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How the man who put California wines on the map is helping others deal with climate change

PEG MELNIK THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

November 27,2021

The wildfire on the ridge was on the move, swallowing a cluster of trees before devouring another.

Warren Winiarski watched, transfixed.

It was October 2017, and fires were raging around Napa, with the night sky lit up in a frenzy of flames.

Winiarski, the winemaker who shocked the world when his Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars cabernet sauvignon beat the best of Bordeaux in the famed 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting, watched the spectacle from a perch on Soda Canyon Road.

His paradise was on fire, and he was in a race against time. With the fire encroaching, he knew he had to evacuate quickly.

“When it became so extensive as it did in 2017, it seemed it had passed a type of class of fire and became something more universal in nature, more frightening, more threatening, a more ominous thing,” Winiarski said. “On a vast scale, it had a different effect on your soul and your perception.”

A small-framed man with untamed white hair, Winiarski is now 92 years old. He walks gingerly and is soft-spoken, but don’t be fooled: Winiarski is still a tour de force.

As a man of action, he knew he couldn’t stand by and watch the wildfires ravage the land he loved without doing something. With some wineries left in rubble and large swaths of vineyards left charred, a phrase Winiarski heard over and over again resonated with him: “Nature bats last.”

He decided he needed to help wine growers deal with climate change, so they would be able to not only preserve their craft but improve it. To do that, he settled on what’s known as the Amerine-Winkler Index, developed in the 1940s to classify wine-growing regions based on heat from the sun. It’s sort of a Farmers’ Almanac for winemakers, a scientifically calibrated guide that tells growers what varietals to plant where. Regions where there are fewer warm days are better suited for early ripening varietals like chardonnays and sauvignon blancs, while areas with more warm days are better for cabernets and syrahs.

Growers rely on the index the way pilots depend on flight plans. But while the climate has changed a lot in the 75 years since A.J. Winkler and Maynard Amerine introduced their index, the scale itself had not.

“It’s time to reassess how much climate change is going to affect grape growing,” Winiarski said. “We have to develop the method to better discern what is relevant in climate change and what is not.”

Seed money

Intent on updating the index, Winiarski donated$450,000 to UC Davis this year. He tapped the university’s expertise, with Elisabeth Forrestel, assistant professor in the department of viticulture and enology, as the lead researcher.

“The last few years have been a huge wake-up call,” Forrestel said of the effects of climate change, most notably the wildfires and the drought. “It creates a sense of urgency. How much can we learn in as short a period of time to help people cope and manage?”

The goal, she said, is to have at least part of the work published in 2023 with guidelines. One guideline could be a recommendation to harvest earlier to protect against wildfires and smoke taint.

“The critical piece is that we have to take adaptive measures,” Forrestel said. “You’re going to take a hit if you do things the way you always have.”

The Atlas fire was one of more than a dozen blazes that broke out Oct. 8 and 9, 2017, and burned across several Northern California counties. It began on Atlas Peak Road north of the city of Napa, eventually stretching from Lake Berryessa south to the city’s outskirts. It and the Nuns fire, which began near Sonoma before merging with fires to the east, incinerated more than 108,000 acres — more than 168 square miles — in the spiritual heart of California’s Wine Country. By the time those two fires were tamed, nine people were dead and nearly 1,500 structures were gone.

Winiarski lost a barn, a house and a cottage at his Arcadia Vineyards in Napa.

Wine grape growing is at a confounding crossroads, he said. The resilient part of him wants growers to plant, but the scientist in him needs more information. He said an updated index is the map needed to guide exasperated winemakers.

“Everyone is concerned,” he said. “No one is blind to the fact that these things are happening.”

Philosopher to vintner

Winiarski came to his love of winemaking in a roundabout way. He was an instructor of philosophy at the University of Chicago and studied for a year in Italy between 1954 and 1955.

He was abroad to study the political thinker Niccolò Machiavelli, and wine became his muse.

“In Italy, wine was wonderful,” Winiarski said. “It was a daily beverage. It didn’t wait on ceremony. Yet it wasn’t a simple beverage. It had something within its nature that was beautiful.”

He returned to Chicago to complete his master’s degree and began working on his doctorate. But his interest in wine never waned.

When a friend visited with a tasty bottle from an East Coast winery, Winiarski became intrigued with the idea of making great wine in America. He began reading everything he could about winemaking and seeking out knowledgeable mentors.

It took nearly a decade, but finally in 1964 Winiarski broke free from academia and headed west to be a part of this New World winemaking in America.

He and his wife, Barbara, packed up the family station wagon, loaded a trailer full of furniture and books and with their two kids — 1-year-old Stephen in diapers and 4-year-old Kasia — and headed for Napa Valley.

