Warren Winiarski, who passed away June 7, 2024, will always be known as the champion of California wines and the establishment of Napa Valley as a renowned world-class wine-growing region. After winning the 1976 “Judgement of Paris” in a blind tasting against the best French wines of the day, his commitment to what he called our “National Treasure” never ceased.

Warren garnered numerous prestigious honors and awards throughout his career. He was inducted into California’s Hall of Fame, received the Trustee Medal of Honor from the Julia Child Foundation, the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal awarded by the Smithsonian Institute, and received the University of Chicago Distinguished Alumni Award in 2010. Additionally, he has supported research at UC Davis and donated extensively to local hospital foundations and his alma mater.

However, his legacy was also established through his decades of environmental work here in this world-famous wine-growing region of the Napa Valley. Warren began his life-long dedication to Napa as early as the mid-1960s, where he was instrumental in establishing the first-of-its-kind Agricultural Preserve. Warren was a true visionary; he knew the land needed to be preserved for wine grapes then and into the future. The Ag Preserve limited development on the valley floor as he looked at what was happening in the Santa Clara Valley, where housing development enveloped what was once bountiful agricultural land. Very few people know he canvassed Angwin, going door to door to gain votes. He never lost his drive to protect our long-range agricultural heritage.

I met Warren when he was in his early 80’s at a home in Angwin. By this time, he had already seen success as the founder of Stags Leap Wine Cellars. I was quite humbled that this man, already larger than life, would offer his experience and time, along with notables Volker Eisele and Duane Cronk, to protect this mountain top’s open space and vineyards from a prospective 800 unit housing development. Measure U was borne, eventually leading to Save Rural Angwin’s leadership in changes to appropriate land use changes.

In 2016, he and his daughter Julia were inspirational in supporting a potential county-wide initiative named the Water, Forest, and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative, which Warren saw as absolutely necessary to preserve water for agriculture and citizens alike. This initiative never made it on the ballot because of County Counsel Minh Tran and threats from a member of the Board of Supervisors. Tran refused to place it on the ballot in 2016, necessitating an appeal all the way to the California Supreme Court. A split decision from the Court leaves the issue still open to this day.

From Warren’s perspective, it was apparent that more support was necessary to support watershed protection measures, including from influential growers and vintners. The valley floor was fully planted, and the impetus to plant on the hillsides was great. I set out to gain additional vintner support. An interesting development occurred when I spoke with Andy Beckstoffer about establishing an environmental group. Andy said, “If you can get Warren to join, I’m in too.” Thus came the Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture, which eventually morphed into the non-profit Save Napa Valley Foundation (SNVF).

In 2018, SNVF, working collaboratively with the Napa Valley Vintners (NVV), authored the Watershed and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative, Measure C, gathering signatures and preparing it for the ballot. However, strong forces within the NVV forced the organization to reverse course and ultimately spent over a quarter million dollars to oppose the measure they had helped create. This enraged Warren, and he dove into the fight, once again, with courage and conviction. He said in a commercial television ad for Measure C: “I’m Warren Winiarski, and I’ve been in the wine industry since 1964. Water is needed in the valley and it gets its recharge to the valley floor from the Oak Woodlands. The citizens are dealing with a limited resource and agriculture is part of that equation, not the whole story. I urge my fellow citizens to vote for Measure C.”

Measure C lost by 1% even though nearly $ 1 million was spent by the industry’s oppositional forces. The opponents used a misleading and fear-based campaign. Although Measure C was narrowly defeated, Warren’s resolve was not. Into the picture came Representative Mike Thompson, who pulled together environmentalists, electeds, and industry leaders to work on a compromise. The Water Quality and Tree Protection Ordinance emerged, which did little to protect the hillside forests but was a political success. Warren and Andy Beckstoffer attended the numerous meetings suggested by Representative Thompson.

Warren vehemently said to me, “I won’t support a loser again.” As a strategist, he quickly funded a large poll to determine what was the leading issue concerning our residents. He had been correct all along, as the poll indicated that people were most concerned about water quality and sustainability. We prepared for another initiative for the 2020 ballot. The initiative had been drawn up, funding support was large, and environmental groups like Napa Vision 2050 threw their full support behind the prospective initiative. Then came Covid and lockdowns and, ultimately, the inability to collect the necessary signatures for ballot placement.

In recent years, Warren has stopped coming to SNVF board meetings, but he asked that I call him once a month to keep him abreast of our work. His staff continued to encourage and expedite information delivery to keep Warren informed of the political and environmental climate. We owe great appreciation and gratitude to Sara, Diane, and Denise for their overwhelming support and care for Warren over the last few years!

Warren’s determination was undeterred. In 2020, he fully supported county supervisor candidates Anne Cotrell and Joelle Gallagher, who he believed have a balanced approach and real understanding of the effects of climate change and our precious resource of water. Then again, in 2022, he realized the potential of having a majority of environmentally conscious supervisors on the Board of Supervisors. He got behind Liz Allesio and Amber Manfree, who, as we now know, easily won their positions and guaranteed development could occur, but only in appropriate locations.

Warren’s legacy will live on here in this National Treasure, this Napa Valley, we all call home. To me, that legacy is equally important for the wine industry’s future success. He was a humanist, a loving husband and father, a good friend to many and he will never be forgotten.