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Monday, May 12, 2014

The first flying winemaker...


The consultant winemaker has always been important. Many people have a vision and the means to start a winery, but not the winemaking skill. Perhaps the best example would be Robert Mondavi. Mondavi was not a winemaker. He always hired winemakers to make his wine. For many years, his sons were the chief winemakers. Many other now-famous winemakers have also passed through the doors at Mondavi.

However, the role of a consultant winemaker is not that of a person that oversees the day-to-day operations at a winery, but stops in a few times throughout the year to offer an outside perspective. Napa Valley and Bordeaux are two places where wineries heavily rely on the advice of consultants

In the 1990s, the idea of the consultant winemaker took on an even bigger role as more people got bitten by the vintners bug and established producers wanted to make a splash by adding a big name winemaker to the payroll. As certain winemakers' fame began to rise, the concept of the flying winemaker took shape. Flying around the world and consulting for dozens if not hundreds of wineries, the likes of Michel Rolland, Stéphane Derenoncourt, Paul Hobbs and Nick Goldschmidt, have developed a reputation for being a guarantee of producing high-quality, expensive wines. Rolland has become the poster child for the flying winemaker moniker, he has also been cited as a reason for the development of the international style of wine.

But Rolland wasn't the first winemaker to hop on a plane to go to work. Warren Winiarski, himself the son of a amateur winemaker (and for what it's worth, his surname literally means "son of a winemaker) was the first winemaker at the aforementioned Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa. He was also, perhaps, the first flying winemaker in the United States.

Winiarski moved to California in 1964 and worked with Lee Stewart at Souverain Cellars. "Lee Stewart was also a great teacher," explains Winiarski. "A man of detail. No detail was too small to make the wine better." Winiarski spent two years at Souverain before moving on to work with Mondavi. "I was the number two man in a two-man winery. I didn’t want to do that forever. That’s not why I moved to California.”

Robert Mondavi asked a young Winiarski to be his winemaker in 1966. Mondavi's children, who both would later go on to be winemakers at Robert Mondavi Winery, were not options back when Robert was opening his eponymous winery on Highway 29. Michael was doing National Guard service and his brother, Tim, was too young at the time. As he helped set up operations at the new winery, Winiarski learned a great deal from Mondavi. Where Stewart was detail-oriented, Mondavi was just the opposite. Details were bothersome. Vision, outlook and energy were Mondavi's greatest strengths. He was a large-scale, large-scope thinker. He was always looking way ahead. These traits were the perfect complement to the attention to details that Winiarski picked up under Stewart's tutelage.

Two years after starting at Mondavi, a man from Colorado, Dr. Gerald Ivancie said he needed a winemaker. His dream was to bring California grapes to Denver. He wanted to have a "Mile High" winery. It had the potential to be a fantastic opportunity in marketing. "Dr. Ivancie was a very forceful character," explained Winarski. "Had to be with a vision like that. He had the energy and he had the detail. He was a periodontist. In a way, he combined those two previous teachers in one body."

With that in mind, it seemed like a natural transition to Winiarski. He left Robert Mondavi Winery to go work for Ivancie Cellars. Winiarski would find the grapes in California, pack them in a refrigerated semi-truck and then get on a plane after sending them to Denver. Winiarski would meet the grapes at the winery in Denver. "Dr. Ivancie was a man who loved the idea of wine, but living in Denver and knowing that California grapes were what he wanted to make wines from, he couldn’t move the idea of his winery to California, so he moved the grapes to Denver,” reminisced Winiarski. He thought it was a fantastic scheme. He brought in best grapes he could get in California - from Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino, but crushed and fermented them in Denver. Ivancie had people waiting for this "Mile High" wine.

I met Winiarski for the first time late last year. It was actually at a dinner at Tim Mondavi's recently opened Continuum Estate high up on Pritchard Hill. When I introduced myself as being from Colorado, I could see a twinkle awaken in Winiarski's eyes. I asked him if it was true that he had actually worked at Ivancie Cellars. He was quite surprised that I knew that he made wine in Colorado. In fact, not even Tim Mondavi knew that. Mondavi didn't believe me when I mentioned that fact the night before because he said that Winiarski made wine at his dad's winery in the late 1960s, so he had a hard time believing the iconic Winiarski would do something as silly as make wine in Colorado. It turns out that brief period in Winiarski's history was anything but silly.

Winiarski's time at Ivancie Cellars was the liminal point of his training. At Souverain he was, as he said, the number two man in a two-man show. At Mondavi, though he was the winemaker and had the final decision, he was not alone. There were other people around assisting, providing advice and working in a collegial setting, all under Robert Mondavi's eye. At Ivancie, he was flying solo. He was in charge of organizing all matters both in California and in Denver. There was no collegial aspect to making the wine. "That felt good," reminisced Winiarski. "I am indebted to Dr. Ivancie for having given me the opportunity to fly at his winery."

A few weeks after meeting Winiarski in Napa, I got a call from him - out of the blue. I was a bit surprised that he actually remembered meeting me. He told me that our chat rekindled some fond memories and that he wanted to comeback to Denver to see what "that seed planted more than 40 years ago has sprouted into." I mentioned a few times that might be best for him to taste and visit with as many producers as he could, and he settled on coming out as a judge in the 2014 Governor's Cup competition. Winiarski also agreed to speak to a group of industry members about his time in Colorado and how it shaped his development into one of America's iconic winemakers.
As you might surmise, Winiarski's time in Colorado didn't last too long. In fact, he was only at Ivancie Cellars for two years - the same amount of time he spent at Souverain and Robert Mondavi Winery. Winiarski didn't actually relocate to Colorado. He remained in Napa during his tenure at Ivancie, developing a property on Howell Mountain he purchased in 1965. Winiarski was also an important player in the development of Napa County's Agricultural Preserve Act. Splitting duties between California and Colorado, Winiarski truly was a flying winemaker. Another similarity with his previous two jobs was that eventually a better opportunity came along.

In 1970, Winiarski bought a second vineyard in California. After  tasting a wine produced by amateur winemaker Nathan Fay, Winiarski decided that the ground from which those grapes came was the apogee of cabernet terroir. With a little help from his parents, a few investors, and using the funds from the sale of his Howell Mountain property, he purchased 44 acres next to Fay’s vineyard, in what is now Stag's Leap District. This unassuming prune orchard was the place he thought would grow cabernet sauvignon best in all of the Napa Valley. "This opportunity only comes once," explained Winiarski. "I had to take it. I had to leave Ivancie and concentrate my efforts on making wine in California. I didn’t have time to work with Dr. Ivancie to further his dream."

Now, Winiarski would try to further his dream to make exceptional cabernet out of what was then a mundane prune orchard. Winiarski obtained budwood from Nathan Fay, Joe Heitz, and Tom and Martha May (Martha’s Vineyard) and named his endeavor Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. The first vintage of S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon was crushed and fermented at Oakville Vineyards (but barrel aged in his house) because Winiarski was still in the process of designing and building his winery. It was the wine produced from only the second harvest (1973) that went to Paris in 1976. As you probably know, that wine came in first place in a blind tasting of ten red wines (6 from Napa Valley and 4 from Bordeaux).

Winiarski was at his parents' home in Chicago when he found out about the results of the now-famous tasting. His wife called him with the amazing news. His first reaction was that of being underwhelmed. He had no idea who the tasters were or the identities of the other wines. Reasons enough to not get overly excited by the results of a blind tasting. The next day she called again and said that the phone had not stopped ringing. He eventually received the details of the event and only then did he realize the scope and importance of what had happened. It broke the glass ceiling. Before that point, people said that California was capable of making decent wine, but the truly great wines were only made in France. "Everyone was free to aspire to a higher goal. Before they had been submerged. Their aspirations had been shortchanged at an artificial and imposed boundary line that they could not pass," proclaimed Winiarski.

The American wine scene did not evolve just because of the results of that single tasting. Other than the wine, the food component was the most important aspect in raising America's, California's, and certainly Napa’s vinous acclaim. Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961) took off and is still a seminal culinary work. The transisition from fortified wine to dry wines was also taking place. For the first time, dry wines exceeded the sales of fortified wines. The interest in food and the interest in wine as a food was taking place at the same time. This interest in sensual experience, letting one's palate experience wonderful things with both food and wine, was a big change for the American wine consumer.

Talking to the group of Colorado winemakers hopeful to recreate some of his own success, Winiarki discussed some of the endogenic changes that helped Napa's wine industry develop into the juggernaut it has become. Before the Judgement of Paris, winemakers tended to approach winemaking by the book. They would do punchdowns precisely the same way, regardless of variety or vintage characteristics. At the most important time of winemaking, vineyard workers (perhaps with the with the least interest in the final product) were sometimes brought in to help with rote punchdowns. But all that started to change after the glass ceiling was shattered. Winemakers started to pay attention to the differences in cultivars and vintage variability. The formula started changing. They started paying attention to temperature and an array of other details.

Winiarski also encouraged the room full of producers to stop and think about what they are trying to accomplish. He stressed, on multiple occasions, that a winemaker’s intent and vision is very important. The material he or she has to work with is one thing, but how the wine is going to come to perfection though his or her activities is perhaps the most important part of the process to take into account. Winiarski emphasized that three things make wine. Grapes are only the material. The person (or people) that makes the wine is secondary to the vision of the winery. When you break it down, he said there really are only the head part, hand part, and raw material part of winemaking.

During the seminar, Winiarski was able to have his first taste of wine made from Colorado grapes. After 46 years, a dream that he helped build was being carried out by hundreds of others. He made suggestions to some of the vintners in the room, such as co-fermentation, longer bottle aging and even raising the bottle price of a tasty Lemberger. Winiarski also astutely tasted almost 100 wines during the Governor's Cup. At one point during the sweepstake round, he stood up to exclaim that a Boulder Creek Winery Sauvignon Blanc was the finest wine he had tasted and thought the cultivar showed great potential. He said that he wanted to personally commend the winemaker. After the competition, he specifically requested to know the identities of two other wines because he thought they were incredible. Those wines were Boulder Creek Winery's Tempranillo and Bookcliff Vineyards' Malbec. He shared with the group of judges that he thought the wines he tasted over the weekend proved to him that Colorado is producing some truly world-class wines and he was eager to return next year to judge again.

What Winiarski did for the Colorado wine industry, the California wine industry, and really the entire American wine industry, was truly momentous. If he had stayed at Ivancie Cellars only a few years more or, heaven forbid, not at all, the entire history of our industry might look entirely different than it does today. Having him come back meant a lot to the winemakers that came to see him speak. Winiarski stopped making wine in Colorado in 1969, years before another winery would even open. In fact, Ivancie Cellars shut down a few years later in 1974. 

His time in Colorado was not without impact on the next generation. Jim and Ann Seewald would come down to help unload and press grapes when Winiarski arrived to meet the Napa fruit he selected for Ivancie. At the time, the Seewalds made hobby wines. But something must have sparked the Seewalds to carry the flame for Colorado's wine industry. In 1978, they started Colorado Mountain Vineyards. A few years later, more wineries popped up, and by 1990 there were five wineries, federal recognition (in the form of Grand Valley AVA), and the Colorado's General Assembly passed the Colorado Wine Industry Development Act.

By using Colorado as a stepping stone, Winiarski dislodged that stone and sent it rolling on its current course. A group of bright, eager and motivated wine producers are, to this day, trying to keep the momentum going.

When asked to give advice on building a regional reputation, Winiarski told the the group of vintners, "Get to know your strengths, get to know what you do best. Concentrate on your strength. Clarify in your own mind what you want your wines to become." In my humble opinion, all too often regional wineries forget this important step of defining the winery's identity and vision of each of its wines. Making a rainbow of wines of various styles with the hope of selling to every single person that walks into a tasting room is perhaps an astigmatic approach and incompatible with Winiarski's suggestion. For wineries and wine regions to break through the glass ceilings so many are knocking on, having the vision and aspiration to break through is possibly more important than having just desire or merit.

Winiarski continued, "You can't help making regional wines; that's the region they're grown in. They will betray their origins some way or another. Think about different things; not about what the regional character is, but what is the wine supposed to do? It is not because you are thirsty. It is not because you are looking for something different when you're slaking your thirst, but it does something more. It's the head part. You talk about wine. You get that far-away look. You're thinking about something else. Some wines satisfy in ways that other wines don't. When we find a wine that expresses and satisfies by its completeness then we've gone beyond regional characteristics. What does it mean to be complete? Three things, it has a beginning, a middle and an end. When you transcend a region, you're going in the right direction."

There may be no better person than Winiarski to provide that bit of sage advice. With his classic American life story of building something great from an idea and hard work, Winiarski helped American wine transcend America. He helped force the world to see that there was more to Napa than Napa. From growing up in Chicago, listening to dandelions (which he helped his father pick) ferment in barrels, to teaching at the University of Chicago's Basic Program, Winiarski took a vision and changed the world. His short stint as a Colorado winemaker, one that is all too often ignored in most histories about him, led Winiarski back to urge other Colorado winemakers to plant more seeds and turn Colorado into more than a single tree in the forest of the wine world, but into a thriving grove worth visiting and admiring on its own.

On the way to the airport, I took Winiarski to go see the location where he and Dr. Ivancie sprouted Colorado's wine industry. As we drove by the building near the banks of the South Platte River, Winarski fondly smiled and pointed to the Cottonwood trees that were still where he remembered them. He described where the grapes came in and how the winery was only one half the building. He noted that an alley had been transformed into a street and that the manicured baseball diamonds across that street were not there in the 1960s. He seemed to enjoy looking back through time and reminiscing, but I cannot know what else was going on in that busy head of his. However, I could see that twinkle in his eye grow.

1 comment:

  1. Great article. Emile Peynaud was one of the first Winemaking Consultants and Mr. Winiarski has done so much, as well, to enhance wines.

    Let's all keep pushing wines to better levels and helping others succeed !

    Tom Payette
    Winemaking Consultant

    ReplyDelete