Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Hereby Nominated: California's Most Historic Wines

Another rainy day in Sacramento found me in the barn out back, once more trying to thin and organize several boxes of clippings, notebooks, printouts and reams of assorted other paper from more than 40 years of journalism, many of them involving writing of wine.

One fading printout was the draft of a feature I wrote more than two decades ago. In it, I speculated about the first 11 wines that should be inducted into a California Wine Hall of Fame. No such thing exists, though since that piece was published a Vintners Hall of Fame has been established at the Napa Valley branch of the Culinary Institute of America. As its name suggests, however, it's devoted to "vintners," a term that has come to mean wine writer, historian, professor and merchant as well as vineyardist and winemaker. Perhaps someday the Vintners Hall of Fame will have a wing dedicated to pivotal California wines.

If so, I'm here to help. Actually, in compiling my nominees I got help from several wine historians, wine merchants, wine writers and winemakers who were asked to recommend "impact" wines, by which I meant wines that established a style, made a major splash in the market, or signaled a turning point in the evolution of California's wine trade.

In looking back over those 11 wines, I don't see one I'd eliminate, and I'm hard-pressed to come up with others equally as significant, though Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate and Two Buck Chuck do come to mind. Why 11, and not the usual 10 in this sort of exercise? I wanted to include one longshot, a relatively new wine then generating buzz, but without a track record to testify to its staying power or impact. At any rate, here they are, in no particular order of significance:

- Beaulieu Vineyard 1936 Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon: "Private reserve" on a wine label today doesn't mean much, unlike when it first was used by Beaulieu Vineyard to designate not only an exceptionally rich cabernet sauvignon but a style of winemaking to become the standard for truly special lots.

- Charles Krug Chenin Blanc: Up to 1954, chenin blanc, then generally marketed as "Pineau de la Loire" or "white pinot," languished in the market. With the 1954 vintage, however, the inventive Mondavi brothers, Peter and Robert, teamed up at the family's Charles Krug Winery to tweak the technology of how the wine was made, the style in which it customarily was sculpted, and the nomenclature with which it was marketed to make over the varietal into an exciting new model that continues to be inspiring today.

- Hanzell Vineyard 1957 Chardonnay: Today, the application of French oak barrels to chardonnay is taken for granted, but it all began by trial-and-error at James D. Zellerbach's small but daring estate in Sonoma County. He wanted to emulate Burgundy, and he did, but with a heavier hand, and his success spawned so many followers that Californian oak-aged chardonnay may be the world's most popular style of wine today.

- Thunderbird: Maybe this is why there's no California Wine Hall of Fame, especially in Napa Valley. You couldn't in good conscience keep out Thunderbird. Despite its ghetto image, it was conceived and marketed in 1958 as a rather high-class aperitif or dessert wine, basically a knock-off mix of white port and lemon-flavored Kool-Aid, which set the stage for all the wildly popular subsequent pop wines.

- California Cooler: The son of Thunderbird, but softer, fizzier and lower in alcohol, California Cooler was an immense hit in the mid-1970s, and inspired a legion of imitations, several descendants of which remain popular.

- Schramsberg: Sparkling wine has been made in the United States since 1842, but it wasn't until Jack and Jamie Davies took over the old Jacob Schram estate in Napa Valley in the mid-1960s that an American vintner showed the world that California could make a bubbly the equal of Champagne.

- Sutter Home Winery White Zinfandel: Sutter Home today is but one brand of Trinchero Family Estates, a Napa Valley company with vast vineyards and numerous brands, the existence and growth of which are due to the business acumen of the Trincheros. That was most evident in the mid-1970s, when they created a light, sweet, fruity and pinkish style of white zinfandel that quickly became responsible in large part for preserving several old and cherished plantings of the variety about the state.

- Robert Mondavi Winery 1966 Fume Blanc: In the mid-1960s, sauvignon blanc was something of an endangered species on the California wine scene. Then, Robert Mondavi, in perhaps his first brilliant winemaking and marketing move at his own eponymous winery, retooled the wine. He came out with a style drier, lighter, crisper and more elegant than the prevailing interpretation, renamed it Fume Blanc, and both ignited sales and set a standard for other vintners to emulate, which they did in droves.

- Joseph Phelps Vineyards 1974 Insignia: Bordeaux-inspired super-premium wines with proprietary names are everywhere today, but Joseph Phelps created the first and the most enduring with Insignia.

- Boone's Farm Fruit Wines: The precise moment when the post-Prohibition revival of the California wine trade began is something wine historians continue to debate, but a strong case could be made that it started in 1961 with the release of the first Boone's Farm apple wine, another brainstorm of the brothers Gallo. Fruit wines as opposed to grape wines were exceptionally popular at the time, but none quenched the public's thirst for a beverage sweet and refreshing  like Boone's Farm, which became the nation's most popular wine, and since then has been credited with introducing all kinds of Americans to the concept of wine.

- Bonny Doon Vineyard 1984 Le Cigare Volant: This was the wild card in my original lineup, but after tasting the latest vintage of the wine, the multi-layered and meaty 2005, I'm sticking with it. More than a quarter of a century ago, it showed the way, and that way is to blended wines rather than varietals from grapes long identified with France's Rhone Valley.

OK, this is a game anyone can play, and I'd like to hear from others, especially if they have other historic wines they think ultimately should be included in a California Wine Hall of Fame.


  1. Kevin O'CallaghanMay 25, 2010 at 9:19 PM

    I'll take the easy ones, though not as fun as some of your inductees. The Chateau Montelena 1973 Chardonnay and the Stags Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon. For what they both did in The 1976 Paris Wine Tasting, but for some reason the Chardonnay would get in before the Cabernet. It seems to be the more revered of the two for its accomplishment.

  2. Add E&J Gallo's Hearty Burgundy to the list! This jug wine was a staple in Italian American kitchens during my childhood and into my teenage years. Gallo priced this wine very competitively, and the flavors were zesty enough to accompany any conversation or perk up any recipe calling for red wine. Hearty Burgundy had far more character than any similarly priced wine, and rumor has it that there was a lot of zinfandel in the blend before that grape was widely used in sweet blush wines or 750ml red wines. I enjoyed many glasses of this wine with my great aunts and uncles and helped them cook a lot of meatballs with it as well.

  3. Mike: The next time you're at the Vintners Hall of Fame, check out the Breitstein Collection of historic wines.