My goal here is to share with other wine enthusiasts my discoveries as I judge at wine competitions and visit wine regions, with occasional commentary about issues touching the wine scene, especially in California.
When visitors stroll into the large and sparely appointed Vintners Hall of Fame on the campus of the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, they're apt to walk right by the first dispaly on their right, especially if the lights aren't yet on, as they weren't one morning not long ago.
There, in a long locked coffin topped with thick glass are 41 bottles of wine constituting an exhibit called "A History of California Wine." A visitor shouldn't feel ashamed for thinking he ought to have brought a hammer and a corkscrew. Inside are such rare and mouth-watering wines as the Isaias W. Hellman 1875 Cucamonga Port, the Concannon Vineyards 1928 Angelica, the Heitz Wine Cellars 1966 Napa Valley Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Chateau Montelena 1973 Napa and Alexander Valleys Chardonnay, winner of the white-wine division in an industry-rattling blind tasting in Paris in 1976.
The display is just a portion of the 156-bottle David and Judy Breitstein Collection, which the couple donated to the CIA a few years ago to preserve for posterity. The Breitsteins, owners of the Duke of Bourbon liquor shop in Canoga Park, have been enthusiastic collectors as well as dealers of California wine for more than 40 years. Many of their bottles were acquired through their eager bidding at charity wine auctions. "We love wine, we care about it, and we didn't want to drink everything we have," says David Breitstein in explaining why the two have loaned permanently this valuable collection to the CIA. "The wines we chose for the collection have historic significance. They're from wineries that played a key role in California wine history." Every few months, the 41 wines on display are rotated out and a new lineup is installed. Maybe someday the CIA will be able to display the entire collection at once, and in a format in which the stories the wines have to tell are easier to grasp.
On a table not far from the display is a stack of booklets that list all the bottles in the collection. One of the wines is the Corti Brothers Cantina Vecchia California Vermouth Aperitif. "I included that as an homage to Darrell Corti. He was a legend before he was 30," says Breitstein. (Footnote: Name the three influential California wine merchants born on the same date. They're David Breitstein, Steve Wallace and Darrell Corti. All were born on April 3, though Breitstein is a year older than Corti and Wallace, a Los Angeles wine dealer.)
Later, Corti, who had a hand in creating the wine and then selling it through his family's Sacramento grocery store, Corti Brothers, told the story behind the vermouth: Sometime between 1959 and 1961, Sutter Home Winery bottled two vermouths for the neighboring Bartolucci Winery in Napa Valley. One was a dry white vermouth, the other was a sweet red vermouth. About 100 cases of each were bottled.
Flash forward a decade, when the Bartolucci property was sold to Oakville Vineyards. Someone from Oakville Vineyards who came across the reserves of the vermouth - about 50 cases of each remained unsold and in storage - called Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home Winery and asked if he would like the wine back. Trinchero took it, then called Corti to ask what he might do with 100 or so cases of old vermouth. Corti told him to open the bottles and pour all their contents into puncheons, otherwise known as large oak barrels.
Subsequently, Corti went over to Sutter Home, tasted the wine - "It was terrific" - and bought all of it. The wine - now blended, dry white and sweet red - was returned to the bottles from which it came, an early exercise in reusing rather than recycling wine bottles, a procedure that is starting to attract renewed interest, by the way. (Another footnote: In labeling the wine Corti intially ran into resistance from federal authorities who oversee the trade. They argued that "vecchia," Italian for "old," cannot be used in referring to wine, a stance they maintain to this day, which raises the question: How can wineries continue to refer to "old-vine" zinfandel and other varieties without a definition of "old vine"? Just asking.)
The wine was an immediate hit, selling for around $15 a bottle, somewhat dear by the standards of the early 1970s. In Corti's mind, the wine stands out as "the best quality wine I've ever sold." Given its odd provenance, what makes it so? "It was most complex, and delicious. It was absolutely the perfect wine."