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Farewell to Warren Winiarski, among the “noble fathers” of Napa, founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

Renzo Cotarella, ceo Marchesi Antinori, now owner of the iconic winery, to WineNews: “the first to realize the value of California wines”

A “legend” of the Napa Valley, of which he was among the “noble fathers”, shaping the rise of one of the world’s most important and prestigious wine territories by focusing on the “French model”, celebrated winemaker famous for his Cabernets, founder in the 1970s of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, one of California’s icon wineries, which owes its enormous popularity to the legendary 1976 “Judgment of Paris”, when the S. L.V. 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon towered over the great wines of Bordeaux and Napa itself, and also owner of Arcadia Vineyards. This was Warren Winiarski, who passed away, on June 7, at the age of 95. It was news that made the rounds in the wine world and beyond, remembering that, today, to have full ownership of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, is the historic Italian wine family Marchesi Antinori, the only Italian producer to own a winery in Napa.
Warren Winiarski was for 35 years at the helm of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, which was sold, in 2007, to the partnership between American Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, and Marchese Piero Antinori (for $185 million, indicates “Wine Spectator”), honorary president of Marchesi Antinori, one of the oldest family businesses in the world of wine, with more than 600 years of history behind it, and present in Napa since as far back as 1985, which, after 16 years, acquired the entire property, in 2023, becoming the only Italian producer to own a winery in Napa Valley, “keeping - Piero Antinori himself had said, commenting on the historic acquisition - the promise made to my friend Warren Winiarski: to preserve the legacy and values of such a prestigious company as Stag's Leap Wine Cellars”. Winiarski had, however, retained Arcadia Vineyard, purchased in 1996 in the Coombsville Ava, continuing to produce Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Merlot. “An absolute icon of Napa Valley”, Renzo Cotarella, CEO Marchesi Antinori, tells WineNews, “the first to have had the intuition, inspired by European wines, to produce Cabernet-based wines, radically changing the perception of Napa’s potential and value. Of which he was, like few others, a “founding father”, a dreamer with a great vision directed toward continuous improvement, thanks to a great deal of agricultural expertise, a perfectionist attentive almost more to the viticultural aspect than to the enological, in the belief that the vineyard represents the starting point for producing wines of excellence. He wanted to sell his winery only to Antinori”, he recalls, “at the time, in 2007, it was not possible, and he convinced us to take a share to ensure its stylistic continuity. Acquiring it, after more than 15 years, even for Winiarski, was a nice gift and a satisfaction towards our friend Piero Antinori”. With Marchese Piero Antinori entrusting his remembrance to the Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Facebook profile, “Warren will be remembered as one of the key players in the success of Napa Valley wines and, certainly, for me, one of the inspirations that most influenced my professional history. Not least, a person with a great humanistic culture and also a great sense of humor. A true friend”.
Born in 1928, in the Polish suburb of Chicago, after a Bachelor of Arts degree in the 1950s, Warren Winiarski spent a year in Europe and Italy, during which time he decided to change his path and return to the U.S. to become a winemaker. It was a passionate career that led him to become chief winemaker at Robert Mondavi Winery in 1966. In 1970, he bought a 50-acre orchard and ranch in Napa Valley, began planting Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot alongside some existing Petite Sirah vines, and debuted his first Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars label in 1972. A winery that was part of that small group of wineries-names such as Burgess Cellars, Caymus, Château Montelena, Clos du Val, Diamond Creek, Silver Oak, Spottswoode and Stags’ Leap Winery-that, by focusing on Cabernet Sauvignon, contributed to the success of Napa and California wines for an entire generation. “Like Robert Mondavi, he is one of the great architects of the rise of California wine and Napa Valley”, winemaker Paul Hobbs, his adviser in the early 2000s, told “Wine Spectator”, producing exquisite “Cabs” and was among the first to champion the “French model” for the appellation”.
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars owes its tremendous popularity to the legendary “Judgment of Paris” in 1976, when Stag’s Leap’s S.L.V. 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon towered over the great wines of Bordeaux and Napa Valley itself in the blind tasting that marked a key turning point in recent world wine history, promoted in Paris, by English wine merchant Steven Spurrier. A legendary bottle that, in 2012, Warren Winiarski donated to the permanent collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Today, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars produces three iconic Cabernet Sauvignons, Cask 23, S.L.V. and Fay, among the most sought-after in the world by collectors, and the same classic style is expressed by wines such as Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon, Karia Chardonnay and Aveta Sauvignon Blanc, and which have made Winiarski a mentor toward excellence, for California winemakers and winemakers, as Michael Silacci, Opus One winemaker, recalls in Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars from 1995 to 2001. But he was also a leader in the entire Napa Valley wine industry, among the earliest proponents of the Napa Agricultural Preserve in 1968 - “zoning”, ed - and in defining the label requirements that Ava Appellation wines had to have.
An active philanthropist to the end, he and his wife, Barbara, with the family foundation donated $50 million to St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, in which he was a graduate student, and 200 acres to the Napa Valley Land Trust. Dating back to 2021, however, is a $4 million bequest to the Smithsonian Institution to support the museum’s American Food History Project. A pioneering environmental advocate, he had recently donated $450,000 to fund research to update the Amerine-Winkler index, an industry standard that defines which varieties can perform well in which regions, to combat climate change.

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