Legendary Napa Valley vintner honored by Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

It all began 25 years ago with a call to a “castle.”

A team from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History was explaining why they were in Napa Valley on Thursday to present the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal to vintner Warren Winiarski.

The medal is given to people who have “made distinguished contributions to the advancement of areas of interest to the national museum,” according to the museum. The award was established in 1965 on the 200th anniversary of the birth of James Smithson whose bequest established the Smithsonian.

Winiarski, 91, joins a distinguished group of luminaries that includes Sir Edmund Hillary, Julia Child, Rosemary Clooney, Dave Brubeck, Walter Cronkite, Stephen Hawking, and Lady Bird Johnson.

The Smithsonian honored Winiarski for his “dedication to wine making and land preservation,” and credited him with inspiring and subsequently supporting the museum’s research and exhibits tracing the evolution - and elevation - of wine and food in America.

Winiarski’s award is the story of “how a California vintner and the nation’s history museum discovered a shared passion for the increase and diffusion of knowledge,” said Anthea M. Hartig, the director of the National Museum of American History, at the award ceremony held at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

In 1994, Winiarski called the Smithsonian’s castle headquarters asking what they planned to do to commemorate the upcoming 20th anniversary of the 1976 Judgment of Paris, the blind tasting at which French winemakers gave the winning scores to California wines over the French.

Winiarski, a philosophy professor turned vintner, had made the cabernet sauvignon that bested the Bordeaux red wines, while Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, then winemaker at Chateau Montelena in Calistoga, made the winning white wine, a chardonnay.

While the event marked a turning point for the American wine industry, Winiarski’s question to the Smithsonian evidently evoked a profound “huh?”

But not for long.

“At this point, there was little in the museum collection (about wine),” said Paula Johnson, a Smithsonian curator and now head of the food and wine history project at the museum. There were some items about beer and brewing, she said, but wine was limited to a barrel that Robert Mondavi had donated to their collection. And no one was familiar with the 1976 event that had rocked the wine world.

As the Smithsonian team began to research wine and wine making in the U.S., the project grew to encompass a myriad aspects from the contributions of immigrants to reflections on class and power. It grew into considerations of food and how it has reflected America, including the profound changes that have taken place in restaurants and home dining since the 1960s.

“It was a remarkable re-imagining of wine after Prohibition,” Johnson said.

Winiarski “has generously supported (the museum’s) path-breaking work,” over the past 25 years, Hartig said. “We are deeply grateful that he has allowed the museum to share the captivating stories of American culinary and wine making history in its full breadth, depth and diversity.”

“I am deeply honored,” said Winiarski, as he accepted the award along with accolades from members of the wine industry who gathered at the winery for the ceremony. Among them were Dorothy Tchelistcheff, widow of Andrei Tchelistcheff, the immigrant who taught Winiarski and other wine pioneers how to make wine, and Steven Spurrier, who organized the 1976 tasting.

Jim Williams, who was Winiarski’s first employee at the new Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars said, that in addition his legacy of both promoting and preserving the Napa Valley, Winiarski had also served as a valuable mentor to those who followed him. “You were a pain in the ass, but you brought us along,” Williams said.

“It’s amazing how many lives you have touched,” vintner Tim Mondavi added.

Winiarski acknowledged to the gathering that luck played a role in his achievements, hearkening back to his own mentors including winemaker Lee Stewart, “for whom no detail was too small to be neglected,” Robert Mondavi “for whom no goal was beyond reach,” and Andrei Tchelistcheff “for whom beauty in wine was everything.”

Winiarski praised the work of the Smithsonian in helping to break the perceptions of wine that lingered after Prohibition. “Remember the word ‘wino’?” he asked.

Two bottles of the winning red and white wine from 1976 now reside in the Smithsonian as “national treasures,” Johnson said, along with donations of artifacts and historical documents that have been donated by Winiarski and others.

At the end of the celebratory luncheon, Winiarski announced a “little surprise.” He still had “a couple of bottles left” of the winning 1973 Cabernet. “I can’t think of a better time to open them,” he said.

Wine glasses were distributed each holding three ounces of the rare wine. “I measured it myself,” Winiarski said.

He concluded the celebration by adding one more item to the Smithsonian treasures: a bright pink, 23-year-old work shirt that he was wearing when the museum team came to interview him as they began their wine history project.

“Now they have the shirt off my back,” he quipped.

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