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A Moment of Remembrance: Warren Winiarski

A Moment of Remembrance: Warren Winiarski

He was ninety-five years old.

Still, I have dreaded the inevitable day that I would check my email and see the headline: Napa Winemaking IconWarren Winiarski dies at 95.

I had the rare and privileged opportunity to get to know this beautiful soul. When I was finishing my Master of Wine credential, I wrote a research paper on the cause for the rise of Cabernet in Napa from 1961-1976. No doubt, Warren was a huge reason for its escalation thereafter once his 1973 Stag’s Leap beat the best French wineries of Bordeaux in the 1976 Judgment of Paris. But he was also part of its growth leading up to this historic contest.

What began as a few interviews for the paper turned into longer conversations about life and wine. It turned out he was a midwest boy from Chicago. He studied western classics and political theory. A year in Italy (1954) studying Niccolo Machiavelli exposed him to wine life. Not wine as an occasional pastime beverage. But wine as a food. He told me in an interview, "Here, they had wine with meals as an everyday beverage. Wine to me had always been a celebratory and ceremonial event, not a daily accompaniment to food. So that led me to be fascinated by wine, and read about it, and talk about it, and do all the other things until finally I decided…wine had taken over.” He still had a spark in his eye talking about his love for wine. In fact, he was interviewed only two weeks ago (two weeks!), his mind as sharp as ever. That spark still in his eyes. Here is that video link.

And so began his love affair — a rabbit hole many of us in the industry have gone down (and some consumers!). Of course, few of us are exceptional as Warren. His rabbit hole took him first to Colorado to make wine. He and I connected over this as well, as I was living there at the time and serving on the Colorado Wine Industry Board. He traveled out there in 2017, and we went to the western part of the state to look at and assess vineyards together (one rather poor picture I took below) along with a few others. I loved listening to him. He was brilliant. And not because he knew all the answers. Rather, he was a constant questioner. 

He eventually made it to Napa, where, he felt the dreamers were being pulled. He explained, “Among the few, what those of us were looking for was to achieve wines of artistic excellence. No commodity wines. We were not interested. We were people with artistic inclinations, people who were driven by a need to or the desire to express beauty." Cabernet was hardly a forgone conclusion at the start of the ‘60s. But a tiny handful of folks, including Warren, believed it would be magic in those soils and in the hills. What they achieved together was nothing sort of phenomenal in such a short amount of time. Warren had no real formal training to speak of… but he figured it out.

In more recent years (around 2020), Warren sent me his old journals from traveling throughout South Asia and the Middle East in search of the oldest evidence of vines. He wanted me to translate his handwriting into typed text for a book he was working to publish. He gave me a suitcase full of notes when I was working harvest in 2020, and I took it back with me to Minnesota. As I sat with piles of his handwritten notes, I thought to myself how lucky I was to read through his adventures. He was so funny and perceptive. He savored life’s tiniest moments.

I am sad to know he is no more on this earth. But grateful he had a long, enriching life. He was among the leading promoters of Napa’s Agricultural Preserve that passed in 1968, and he gave millions back to his former schools, UC-Davis wine library, and Western Colorado Community College through his foundation. He will be missed by so many. Especially me. Rest in peace, Warren.

And thank you all for indulging me. If you ever get your hands on a bottle from the 70s or 80s from him, cherish it. (And invite me over!)



Photo Credit: The Press Democrat - 

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