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Monday Twosome

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Bringing it all back home in Monterey

The year was 1979. I’d just moved to San Francisco, and bam! got bit by the wine bug, bad. Embarked on a wine education self-tutorial that’s still going on. At that time, generic wines (faux Burgundy, Chablis, etc.) still out-sold varietal wines in America. Having learned that varietal wines were better than generics, I decided to go out and find some.

It needs to be said I was broke. Seriously broke. Barely enough to pay the rent, but not electricity: that first winter I lived in a rented apartment in the Ingleside whose only heat (and source of cooking) was a hot plate. I’d read enough of the local experts (Bob Thompson, Andy Blue, Harvey Steinem, Charlie Olken, others) to know that Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay were the red and white wines of California, respectively. But I couldn’t afford both. So I got a bottle of Cabernet and instead of Chardonnay I bought Wente Brothers Grey Riesling, which was cheaper.

Those were the first two varietal wines I ever consciously bought and paid attention to. I remember really liking that Grey Riesling and turning a friend onto it, with the explanation (which must have sounded totally pompous) that it was a varietal wine, mind you, which made it honest and authentic. I doubt if my lesson had any impact whatsoever on my friend, but I never forgot that wine. You never forget your first.

Or, in my case, your second, for that Cabernet was also a very important wine to me. It was from Almaden and the label said Monterey County. That was the first wine I ever took notes on, red or white. I sat down in my freezing cold “living room” with a notebook and recorded my impressions. I remember liking it a great deal, so five or eight years later, when the critics (this was before I was one) were all complaining about “the Monterey veggies,” I thought, “Gee, maybe there are some vegetal red wines down there in the Salinas Valley, but that Almaden was pretty good.”

I say all this for a reason. This past weekend I was down in Monterey where I had the privilege of hosting (on behalf of Wine Enthusiast Magazine) the Founding Fathers Dinner for the Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association’s Great Wine Escape Weekend, which the magazine hosts every year. I found myself seated with the Founding Fathers of Monterey wine, who included, right across from me, Eric Wente, whom I’ve known for a long time, and, to my left, a man I’d never met before. Al Scheid is the owner and founder of Scheid Vineyards, which is in the far south of the Salinas Valley, on the 101 Freeway.

I’d temporarily forgotten about the Cabernet and the Grey Riesling until Al Scheid began telling me his story. He’d gotten into wine laterally (he started as an investment banker) by planting vineyards for others. He actually planted (or oversaw the planting of) the grapes for Almaden — the grapes for the Cabernet I’d so enjoyed. As soon as he said the name, that Cabernet came rushing back into my memory, and right alongside it, so did the Wente Grey Riesling.

So my first two loved wines — my first two varietals that I will remember always — both were associated with two of the people I was sitting with. It kind of blew me away. I had thoughts like “It’s a small world” and “what goes around comes around” and other clichés (including the Dylan rip-off in the headline) that try, however feebly, to express our astonishment when synchronicity strikes with such agreeable force.

It also made me think how far Monterey County’s grape and wine industry has come. Forty years ago it barely existed. Even thirty years ago, pretty much nobody knew what they were doing. The Founding Fathers — in addition to Eric and Al they were Phil Franscioni (Muirwood), Steve McIntyre (McIntyre Vineyards) and Rich Smith (Paraiso Winery) — were trying hard, but they were a century behind Napa/Sonoma (and even behind Santa Barbara County), and it’s no disparagement to say they barely had a clue what they were doing.

What they did have, though, was passion, a commitment to hard work, and spouses who understood and supported them. They also had (if they didn’t know it then they do now) some very good terroir, such as a cool climate, well-drained soils and (a fact often overlooked by wine-loving consumers) lots of water for irrigation, courtesy of the Salinas River aquifer. So here we are in 2009, with the Santa Lucia Highlands a certifiable superstar for Burgundian varieties (and, possibly, Syrah), the Arroyo Seco producing wonderfully pure, crisp white wines as well as — a new discovery for me — pretty darned good red Bordeaux wines (in sheltered places), the Pinnacles offering terrific values, and the warm south, in the Hames Valley and San Lucas appellations, getting its arms around Cabernet and Merlot. What a long way Monterey has come in so short a time. There’s no story like it in California.

Lifting a glass of Beaujolais to Beaujolais

This Thursday, Nov. 19, is Beaujolais Nouveau Day, that annual event — always the third Thursday in November — when retailers and restaurateurs release the latest vintage (in this case, the 2009) to great fanfare all over the world.

I remember in the 1980s when Beaujolais Nouveau was a huge deal. Even though wine critics routinely bashed the just-released wines as functionally undrinkable, the fun and festivity were what counted. Kermit Lynch always held a Beaujolais Nouveau party in their Berkeley parking lot, with grilled sausages (actually a fine pairing with the spicy, grapey wine) and fresh baguettes from the bakery next door. And it was fun to think that people were doing exactly the same thing in New York, Paris and London.

Beaujolais Nouveau has lost some luster since then, although the French still try to market it for all it’s worth, putting it right up there with the Tour de France, Cannes Film Festival and Paris Gay Pride Day as one of the year’s top events. FIAF, the French Institute Alliance Francaise, in mid-town Manhattan, will hold their Beaujolais Nouveau party with the French consul-general, LVMH’s New York Chairman and Macy’s Fashion Director, thereby putting the right spin of culture, politics, fashion and frivolity on the event (complete with charcuterie and paté). Across the continent, Kermit Lynch once again will have his parking lot party. And down the block from me, Whole Foods will have their own BN label with a wine from the Maestro of Beaujolais himself, Georges duBoeuf. Across the Bay (let’s hope the Bridge is open) restaurants hope to recover from this dismal year by hosting Beaujolais Nouveau parties, such as this one at the Sofitel luxury hotel.

Beaujolais Nouveau is all rather silly but that’s exactly why people love it — if not the wine, then the fun surrounding it. It’s one day of the year when wine’s simple, unassuming nature is allowed to shine — when we forget about cults and point scores and rarity and simply eat, drink, laugh and get a little red in the nose.

  1. Steve

    The Mirassou family had grapes planted in Arroyo Seco a decade before Rich Smith and the old Mission Ranch Vineyard the family planted in 1961 is now owned by Steve McIntyre.

    In another one of those circles repeating upon itself, I am buying fruit for our La Rochelle label (started by cousins in 2003) from the gentleman (Steve McIntyre) who bought the vineyard from the family in the early 2000s.

    The family had a similar problem with the veggies, and, in fact, Anthony Blue wrote an article about the “Bell Pepper Problem at Mirassou.” But the family also did have the foresight to plant, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Blanc, decades before the region began receiving the accolades it deserves.

  2. Steven, plenty of credit was given to the Mirassous and other pioneers of Monterey. For whatever reasons, the Vintners & Growers Association chose to identify those 5 as the “Founding Fathers.”

  3. Very insightful. I was just searching on Phil Franscioni’s name and you popped up. He’s the winemaker for Oak Grove Wines, and I wanted to learn more about him… Thanks.

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