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A trip down memory lane

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With Fess Parker’s death, which was announced by the family yesterday, I started thinking about all the wonderful people who helped shape the modern California wine industry — not way-old-timey people like Harazsthy or Georges de Latour, but the ones who, from the 1960s onward, pushed, pulled, promoted and did whatever they had to do to boost quality, and then let the world know what California could do.

Coincidentally, there came to me yesterday an email press release from Napa Valley College and the Culinary Institute of America announcing a special May 8 dinner in honor of Belle and Barney Rhodes, to “celebrate the[ir] significant contributions and impact…”.

Now, I suspect a lot of you never heard of Belle and Barney Rhodes, who are a married couple. But I want to tell you a little about them, and about some of their friends, who, in the 1960s, were directly responsible for helping make Napa Valley what it is today. (If you’re interested in attending the dinner, you can contact Holly Krassner at 707-252-7281, or holly@hkconnects.com.)

I first heard about Belle and Barney when I read through all of Harry Waugh’s wine diaries, 30 years ago. Harry was a Brit who was long connected with the London wine merchant and auctioneer, Harveys of Bristol, and also was a director of Chateau Latour. Born in 1904, he was already of considerable age when he received an invitation to visit Napa Valley. This had occurred after he ran into Fred and Eleanor McCrea, who had started Stony Hill, one evening in London. They invited him to visit next time Harry was in the States, and Harry dutifully set off his journey, in the Spring of 1969.

Harry already had made the acquaintance of William Dickerson, who ran the “First Growth Group,” a like-minded group of wealthy connoisseurs in San Francisco. Dickerson, learning of Harry’s impending visit, arranged for Harry to meet with Joe Heitz on his Napa trip. Harry’s plane landed on March 28, and who was at SFO to meet him? None other than Belle and Barney Rhodes.

Belle and Barney showed Harry everything there was to know about the wine scene back then. They took him to Esquin’s (later Draper & Esquin’s), the city’s finest wine shop (long since shut). They introduced him to Milt and Barbara Eisele, and served to him “an entirely new name to me [Harry wrote], a Schramsberg, elegant, distinguished and very good indeed.” That was only one of the vinous revelations Harry discovered on that trip. He tasted Louis M. Martini Cabernets from 1955, 1952, 1951 and 1947 (preferring the latter), and three white wines made from another winery Harry never heard of, Hanzell. He tasted the Mendocino wines of John Parducci, and met Dr. Richard Peterson, then Beaulieu’s winemaster (and father of Heidi Peterson Barrett), who served him a Tchelistcheff 1968 Pinot Noir, which he (Harry) called “a huge rich wine…I would like to lay my hands on a case of this.” The Rhodeses also took Harry to meet a rising star vintner, Robert Mondavi…to Buena Vista, in Sonoma Valley…to Mayacamas, where he was hosted by Bob and Noni Travers and declared their 1967 Cabernet “another for my collection.”

I could go on and on, but the important point is that, when Harry went back to Europe, he talked up California wine to “the right people,” at a time when the smart money in London (and, by extension, Paris and Bordeaux) thought California produced nothing but movie stars and plonk.

The Rhodeses were to host Harry several more times on subsequent visits, and in his books Harry always referred to “the Rhodeses splendid kindness to me.” Years later, on yet another visit, they took him to “an extremely popular restaurant called Mustard’s,” and introduced him to yet another generation of boutique winemakers: the Trefethens, Cakebreads, Joe Phelps, Ric Forman from Sterling, Freemark Abbey, Dominus. And once again, Harry wrote about these wines, and connoisseurs the world over learned about Napa Valley, and the excellence of its wines, from an enthusiastic Harry, who probably would not have understood without Belle and Barney Rhodes to guide him.

It was my great privilege to travel for a week with Harry through Washington State, when he was already nearly 90 years old and a little shaky, and the state wine commission asked me to help him (he had come entirely alone). I feel connected to much in the past through reading Harry Waugh’s books and from actually having known him. Nobody should dwell on the past for very long, but it’s worth remembering, from time to time, that we didn’t just get here automatically, like Athena springing from Zeus’s brow. People, like Belle and Barney Rhodes and Harry Waugh, make things happen.

  1. Steve this is a lovely piece, and a tribute to HW who I suspect may have been one of those writers who inspired you to pursue your career. I can say the example of the Rhodes has inspired me to stay in this business through thin and thick. Early in my career I worked for Warren Winiarski. I recall the Rhodes were pointed out to me at some function, but being callow and untutored I made nothing of them. Over the years though, I was filled in on their story, and found that Warren (and everyone else I met during my Napa sojourn) had the utmost respect for them. They established a couple of famous vineyards and helped at least one great winery get off the ground. There was an element of being in the right place at the right time, but dedication, committment, intellectual curiosity and graciousness figured greatly in their success – and in their enduring legacy. I will never make a mark on this industry to compare with theirs, but there are few examples better to aspire to.

