Appetizers
July 31, 2007
Gold Along Silverado Trail

I don't think I'm overstating this when I say I was greeted by the most stunning news of the year for the California wine trade when I turned on the computer this morning and up popped an email announcing the sale of Napa Valley's Stag's Leap Wine Cellars.

The buyers are Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in Washington state and Marchese Piero Antinori of Italy.

The $185-million sale includes the iconic Stag's Leap Wine Cellars brand, the winery along Silverado Trail, and the winery's S.L.V. and Fay vineyards, which total 115 acres.

Warren Winiarski and his family, who began to plant vineyards in Napa Valley in 1970 and built the winery in 1972, will retain their 80-acre Arcadia vineyard to provide grapes for the winery's estate chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. Under the terms of the sale, Winiarski will remain an adviser at the winery for three years.

"I feel good," said Winiarski of the sale this morning. "It's a wonderful joint venture that Antinori and Ste. Michelle put together. They are dedicated to the same goals - quality and expressing the beauty of the land."

Winiarski was a lecturer in political science at the University of Chicago when he got bit by the wine bug in the 1960s. In 1964 he packed up his family and moved to Napa Valley to begin an entirely new career, starting as an apprentice with Souverain Cellars on Howell Mountain.

One of Napa Valley's more cerebral and inspiring vintners, Winiarski in 1973 made the Stag's Leap Wine Cellars cabernet sauvignon that three years later won a blind tasting in Paris that involved highly regarded French wine experts and such Grand Cru Bordeaux as Moutin Rothschild and Haut Brion. The upset stunned the wine world and accelerated California's esteem as fine grape-growing territory. Over the past 32 years that tasting has grown in such stature that it prompted publication of a book ("Judgment of Paris") and is the subject of two movies just moving into production.

Warren Winiarski and his wife Barbara have three children, but none was as interested as their parents in remaining in the trade. "We started this (winery) to do things as a family. That was our reason for leaving academe. We had this fundamental desire to work this out as a family, and we did, we had that. But peoples' lives become shaped a little bit differently. It wasn't the same kind of goal for the next generation. They love it, but it wasn't the same single-minded thing for them," said Warren Winiarski.

Both Warren and Barbara Winiarski said they are delighted that Chateau Ste. Michelle and Piero Antinori will continue the family's Napa Valley legacy. Antinori, whose family has been making wine in and about Florence for 600 years, already is familiar with the Stag's Leap District as a founding principal of nearby Atlas Peak Winery.

In addition to tending the Arcadia vineyard, remaining an advisor at the winery and traveling more with his wife, Winiarski will continue to lecture and teach, which he never has given up despite the time he devoted to running vineyards and winery. He recently returned from the Santa Fe campus of St. John's College, where he led a one-week session on Shakespeare. The experience, he mused, may help prompt him to sit down and write his take on contemporary Napa Valley wine history.

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