Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Like Wine, Inductees Age Well

Each fall, officials of the Vintners Hall of Fame on the Napa Valley campus of the Culinary Institute of America announce a newly elected class of inductees. Just as predictably, the selection is criticized in some quarters for failing to reach far enough back in California's wine history to pick candidates whose monumental contributions have faded from memory with the passage of time. Too many of the elected candidates, so goes the grousing, are relative youngsters whose contributions, however notable, often have been built from the solid foundation laid by the overlooked oldtimers.

This year's class of seven inductees should quiet at least some of that criticism. The youngest is 70. Two are in their 90s. Four are deceased. They are:

- Joe Heitz, a winemaker best known for the Martha's Vineyard cabernet sauvignons he made under his eponymous Napa Valley label. Less well known is that between 1958 and 1961, just before establishing his winery, he drew up the enology curriculum for Fresno State College, a program that to this day is distinguished by its practical hands-on teaching.

- Peter Mondavi Sr., owner/winemaker of Charles Krug Winery in Napa Valley. Few California vintners have been as progressive and daring as Mondavi. In 1937, while still a university student, he researched cold fermentation, and his subsequent use of the technique and of sterile filtration improved, virtually overnight, the cleanliness and crispness of California white wines. His legacy includes several firsts, including the first chenin blanc to be released as a varietal in California.

- Myron Nightingale, whose long and illustrious winemaking career culminated at Beringer Vineyards in Napa Valley, where he gained celebrity not only for propelling the old estate into a new era of respectability but for mastering in a laboratory setting the noble mold botrytis cinerea, responsible for yielding marvelous late-harvest dessert wines.

- John Parducci, a Mendocino County winemaker since 1940, whose many contributions to the trade include the first french colombard released as a varietal and some of the earliest vintage-dated California wines to appear on the market. Mostly, he's known for his relentlessly experimental and adventuresome ways and for his commitment to turning out solid wines at accessible prices.

- Richard Sanford, who when he got out of the Navy in the late 1960s began a quest to find the ideal location in which to pursue his passion for pinot noir. He settled in the chilly Santa Rita Hills of western Santa Barbara County, and there, first at his Sanford Winery, then at Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards, proved that the area could produce many of California's more expressive Burgundian-style pinot noirs.

- Albert J. Winkler, chairman of the department of viticulture and enology at UC Davis from 1933 to 1957. Before, during and after that stretch, he as responsible for so much pivotal research concerning grapevine physiology that his principles concerning trellis systems, pruning techniques and vineyard placement still resonate across the state's vineyards.

- Eugene Hilgard, who arrived at the University of California at Berkeley in 1874 to head the College of Agriculture, and over the subsequent quarter century lobbied convincingly for the teaching and research that has transformed an ailing wine industry into the success it is today.

If a theme other than age runs through this year's class it's that these inductees reaffirm the value of striving for ever more understanding of grape growing and winemaking, in particular on college campuses. There and beyond - in field and cellar - they took risks, built upon their successes, and shared their discoveries selflessly with others in the trade, both here and abroad. The California wine trade is immeasurably strong and vibrant for their contributions.

The class of 2012 was chosen by 87 voting participants of the hall's electoral college, made up of earlier inductees and members of the wine media. (That is, six of the seven were selected by the electoral college; Eugene Hilgard was voted in unanimously by the hall's nominating committee early in its deliberations.) The newly elected will be inducted Feb. 20 during a reception and dinner at the CIA's Napa Valley campus, on the northern reaches of St. Helena. The event is pricey - $175 per person - but proceeds in part underwrite scholarship funds for students in the CIA's professional-wine-studies program.

For the record, I'm one of 11 members of this year's Vintners Hall of Fame nominating committee. For more information about the Vintners Hall of Fame, go here.

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