Although he had no formal training, Winiarski was determined to become a winemaker. His

only tie to the craft was what he recalled from his childhood. His father made honey wine and

dandelion wine at home, which the family drank on special occasions. As a boy, Winiarski would listen to the mysterious sounds of fermentation, with his ear pressed against a barrel.

“I knew I could learn, and I decided to give it everything I had,” he said.

He began as an apprentice working with Lee Stewart of Chateau Souverain, part of a two-man team, and he was known for working long hours with grape-stained hands.

He was the consummate up-and-comer.

In his off hours, he’d rig up wine experiments in a ghost winery. It had no electricity, so he relied on flashlights, candles and lanterns, with bats flying above.

“The bats didn’t seem too interested in what I was doing,” Winiarski said. “I was just disturbing their sleep.”

Winiarski later joined the Robert Mondavi Winery as winemaker from 1966 to 1968, when Michael Mondavi was away at National Guard service. In 1970, he bought a 50-acre prune orchard for $100,000-plus and converted it to a cabernet sauvignon vineyard. In 1973, he founded Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and became a winemaker in his own right, an alchemist transforming grapes with surprising results.

“In the Army, they call such a person a mustang; those who come through the ranks and not

through West Point,” Winiarski said.

Overnight sensation

The mustang — who celebrated his 57th harvest this year — was practically an overnight success.

In 1976, his cabernet sauvignon, crafted from the converted prune orchard, triumphed over

the Bordeaux in the Paris tasting. Perhaps most astonishing to the French judges, steeped in

tradition, was that Winiarski’s cabernet was produced from vines that were just 3 years old.

His cabernet made its way to Paris only after a laborious vetting. The late Steven Spurrier, the British organizer of the tasting, first learned about it from the late Robert Finigan, a San

Francisco wine writer, who recommended it. Early in the spring of 1976, Spurrier sent his

American partner at the time, Patricia Gallagher, to California to scout the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars cabernet along with other likely wine prospects. She visited Napa Valley wineries and made a list. Spurrier flew to California several months later and made his final choices. Winiarski’s cabernet made the cut.

“They were looking for up-and-coming winemakers using new technology on a small scale, craftsman-style winemaking, where the owners were directly involved,” Winiarski said.

The tasting was a stunning upset because two Napa wines were the victors of the blind tasting, beating the best of Bordeaux and Burgundy, based on the scores of nine French judges. The 1973 Stag’s Leap cabernet sauvignon won first place for the reds, while the 1973 Chateau Montelena snagged the top prize for the whites.

In the book “Judgment of Paris,” author George Taber captured the distress of the baffled French judges in this heated exchange between Odette Kahn, one of the judges, and Spurrier:

“Monsieur Spurrier, I demand to have my score

cards back,” she said.

“I’m sorry Madam but you’re not going to get

them back,” he said.

“But they are my scores!” she said.

“No, they are not your scores. They are my

scores!” he said.

“Spurrier and Kahn continued the sharp

exchanges over ownership” Taber wrote, “until she finally demurred, realizing there was no way to force him to give them to her. Spurrier then shoved the pieces of paper into the hand of his summer intern and told her to take them immediately back to the Académie du Vin (his wine shop).”

Taber was a Time magazine correspondent covering the event, but he said the story of the

surprising win wasn’t played prominently in his publication. However, newspapers like The New York Times wrote about the event and word spread about the Franco-American shake-up. Winiarski learned of his triumph while he was at his old family home in Chicago in June of 1976, settling his mother’s estate. He remembers clearly the phone call from his wife, telling him their wine won the Paris tasting.

“It was underwhelming,” Winiarski said. “I just knew we won a tasting. But the next day I got

more information and quickly learned it was something of significance for us and for the

American winemaking endeavor.”

While exciting, Winiarski said, the win gave him pause.

“I was more conscious of the standards for me to produce excellent, beautiful wines,” he said. “I realized I had to become more attached and pay attention to every detail.”

Winning made Winiarski grateful for his mentors, Lee Stewart of Napa’s Chateau Souverain and the late Andre Tchelistcheff, best known for defining the style of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon.

“Lee Stewart taught me that no detail was too small to be ignored,” Winiarski said. “And from Andre Tchelistcheff, I learned the most important thing about wine is its beauty.”

Winiarski’s achievement shifted the tectonic plates in the winemaking world, compelling even naysayers to be curious about California wines, he said. And it gave the upstarts bravado.

“It was an object of pride,” he said. “It was an object of gratitude for the abundance of what

this country has to offer. Andre Tchelistcheff* said we could 'make wine in the United States that was doubtless as good as those in Europe'. The Paris tasting affirmed that.”

From his earliest days as a winemaker, he wanted to make a difference.

“I wanted to transform an agricultural product that I came to love,” Winiarski said.

And in that spirit, he hopes updating the Amerine-Winkler Index will help winemakers in their quest to bottle the sublime.

