting and I said vaguely. I remembered that Steven Spurrier and his wife came to the winery and bought the wine. I didn’t know anything about the tasting. My understanding was he was going to show California wines to a number of people because he thought it was interesting how good California wines were. He thought his clients (many expats) in France would be interested too. The French thought California wines were produced near Mexico and put them down because they believed they would be hot climate wines like those from Nigeria. Sperrier said ‘Let’s do a blind tasting with the French wines because the French would be a model or the standard to which to judge the California wines.’ Sperrier had no interest in the outcome. That’s why he put the best wines he could find in the tasting. They were all models of excellence. They were the standard.
K: If all the wines were a model of excellence at the Paris Tasting and the best of the best, how did you feel about having your 1973 Cabernet there?
W: When Barbara called me and said we won the tasting my comment was very lax. It’s nice to win a tasting.
K: You didn’t know the significance of the tasting?
W: I did not because I didn’t know what other wines it was being tasted with. I didn’t know it was beauty contest and I didn’t know who the tasters were. No one here in the Napa Valley did.
K: When did you realize the significance then?
W: It was in the news and we began to make inquiries about it. What is this tasting and how was it conducted? Journalist George Taber wrote the famed article in Time in June 1976, and the significance hit home. I knew my wine was good. The French told me how good.
K: How did that make you feel?
W: (Smiling) “That made me feel good,” smiled Warren. “I made the most beautiful wine I could and I thought about that a lot. How to make a Cabernet great? I studied other wines of excellence like Andre Tschelistcheff’s Cabernet. When I was at Mondavi we took care of grapes for Freemark Abbey who also had two wines at the tasting I later heard.
K: What did the Judgment of Paris do for Napa Valley besides the obvious?
W: It made everyone think that their possibilities are greater than they did before. They may not have an aspiration as broadly unlimited as before, but it freed them from an artificial barrier to excellence. The French was not the only place in the world where grape beauty could come.
K: How was Stags Leap Wine Cellars affected after the tasting?
W: I knew this would be a big boost for our wines, but I wanted to get some of those bottles back from the 1973 SLV Cabernet for future tasting. We made 700-800 cases at the time. I went out in the market and bought them back wherever I could from distributors and retailers. My marketing instincts came back and I thought this would be useful in the future to have these wines back in the cellar
K: How many did you get back?
W: Quite a few. I don’t remember how many exactly, but the winery still has a few cases and I have a couple of cases. My business partner at the time told me we are suppose to be selling wine and not buying wine.
K: You sold Stags Leap Wine Cellar in 2007, what are you doing now?
W: (Joking and laughing) I didn’t want to be out in the street so I kept a parcel out of the sale to give me something to do. I grow grapes on 85 acres known as Arcadia in Coombsville and continue to teach literature during the summer at St. John’s College in Sante Fe, Arizona.
Side note: Winiarski was actively involved in the creation of the Stags Leap American Viticultural Area, and chaired the committee for the Napa Valley Vintners to develop and regulate the use of conjunctive labeling for the sub-appellations of the Napa Valley. The resulting legislation at the state level has served to guide other regions as they search for balance between the importance of name recognition and the identities of smaller regions with a distinct viticultural significance. He was also on the Steering Committee for creation of the historic 1968 Ag Preserve Act in Napa County. He was a big proponent for Measure J passing, which would require the vote of the people before changing any agricultural zoning areas.
But his true impact on winemaking in California is far larger. His employment and encouragement of young winemakers mentored an entire generation of top winemakers in California: John Kongsgaard, Francoise Peschon, Nikki Pruss , Michael Silacci, John Williams and more than twenty other young enologists worked at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars under Winiarki’s tutelage and then went on to found such wineries as Frog’s Leap and Kongsgaard, or lead the winemaking programs at Opus One or Araujo.