A true legend of Napa wines passes away

Warren Winiarski, the 95-year-old vintner who founded Stag’s Leap, has died.

Winiarski helped establish Napa and the Napa Valley as a worldwide region for fine wine almost a half-century ago. He died last Friday of old age.

Winiarski gave up a college professorship in Chicago and moved to California to become an entry-level wine apprentice. He later became a friend of Robert Mondavi and Mondavi's first head-winemaker, before founding Stag's Leap in 1972.

"I believe that Warren died very peacefully and very happily," said journalist and wine historian Karen MacNeil, the author of the massive Wine Bible.

She knew Winiarski for many years.

"He was endlessly in pursuit of what made great wine great. So, he was a very ambitious and curious man in the best of ways," MacNeil said.

When Winiarski founded Stag's Leap, some thought he made a mistake. 

"The district was considered too cold to produce great Cabernet Sauvignon," she said.

But MacNeil said Winiarski had a sixth sense.

"Winemaking is, of course, part science, but it's also part art and instinct," she said.

In 1976, his Cabernet Sauvignon shook the wine world by winning the Judgment of Paris Award, defeating French red wines of that era.

"The single biggest and most important event of a century. Nothing surpassed it," she said.

One of the bottles from the vintage that won the Judgment of Paris is shown at the winery. There's another bottle on display in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. alongside Neil Armstrong's moon suit in the "101 Things That Made America" exhibit.

"As an academic and as a heartfelt man, I think he saw that he had to support causes that raise the entire culture of wine in America," MacNeil said.

Fully aware of climate change, Winiarski and family funded research on adapting varieties and tolerances of grapes to global warming.