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Interview with Warren Winiarski

When Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23 won the 1976 Paris tasting, winemaker Warren Winiarski was catapulted to fame. SUSAN KEEVIL meets the Napa giant who hates big wines and loves his terroir.

He may be one of California’s most well-known figures, but Warren Winiarski is a difficult man to track down. Traces of the political scientist (his original calling) still remain. He’s not deliberately evasive – he’s generous to a fault with his time once you’ve nailed that appointment – but he needs an interval to consider things deeply. Then he’ll see you. Or, then he’ll tell you what he really thinks. Winiarski is a man who needs time to size a situation up, but it is, after all, a fastidiousness that has got him places. It has won him accolades. And it has made him great wines. Not many can say the same.

Up until 1970 Winiarski was a university lecturer in Chicago, when he upped and left for the Golden State and purchased himself the plot of land on the Silverado Trail, Napa, that gave him Mouton- and Haut-Brion-beating California wines. A fortuitous choice. ‘Wine comes into being because of a contribution from three things,’ says Winiarski, ‘all of which begin with “G”: The Grapes, the Ground and the Guy.’ The grape, of course, is Cabernet Sauvignon; the guy in this case is obviously Winiarski. But how does somebody fresh from Chicago choose the right patch of ground? The Napa Valley back then was more prized for vegetables and prunes than for vines… ‘It was when I tasted Nathan Fay’s homemade Cabernet from 1968, grown on his vineyard in what is now the Stags Leap District, that I decided. His wine was so different from anything I had tasted before. It combined suppleness with fine-grained structure – the soft and the hard together in harmonious unity. I hadn’t tasted Napa Cabernet of such completeness before in any of the other areas where the grape was grown. ‘So it was a quick decision – I had to find land nearby where I could make a similar wine. With the extraordinary grace of fortune, there happened to be land adjoining Nathan’s for sale. That became Stag’s Leap Vineyard, and it grew the wine that went to Paris in 1976.’

In Paris, four years after his first vintage (1972), Winiarski pitched a wine against the Médoc crus classés in Steven Spurrier’s now-famous blind tasting, and won – the first California wine ever to do so. This success caused mighty shock ripples along the Gironde. And now there’s not a prune in sight in Stags Leap – it’s all Cabernet, from Winiarski and others like him, much selling at $100 a bottle and more. A long way from Napa, in Piccadilly in fact, eating breakfast some 30 years later, what occupies Winiarski is not the ground but the ‘guy’ decision. The wines winning the prizes bother him slightly: they see too much guy. ‘After Paris we increased our exertions to get wines right, to make them more expressive, with slightly more richness. But there is a danger of too much richness, so the challenge was to walk that line, to achieve greater magnitude without excess.


Big is not beautiful

‘Quite a few winemakers then (as now) were focusing on maximum extraction of varietal character. But looking for varietal character as an end in itself is a misguided objective because it leads to powerful wines, wines that are overstated and fatiguing. Beauty and fatigue don’t go together. ‘I think there’s a point in the magnitude of a wine where the subtleties are missed. And I believe that wines that seek “the maximum” are missing the subtleties.’ So are the Parker-praised blockbusters of Northern Napa bad for the image of the region? ‘Yes, I don’t think they express the best they can do.’ Winiarski says that today’s big wines are ‘sensationalistic’ and don’t allow for the force that those grapes have within them. ‘Where’s the land that grew these grapes? It’s obliterated! It’s not allowed to speak!’

Winarski’s views are as valid for today’s wines as they were when he started out. His wine, too, still stands the test of time: Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar Cask 23 (the Paris winner) is still regularly seen on Top 10 wish lists in America, and comes in at well over $125 a bottle. But walking that ‘razor line’ isn’t always straightforward. ‘Viticulture and winemaking seem to reinvent themselves for us all the time… I’ve thought about that recently. It seems to go in cycles of 10 years. First, in 1976 we got our big star; then, in 1986 we bought the original Fay vineyard, and in 1996 we bought Arcadia Vineyard – the source of outstanding Chardonnay in the southeastern part of Napa. So we’ll have to see what happens in 2006! But right now we’re thinking harder than ever about white winemaking and “Arcadia”.’ Winiarski bought Arcadia from Mike Grgich (another pioneering Napa grower renowned for his good choices). This particular plot is not the alluvial-volcanic mix so prized for the red wines at Stags Leap but, instead, has a limestone-type soil. Limestone, as the source of the great Chardonnays of Burgundy and Champagne, is something of a holy grail for American winemakers, and Arcadia’s fossil-filled soils are therefore much-prized. ‘I think this wine will excite interest,’ says Winiarski: ‘It has no lees-stirring, no oak and no mono-style sameness. It’s a less technically manipulated form of wine. And I hope it will help change things.’

It’s Winiarski’s aim to lead California out of its obsession with heavily oaked dollop Chardonnays with a purer, finer style of fruit. So that’s purity of fruit like Chablis? ‘Yes, I hope so!’ But Arcadia’s not for ageing. ‘I’m not sure what age does for this kind of wine. Also, I remember a tasting of Haut-Brion Blanc a few years ago. The tasting went back more than 30 years. Someone asked Monsieur de Mouchy of Château Haut-Brion which was his favourite wine, and he said: “The most recent one, because if white wine doesn’t have youth and freshness, then what does it have?” ‘There is a different, more fundamental change in the characteristic of white wine. When they get to that nutty stage of development they are interesting, certainly, and are to be appreciated, but they aren’t necessarily a reflection of what they were.’


Winiarski Respecting the past

Looking forward, Winiarski won’t be joining the blockbuster band up the road, but will still be heading the avant-garde. ‘The future beckons. Reflecting on what we knew back then and what we know now we have the opportunity to make more beautiful wines in the vintages ahead. ‘I am not necessarily a futurist, believing in endless improvement and, therefore, always somewhat discontented with the present. Think of the great violins made in the past which have never seen their equal. Before our day, there were beautiful wines; in the present, wines are here to fascinate and give pleasure also. ‘We have some deeper understanding now as a tool to invoke beauty in the fruit. Perhaps we will not miss as many opportunities to invoke beauty as we had in the past if we are attentive to what nature offers us.’

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