It all started with a phone call, in 1994 or thereabouts. Warren Winiarski, founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in Napa Valley, dialed up the main switchboard of the Smithsonian Institution, in the era before websites and email, and asked the nonplussed operator what the nation’s museum was planning to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 1976 Judgment of Paris wine tasting, where California wines beat the best of France.

Nothing, as it turned out. Winiarski’s inquiry was bounced around from office to office until it landed with the archivist of the National Museum of American History. A quick check of the collections turned up a few desultory wine labels and an empty barrel, but little else. When museum officials researched the Judgment of Paris, they realized its significance to the history of American wine. And they sensed an opportunity.

Winiarski’s phone call prompted the Smithsonian to host a symposium in 1996 called “Red, White and American,” including a restaging of the famous Paris tasting. (American wines won again.) As part of the event, Winiarski donated a bottle of his 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars SLV Cabernet Sauvignon, the top-scoring red wine in the Paris tasting, to the museum’s collection. Chateau Montelena also donated a bottle of its 1973 chardonnay, which scored highest among white wines. The bottles were later designated as national treasures.

More recently, the Smithsonian awarded Winiarski, whose name means “from wine” or “from the winemaker” in Polish, its James Smithson Bicentennial Medal in a ceremony Nov. 21 at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, in a room overlooking the vineyard that produced the winning wine. He is the first winemaker to receive the medal, which honors people for contributions to American art and culture. Previous recipients have been prominent in cinema, music and literature.

The seed Winiarski planted in the minds of the Smithsonian curators almost 25 years ago grew into the American Food and Wine History Project at the National Museum of American History. That’s the project that gave us Julia Child’s kitchen and created the exhibit “Food: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000,” which opened in 2012 and reopened in October with fresh displays, including some on beer.

“Research is like a healthy grape vine,” said Paula Johnson, the project’s director since 1997. “Shoots and tendrils grow, berries form and mature, and for our team, every interviewee named yet another person, a place and a story that we wanted to pursue.”

The project has sponsored annual winemaker dinners, highlighting issues of labor rights, Mexican American winemakers, and the rise of wine and food in American culture. It collaborates with the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts on an annual Food History Gala, and it has recently installed a demonstration kitchen in the museum “for programs that combine history, cooking and conversation,” Johnson said.

“The history of California wine is a wonderful lens to explore shifting demographics and economies, landscape and land use, entrepreneurship and labor,” Anthea M. Hartig, director of the National Museum of American History, said in her remarks at the award ceremony.

Winiarski, now 91, discovered his love of wine in the 1950s while researching the political writings of Niccolo Machiavelli in Italy. He abandoned an academic career and moved his family to California in 1964, where he took a job at Souverain winery. Two years later, he became the first winemaker at the Robert Mondavi Winery. As a consultant, he helped establish Colorado’s wine industry, purchasing grapes in California to be sent to Colorado for processing.

In 1970, Winiarski and some investors purchased an old prune orchard off the Silverado Trail, a few miles north of Napa in what is now known as the Stags Leap District American Viticultural Area. When the 1973, his second vintage, made history in Paris, he famously quipped, “Never underestimate what you can accomplish with a prune orchard.”

Winiarski sold the winery in 2007 to a partnership of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Italian vintner Piero Antinori for $185 million. He still owns Arcadia Vineyards, in the Coombsville area of Napa Valley, and sells the grapes to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. Through the Winiarski Family Foundation, he supports various Napa land preservation campaigns, the University of California at Davis wine library, St. John’s College in Annapolis (his alma mater), as well as the National Museum of American History.

During his remarks after receiving the Smithson Medal, Winiarski noted that in 1996, when he helped launch the Food and Wine History Project, wine was a sensitive subject.

“We had to be careful about the way we talked about it in a public institution,” he said. “There were people who continued to associate wine with Prohibition — it was booze!” The Smithsonian, he said, helped move wine beyond its image as a mere alcoholic beverage by documenting its role in American culture, life and politics. “They elevated it!”

More from Food: