How the man who put California wines on the map is helping others deal with climate change
The wildfire on the ridge was on the move, swallowing a cluster of trees before devouring another.
Warren Winiarski watched, transfixed.
It was October 2017, and fires were raging around Napa, with the night sky lit up in a frenzy of flames.
Winiarski, the winemaker who shocked the world when his Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars cabernet sauvignon beat the best of Bordeaux in the famed 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting, watched the spectacle from a perch on Soda Canyon Road.
His paradise was on fire, and he was in a race against time. With the fire encroaching, he knew he had to evacuate quickly.
“When it became so extensive as it did in 2017, it seemed it had passed a type of class of fire and became something more universal in nature, more frightening, more threatening, a more ominous thing,” Winiarski said. “On a vast scale, it had a different effect on your soul and your perception.”
A small-framed man with untamed white hair, Winiarski is now 92 years old. He walks gingerly and is soft-spoken, but don’t be fooled: Winiarski is still a tour de force.
As a man of action, he knew he couldn’t stand by and watch the wildfires ravage the land he loved without doing something.
With some wineries left in rubble and large swaths of vineyards left charred, a phrase Winiarski heard over and over again resonated with him: “Nature bats last.”
He decided he needed to help wine growers deal with climate change, so they would be able to not only preserve their craft but improve it.
To do that, he settled on what’s known as the Amerine-Winkler Index, developed in the 1940s to classify wine-growing regions based on heat from the sun. It’s sort of a Farmers’ Almanac for winemakers, a scientifically calibrated guide that tells growers what varietals to plant where.
Regions where there are fewer warm days are better suited for early ripening varietals like chardonnays and sauvignon blancs, while areas with more warm days are better for cabernets and syrahs.
Growers rely on the index the way pilots depend on flight plans. But while the climate has changed a lot in the 75 years since A.J. Winkler and Maynard Amerine introduced their index, the scale itself had not.
“It’s time to reassess how much climate change is going to affect grape growing,” Winiarski said. “We have to develop the method to better discern what is relevant in climate change and what is not.”
Intent on updating the index, Winiarski donated $450,000 to UC Davis this year. He tapped the university’s expertise, with Elisabeth Forrestel, assistant professor in the department of viticulture and enology, as the lead researcher.
“The last few years have been a huge wake-up call,” Forrestel said of the effects of climate change, most notably the wildfires and the drought. “It creates a sense of urgency. How much can we learn in as short a period of time to help people cope and manage?”
The goal, she said, is to have at least part of the work published in 2023 with guidelines. One guideline could be a recommendation to harvest earlier to protect against wildfires and smoke taint.
“The critical piece is that we have to take adaptive measures,” Forrestel said. “You’re going to take a hit if you do things the way you always have.”
The Atlas fire was one of more than a dozen blazes that broke out Oct. 8 and 9, 2017, and burned across several Northern California counties. It began on Atlas Peak Road north of the city of Napa, eventually stretching from Lake Berryessa south to the city’s outskirts. It and the Nuns fire, which began near Sonoma before merging with fires to the east, incinerated more than 108,000 acres — more than 168 square miles — in the spiritual heart of California’s Wine Country. By the time those two fires were tamed, nine people were dead and nearly 1,500 structures were gone.
Winiarski lost a barn, a house and a cottage at his Arcadia Vineyards in Napa.
Wine grape growing is at a confounding crossroads, he said. The resilient part of him wants growers to plant, but the scientist in him needs more information. He said an updated index is the map needed to guide exasperated winemakers.
“Everyone is concerned,” he said. “No one is blind to the fact that these things are happening.”
Philosopher to vintner
Winiarski came to his love of winemaking in a roundabout way. He was an instructor of philosophy at the University of Chicago and studied for a year in Italy between 1954 and 1955.
He was abroad to study the political thinker Niccolò Machiavelli, and wine became his muse.
“In Italy, wine was wonderful,” Winiarski said. “It was a daily beverage. It didn’t wait on ceremony. Yet it wasn’t a simple beverage. It had something within its nature that was beautiful.”