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He returned to Chicago to complete his masters degree and began working on his doctorate. But his interest in wine has never wavered.
When a friend visited him with a tasty bottle from an East Coast winery, Winiarski was intrigued by the idea of ââmaking good wine in America. He began to read all he could about winemaking and to seek out knowledgeable mentors.
It took almost a decade, but eventually, 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 the family station wagon, loaded a trailer full of furniture and books and with their two children – Stephen, 1 year old in childbirth and Kasia, 4 – and headed to Napa Valley.
Although he had no formal training, Winiarski was determined to become a winemaker. His only connection to the profession was what he remembered from his childhood. Her father made honey wine and dandelion wine at home, which the family drank on special occasions. As a child, Winiarski listened to the mysterious sounds of fermentation, his ear pressed against a barrel.
âI knew I could learn and decided to give it my all,â he said.
He started out as an apprentice with Lee Stewart of Sovereign Castle, in a two-man crew, and was known to work long hours with grape-stained hands.
He was the perfect amount.
During his rest hours, he organized wine experiments in a ghost cellar. There was no electricity, so he relied on flashlights and candles and lanterns, with bats flying overhead.
âThe bats didn’t seem too interested in what I was doing,â Winiarski said. “I was just disturbing their sleep.”
Winiarski then joined the Robert Mondavi winery as a winemaker from 1966 to 1968, when Michael Mondavi was in the service of the National Guard.
In 1970, he bought a 50-acre plum orchard for over $ 100,000 and converted it into a cabernet sauvignon vineyard. In 1973, he founded Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and became a full-fledged winegrower, an alchemist transforming grapes with surprising results.
âIn the military, they call such a person a mustang, those who come out of the ranks and not out of West Point,â Winiarski said.
The Mustang – which celebrated its 57th harvest this year – was virtually an overnight success.
In 1976, his Cabernet Sauvignon, from the reconverted plum orchard, triumphed in Bordeaux during the Parisian tasting. Perhaps most surprising for French judges, steeped in tradition, was that Winiarski’s cabernet was produced from vines that were only 3 years old.
His Cabernet only arrived in Paris after a laborious verification. The late Steven Spurrier, the UK organizer of the tasting, first learned about it from the late Robert Finigan, a San Francisco wine writer, who recommended it.
In the early spring of 1976, Spurrier sent his then-American partner, Patricia Gallagher, to California to research Cabernet Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and other potential prospects.
She visited the wineries of Napa Valley and made a list. Spurrier flew to California several months later and made his final choices. Winiarski’s cabernet made the cut.
âThey were looking for promising winemakers using new technologies on a small scale, artisanal winemaking, where the owners were directly involved,â said Winiarski.
The tasting was an astonishing upheaval as two Napa wines were the winners of the blind tasting, beating the best from Bordeaux and Burgundy, based on scores from nine French judges. Stag’s Leap 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon won first place for the reds, while Chateau Montelena 1973 took first place for the whites.
In the book “Judgment of Paris”, author George Taber captured the distress of the bewildered French judges in this heated exchange between Odette Kahn, one of the judges, and Spurrier:
âMr. Spurrier, I ask to get my scorecards back,â she said.
“I’m sorry ma’am but you’re not going to get them back,” he said.
âBut these are my scores! ” she said.
âNo, these are not your scores. These are my scores! he said.
âSpurrier and Kahn continued the heated trading over the property,â Taber wrote, âuntil she finally objected, realizing there was no way to force him to give them to her. Spurrier then stuffed the pieces of paper into his summer intern’s hand and told him to immediately bring them back to the AcadÃ©mie du Vin (his wine merchant).
Taber was a correspondent for Time magazine covering the event, but said the story of the surprising victory was not highlighted in his post. However, newspapers like the New York Times wrote about the event and word spread about the Franco-American reshuffle.