In spring 1996, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History sponsored a two-day symposium called Red, White and American, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Paris tasting that showed California wines can beat the best of France. That symposium became the genesis of an ambitious project that brought Julia Child’s kitchen to the museum, developed a major exhibit on the growth of the country’s culinary culture, and amassed an impressive collection of oral histories and memorabilia from America’s food and wine pioneers.

As it celebrates the 25th anniversary of what is now called the American Food History Project and the 20th anniversary of bringing Child’s kitchen to Washington, the museum will announce on June 7 a $4 million bequest from Warren and Barbara Winiarski, founders of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in Napa Valley. The gift will fund a permanent curator position to be called the Winiarski curator of food and wine history, and it will support continued efforts to research and collect items relating to our appetites and thirsts.

Permanence was never assured for this project, especially in the early days. Warren Winiarski sponsored that 1996 symposium with a $50,000 grant and helped launch the research with a follow-up donation. He wanted to ensure that Americans recognized the importance of the Paris tasting, in which Winiarski’s cabernet sauvignon triumphed as the top red wine. And he was concerned that American wine, just entering a modern golden age, still lived under the shadow of Prohibition, threatened by a nascent anti-alcohol movement and a lingering image as just another type of booze.

American wineries were growing, helped in part by the “60 Minutes” broadcast in 1991 on the French Paradox that promoted wine’s health benefits. But just a few years earlier, the federal government mandated health warnings on wine labels and state governments were cracking down on wineries sending their bottles directly to consumers.

Americans were also becoming obsessed with food, so Winiarski and historians at the museum decided to combine the two themes and thus promote the culture of wine and food belonging on the dinner table together. Food gave wine legitimacy and some political cover.

“It had to be done carefully, with moderation and concern for some members of Congress who still retained the old image of wine and would be not favorable to the idea of the Smithsonian studying the wine story,” Winiarski told me in an interview. “But combining it with food, which at this time was growing in importance, helped us avoid any bruising sentiments” from the anti-alcohol movement.

Winiarski, now 93, sold Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in 2007 for $185 million to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Marchese Piero Antinori. He has continued to support the Smithsonian as well as other philanthropies, including Ellis Island and his alma mater, St. John’s College in Annapolis. In November 2019, the Smithsonian honored his support with its Bicentennial Medal.

He said the current bequest to fund the curator position would give the project “permanence.” “That’s very satisfying for Barbara and me, to see this continue beyond our lifetimes,” he said.

The American Food History Project has a team of five historians, who also work on other projects at the museum.

“When I look at my list of what we’ve done over the last 25 years, I’m astonished at what we’ve accomplished,” says Paula Johnson, the team’s leader. She ticks off a list: 60 oral history interviews related to wine, plus an additional 64 on brewing history and 30 on food. The museum’s food history collection includes more than 2,000 items and 136 cubic feet of archives. They’ve sponsored winemaker dinners and food history weekends, plus “hundreds of programs and events that try to build on our collections and research to bring these stories of American food, wine and beer to the people,” she says.

“Food: Transforming the American Table” opened in 2011 and became a permanent exhibit a few years later. In late 2019, the team added a section on the importance of migration and immigration, including a feature on Mexican American wine families.

Last year, the pandemic forced the museum to take its Food History Weekend virtual, which Johnson says expanded its audience nationwide. This year’s program, planned for November, will be a hybrid format.

As he spoke of his desire to make the food and wine history research effort sustainable over the long term, Winiarski reminisced about the initial $50,000 seed money he planted a quarter-century ago.

“We wanted them to come out and interview people at the winery so they could see it wasn’t the devil’s workshop,” he quipped. “They took pictures and did video interviews of people loving what they did in the vineyard, making a natural product of the earth in all its artistic efforts. It was craft, not chance, that produced the quality of fruit necessary to make beautiful wines.”

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