  2. Morton Leslie says:

    Thanks for the notice of the dinner. When you’re remembering people like Barney and Belle you can’t dwell on the past too long. In fact, your nice words only scratched the surface of their importance in the improvement of wine and cuisine in America. I would try, but my words would fail as well. I met them in 1969 too. They didn’t yet have a place in the valley, they would stay at Tom and Martha May’s. An important name that should be connected with Barney and Belle and their influence (and perhaps that 1969 Waugh visit) is that of Dick Graff.

    For those who didn’t have the pleasure of knowing Barney or Belle, no two people loved telling or hearing a risque joke or saucy story more than those two. They brought people together for the pleasure of their company, no other reason (well, maybe sometimes to help a budding chef or winemaker). And the evening would always end with the Port passed and someone would eventually hold the decanter out to their left to find their host sound asleep at the table. At those moments, all was right in the world.

  3. Steve, I’m just reading “Pick of the Bunch” right now, having been given a copy by my nephew. I had no idea you knew the man and had traveled (to Washington no less!) with him. What a great memory. When you’re 90, come back and I’ll be honored to be your guide.

  4. Paul, we got to most of WA wine country but not Walla Walla. Harry was a delight. He’d wander around a little absent-mindedly but had a good time. I never found out if he wrote about it or not.

  5. It was through Belle and Barney that I met Harry Waugh. Indeed, it was through Belle and Barney, who were the most kind, inviting, thoughtful people you would want to know that I met most of the folks at the heart of the wine biz early in my writing career.

    The Rhodes, about whom enough cannot be said, went out of their way to welcome the new boy to the business and to invite me to their house to meet such luminaries as Daryl Corti, Narsai David, Bill Dickerson, Dr. Adamson, Dennis Foley, Hank Rubin (then the wine editor for Bon Appetit and the wine columnist for the SF Chronicle) and Harry Waugh.

    It was Barney who helped me design my two wine cellars, not as elaborate as his but with the same functionality, namely one colder cellar for older reds and one 55 degree cellar for everything else.

    It was Belle who, having come to our house for a tasting and dinner, took one look at my wife’s cookware, and showed up the next day to take her to a chef’s outlet where all new pots, pans and utensils were purchased.

    The story, as related above, of the host falling asleep, was not apocryphal. When Barney fell asleep, that was the signal that it was time to go.

    It was the Rhodes who planted Martha’s Vineyard, and then sold it to the Mays. It was the Rhodes who planted Bella Oaks. The Rhodes were initial investors in Heitz and were part of the Heitz tasting panel every year when you would roll out the new vintage of Martha’s Vineyard for his group and they would taste it blind against the competition. It always won, of course, because it was so distinctively minty and deeply fruited that it stood out in a crowd of Mondavi Reserves and their ilk.

    I complained to the folks who run the Vintner’s Hall of Fame that they need to have the Rhodes enshrined in that organization because of what they meant to the development of CA wine in what we now know as the takeoff period for today’s vibrant (yes, still vibrant despite the economy) wine scene here in CA, and, up in OR and WA as well. Of course, the Rhodes were also gentle, quiet people and the Vintners Hall of Fame is a public ballot and todays’ wine buyers have never heard of the Rhodes.

    Yet, they belong in the company of the Andre T’s, the Brother Tims, the Bob Mondavis, the Joe Heitzs of this world because they were the quiet, kind, enablers of their day.

  6. Jim Caudill says:

    Charlie, maybe a Vintner’s Hall of Fame “veteran’s committee” like the baseball Hall of Fame with the assignment of adding deserving folks like these who might otherwise be overlooked. Things are only moving faster, and lots more will be long gone and long forgotten.

    Nice recollections.

  7. Stephen Hare says:

    Steve,

    Great article! Thank you for the history lesson. All of us in this wonderful industry should be reflective of our roots so we can grow a more fruitful canopy.

  8. Holly Krassner says:

    Thanks for including information about the Celebration of Food and Wine honoring Belle and Barney Rhodes on Saturday, May 8 at 5:30 pm at CIA Greystone, St. Helena.

    Just wanted to let you know that Michael Chiarello has joined the event and will be one of our celebrity chefs for the evening.

    Also, best way to purchase tickets for this very special event:

    707-256-3200
    http://www.RhodesCelebration.com

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