“We must remember that as long as wine is made by humans, it’s a product of the mind. …

And the mind supposes a goal and a vision of what those grapes and those tools can get him or her to — the aspiration to bring perfection that they find from their conditions, their tools and their grapes,” he said. “We’ve learned how to spell,” Winiarski said. “Now, we’re looking to write poetry.”

The brainchild

But just as a poet must understand language, a winemaker must understand science.

It was Winiarski’s idea to update the Amerine-Winkler Index. In addition to contributing the

seed money for it, he’s providing data with a weather station on his property. Sensors in his

vineyards are transmitting information on humidity, wind speed, temperature and

precipitation.

“Winemakers and growers are receptive to participating, and I’m amazed at how helpful

they’ve been,” said Forrestel, the UC Davis researcher. “They want to understand what’s

happening and how to continue to make excellent wine and be responsible, too.”

Forrestel said she had been working on climate change and studying the historical data from the Amerine-Winkler Index when Winiarski approached the university. Her department then asked her to write a proposal to move the project forward. One of her first steps was meeting with Winiarski at his home.

“We really connected,” she said. “He knows some of the best wine in the world is made here. There are some people who aren’t so entrenched with the land, who don’t know the importance of it, but Warren does. He really wants to carry the industry forward in California and cope with climate change and all we’re facing.”

The updated version of the index, Forrestel said, will include the environmental factors and

management practices that affect plant health and berry chemistry. One focus will be on widely planted varietals that may be better adapted to future climate conditions, for instance those that are heat-tolerant because of the drought.

The limitation of the original index is that it’s one dimensional, focusing solely on heat and average daily temperatures. It doesn’t factor in other data, such as long periods without rainfall.

Cabernet sauvignon in Napa Valley is the test case, and research will expand to different

varietals within that region before tackling experiments across the globe.

“The (updated) index will be unique in how comprehensive it will be,” said Forrestel, who

expects the extensive research to cost in the millions of dollars.

Winiarski said he wants the scientists to lead the way because solving climate change isn’t his

forte.

“These are vast questions,” he said. “We’re not going to reverse the industrial revolution. We’re not going to reverse our efforts to become lord and possessor of nature to make life easier. We’re not going back to living in caves.”

Winiarski said he’ll continue to sponsor updates to the index to the extent it’s needed.

“It will be useful to us not only in the United States, but wherever it helps people in many

countries,” Winiarski said. “I would like to see UC Davis continue that, so we make that global contribution to viticulture over time.”

Ever the philosopher

At his Arcadia Vineyards, a spread of 150 acres with 85 planted to vines, Winiarski sits on a bench to put on his brown boots caked in dirt. He jokes that his boots seem as old as his former barn, circa 1890. It’s the one that burned to the ground in the Atlas fire. In its place stands a new barn, equipped with sprinklers to douse the wood building in water to protect it from flying embers.

He said he wants to give those who have suffered from the California wildfires a chance to

rebuild and arm them with a plan to succeed. He points to an RV not far from his barn, with

squawking chickens in front.

“We have a family of workers living there," he said, “until we rebuild one of the houses that

burned down.”

Looking back at his new barn, Winiarski was wistful. “I wish we had the old barn, but this one is doing its job. This one was made from a kit. They don’t make old barns anymore.”

He pointed out the gray volcanic ash on his property and said it was great for grooming

cabernet sauvignon. He picked up a handful, eyeing it with fascination and reverence as

though it were an artifact in a museum.

“My property backs into the cone of a prehistoric volcano, Mount George,” he said. “In the book ‘The Winemaker’s Dance,’ it says the area had volcanic activity millions of years ago.”

Winiarski sold his Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 14 years ago for $185 million to Washington’s

Chateau Ste. Michelle and the Italian wine company Marchesi Antinori.

He bought Arcadia Vineyards a couple years before that to transition into farming. Now he

sells grapes to wineries, most notably to Stag’s Leap, with his fruit making up 20% of its

prestigious Artemis cabernet sauvignon. Winiarski continues to oversee grape growing on

a daily basis and nurture his goodwill projects. The charitable foundation that bears his name

recently donated $5.1 million to the Providence Queen of the Valley Medical Center in Napa to establish a stroke center.

And, as he walks through the vines, the philosopher talks in metaphors, alluding to the

seed money he disperses. His wife died recently, and he knows he won’t be around to see all

these seeds grow and prosper. But that doesn’t bother him. To make his point, he explains the difference between a leaf, a cane and a seed.

“A leaf lasts one season,” Winiarski said. “A cane lasts many years. But with a seed, the desire is forever. The seed carries that message. Everything is for the sake of the seed.”

You can reach Wine Writer Peg Melnik at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-

5310.

*"...doubtless as good" original quote: Thomas Jefferson





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