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  • Writer's pictureDiane Denham

20 years after California wines shocked the world, Smithsonian took notice


In 1994, the Smithsonian museum received an unusual phone call. Paula Johnson, at the time a specialist in the museum’s history of technology division, said most people call the Smithsonian to report a rare coin, a dinosaur bone or a ticket to the Titanic. But when California winemaker Warren Winiarski called, he wanted to know what the museum was planning for the 20th anniversary of the 1976 Judgment of Paris Tasting. “We soon learned that this, of course, was the watershed event in wine history — the blind tasting judged by French experts, which pitted the best of Burgundy and Bordeaux against a selection of chardonnay and cabernets made by several up-and-coming American winemakers,” Johnson said. The museum had precious little on American wine, she said, aside from objects related to wine service and a wine barrel donated by the late Robert Mondavi. It had absolutely nothing on the Paris tasting. Winiarski’s phone call led a Smithsonian team to develop oral histories and videos and collect artifacts for the “Food: Transforming the American Table” exhibition, still on display today. In 1976, he put California wines on the map. Now he’s trying to keep them there Inside a 20-foot-long glass case sit the two winning wines: the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon and the Chateau Montelena 1973 Chardonnay. They’re flanked by photos, videos and stories documenting the American winemaking feat. The two bottles also are chronicled in the book “The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects.” The author, Richard Kurin, included the bottles as a part of a Smithsonian featured object — Julia Child’s kitchen. “They helped signal the coming of age of an American cultural sophistication,” Kurin said. “The work of Mike Grgich (who crafted the chardonnay) and Warren Winiarski demonstrated that effort, talent and attention to detail and tradition could propel American winemaking to high-quality greatness.” Winiarski contributed seed money for the exhibit, and Johnson said she was impressed by his enthusiasm to chronicle food history as much as wine history. “Warren’s curiosity — his quest for knowledge — has never dimmed in all the years we’ve known him,” said Johnson, now curator of food and wine history for the American History Museum. One of the most compelling things about Warren, Johnson said, is his quest for perfection in nature. She said he once told someone on his team, “I know you think the grapes are ready to be harvested, but I think let’s wait and see if we can eke out a little more perfection.” You can reach Wine Writer Peg Melnik at or 707-521-5310.

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