It was 40 years ago the American wine revolution occurred
A face familiar to Colorado winemakers is celebrating a 40th anniversary this year.
But it’s not your usual anniversary. This time it’s Warren Winiarski, the renowned California winemaker who nearly 50 years ago played midwife to a nascent Colorado wine industry, celebrating what is considered the most-consequential event in American winemaking.
Winiarski, the son of Polish immigrants and whose last name can be translated as “winemaker,” made the 1973 Stag’s Leap Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon that in 1976 bested the top red wines of France in a blind tasting that’s known as The Judgment of Paris.
At the same tasting, a 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay made by Miljenko “Mike” Grgich won out against the best French white Burgundy.
This unexpected result in what was planned as a slam-dunk showing of the “best of the best” of the French wine industry at the expense of the upstart Americans stunned the wine world and put Napa Valley, and by extent the American wine industry, on the map.
May 24 marks the 40th anniversary of The Judgment of Paris and to commemorate the event, Winiarski and the Smithsonian are hosting in May two sold-out wine dinners.
The dinners will be held at the National Museum of American History and will bring together individuals who organized and attended the 1976 tasting in Paris, the winemakers who made the winning vintages, and individuals who are carrying on the legacy of fine winemaking in America.
Two other notable guests will be attending the events: wine writer Steven Spurrier, who arranged the competition, and George M. Taber, a Time magazine reporter and the only journalist to cover the event. Writer and wine critic W. Blake Gray called Taber’s four-paragraph story about the tasting “the most significant news story ever written about wine.”
At the time, however, no one realized how significant it was, least of all Winiarski.
He had been asked to submit a wine for the tasting but he was in Chicago, not Paris, on the day of the judging.
“I was in Chicago when Barbara (his wife) called me to say I had won,” recalled Winiarski during a recent conversation. “I said, ‘That’s nice.” I didn’t know what wines were being tasted or who the judges were.”
Once he realized the impact of what he and Grgich had accomplished, he says it “changed the way we looked at things.”
Meaning American winemakers, and back then it almost entirely was California, no longer had to play caddie to the European wine industry.
“Nothing was the same after that,” Winiarski said. “It certainly changed the way I looked at things and opened many horizons for me and the industry.”
It certainly angered and frustrated much of the French wine industry, Winarski recalled, including one French judge who demanded her ballots be returned.
“Afterwards I received several letters from members of the French wine industry saying that the results of the 1976 tasting were a fluke,” he said.
The 2008 movie “Bottle Shock,” which focuses more on Grgich’s chardonnay, is an interpretation of the judging.
A bottle of Winiarski’s award-winning 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon is displayed in the Smithsonian’s “FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000” exhibition.
In its November 2013 issue, Smithsonian magazine included this bottle as one of the “101 Objects That Made America.”
“I always was striving to achieve a sense of completeness, of balance, in my winemaking,” Winiarski said. “I think the wine that went to France reflected that balance.”
Winiarski was inducted into the California Vintners Hall of Fame in 2009.