There’s an old black-and-white photograph of Warren Winiarski planting Stag’s Leap Vineyard (forever known as SLV) exactly half a century ago. He’s on a tractor, a big Ford 4000, but he’s looking as bespectacled and bookish as he would have done a few years previously, when he was still a political scientist at the University of Chicago.
As Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars celebrates its 50th anniversary (actually last year, but, for obvious reasons, celebrations were muted and events delayed), Winiarski remains a notable figure at the winery that he founded and which he sold in 2007 to Ste Michelle of Washington State and Antinori of Tuscany. Now in his early 90s, Winiarski lives quietly in a beautiful hilltop house high above the winery. He doesn’t want his name used in connection with Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars these days; he’s simply known as “The Founder” in official documents and correspondence.
The Founder remains revered at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars not simply because of the winery’s legendary status – it became a household name on 24 May 1976 when its 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon triumphed in Steven Spurrier’s famous Judgment of Paris tasting – but because his influence as a visionary winemaker is as relevant today as at any time in the past 50 years.
When he bought SLV’s neighbouring vineyard from Nathan Fay in 1986, for example, Winiarski soon realised it needed replanting (Fay had originally planted it in 1961). “It was a 66-acre hillside laid out very simply in long rows,” Marcus Notaro, the current winemaker, explains. “When you have a hillside like that you realise how different the top will be from the middle and bottom – the top gets ripe first, for example – and it quickly becomes interesting and complicated.