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Thursday two-fer


Winemakers who inspire me

Two posts for you today. I was originally going to post only the second one, but an email I received prompted me to write the one immediately below.

My blog on Helen Turley elicited lots of comments, but one of the most striking, to me, was this:

…you would come off less petty if you spent less time giving WS and Turley a hard time and more time expanding on the question by discussing the winemakers who have inspired you, etc. Otherwise, it’s just a tantrum.

I replied: fair enough. May just do that. Anyhow, it’s my blog and I’ll throw tantrums if I want to!

Well, it is my blog, and one man’s tantrum is another man’s legitimate expression of feeling. However, I will now talk about some winemakers who inspire me.

First, some parameters. I’m inspired by every winemaker, even those whose wines I give poor scores to. Winemaking is an ancient, honorable profession, and every winemaker is a person worthy of respect. (Wish I could say the same of politicians.)

Second, the reason I’m loathe to name certain winemakers is because I know I’m going to forget some people who are deserving, and I don’t want to do that. I’ve met a lot of fantastic winemakers in my 22 years as a wine writer, and I can’t remember them all. So just because your name isn’t here doesn’t mean you didn’t inspire me.

O.K., in no particular order, here goes. Living winemakers only.

Josh Jensen. He was one of the first winemakers I ever met to write about. I liked his story, his pioneering spirit, and today I admire the fact that he’s managed to stay active and successful in a very stressed-out industry.

Genevieve Janssens. Another great story. A woman who dreamed big and made it happen, and who has survived tumultous changes at Robert Mondavi Winery.

Greg La Follette. For being a great winemaker and the world’s nicest man.

Greg Brewer. Because of the purity of his vision, his articulation in both wine and words, and his spirit, which embodies the Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills. On my list for both Brewer-Clifton and Melville.

Randy Ullum. He oversees something like 5 million cases a year at Kendall-Jackson and manages to make everything interesting, from Vintner’s Reserve to the tiniest production Cab and Pinot.

Heidi Barrett. Because whatever else you can say about her wines, she’s carved out a successful niche and nobody does it better. She’s a hard worker. (And, no, she doesn’t send me hardly anything she makes!)

Margo van Staaveren. Like Genevieve at Mondavi, Margo has led the team at Chateau St. Jean for many years and through all kinds of ups and downs, and always produces wines of charm and finesse.

Bob Cabral. He was called in to pinch-hit at Williams Selyem and smacked it out of the park. An awesome winemaker and an all-around gentleman.

Ehren Jordan. Mainly because of Failla. Such great wines that show the essence of the true Sonoma Coast. He saw barren hillsides, had a dream and made it happen.

Steve Pessagno and John Falcone (Rusack). Two salt-of-the-earth guys who work it hard year in and year out. They may not get the credit more famous vintners do, but they are California winemaking.

Dan Morgan Lee. He helped pioneer Santa Lucia Highlands. He gets all kinds of awards for his wines, and deserves them. A guy who worked his way up from nowhere to the top.

Nick Goldschmidt. He’s had more jobs than Colonel Sanders has wings, and always delivers. His personal brand, Goldschmidt, defines Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. And he’s the most charming Kiwi you’ll ever meet.

Rick Longoria. Santa Barbara County winemaking could hardly exist without him. Behind the scenes, in front of the scenes, he’s The Man. Plus, his own wines are tremendous. A hard-working, honest and talented guy.

Looking back over my list, I notice a few things. Most of my winemakers

– are hard-working guys who made it on their own
– are collaborative
– are survivors, and somewhat older. In order for me to be inspired, a winemaker has to have a track record
– were in my last two books
– have earned high scores from me for their wines

I guess it’s hard for me to identify “inspiration” without including the personal qualities of the winemaker — what Dr. King called “the content of their character.” I think a good character goes into the making of great wine as much as any objective qualities of terroir. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but it’s what I believe.

Finally, I also want to say I’m inspired by all the young men and women who continue to get into this industry everyday. They go to school, apprentice, work their butts off, stay up long hours in hot and cold, sometimes work for numbskulls, and do it all against long odds; the chance of success in the wine industry today is not as great as it once was, and the risks are high. So I’m lifting a glass to all the newbies. Here’s looking at you, kids!

The greatest wine I ever had

Did you read about that 220-year old Champagne that divers found at the bottom of the Gulf of Bothnia?

I just happened to be staying in Reims at Veuve Clicquot, which made the Champagne. I was actually with the Countess when news of the fantastic and improbable find reached her. We were in the garden, sipping — what else? — ‘87 La Grande Dame.

The Countess’s iPhone rang. At first I was mildly annoyed that our conversation — about social media in the wine industry — had been so rudely interrupted. But then, as the Countess grew increasingly excited, my interest was piqued.

“Oh, my!” she exclaimed.

“You don’t say? Sacre bleu! Incroyable! When? Where? What? How? Mon Dieu!”

I was dying to know what was going on. Eventually, the Countess switched her phone off, and said, “You won’t believe it, cher ami. They have found cases of old Clicquot at the bottom of the sea!”

We had to celebrate, of course. More Grande Dame was brought out: ‘71, ‘52, ‘29. The bells in the abbey church were rung 50 times, summoning the townsfolk to the ancient rituals. The Countess caused numberless bottles of Yellow Label to be poured, while monsieiur le curé gave thanks to the Almighty.

I was scheduled to leave the following morning, but the Countess insisted I postpone my departure. “Etienne, you must be here. You must! They are sending the wine for us to taste! It is said to be in excellent condition!”

“Who said that?” I asked

“The captain himself, a person called Jacques, or Jean, or perhaps it was Jérome. He assured me.”

“And who is this captain?” I enquired. “Is he an expert? Un homme de Champagne? Does he have the proper experience?”

The Countess’s face fell. “I had not thought of that,” she confessed.

“Think about it. What if he is a complete simpleton? What if the wine is, enfin, undrinkable? All the world’s critics will demand a taste. James Suckling, for example, will be banging on your door–”

“Not anymore,” the Countess purred. “Now that he has left Wine Spectator, he is nothing, rien.”

“You miss the point,” I insisted. “It will be someone else. Parker, or Roger Voss, or someone else of equal luminescence. They will insist upon tasting the fabulous Champagne from the bottom of the sea, and you will be compelled to allow them. If you do not, you will be subject to the most vile attacks in the press. And if they find it undrinkable, they will announce to the entire world, ‘Veuve Clicquot cannot age for 200 years, even in the world’s coldest cellar’! The reputation of this house, and of yourself, will be ruined.”

“How true,” the Countess mused. “But how will we know if the wine is undrinkable, or a gloire a Deux?”

“We shall taste it,” I replied, logically. “Which means we shall have to await its arrival.”

The next few days were spent in unbearable tension. We had to arrange for proper shipping. What if the wine had been splendid, once it emerged from its 200-year cold water bath, only to be spoiled by the rigors of travel across half a continent? It was, after all, summer in Europe, the hottest in 100 years, thanks to global warming. We had to make sure that the conditions of travel were impeccable — a difficult task, even for someone as powerful and well-connected as the Countess.

But we did it. The wine arrived safely, yesterday morning. When the refrigerated lorry drew up before the chateau’s main gate, the Countess and I, and her considerable household staff, were anxiously awaiting it.

Butlers lifted the heavy cases onto pneumatic carrying machines, which transported them quickly to the cool cellars. The Countess’s cellarmaster, M. Hungue, lifted a bottle. It was crusted with the detritus of age. There was, obviously, no label. M. Hungue looked at the Countess; the Countess looked at me; I arched an eyebrow. She gave the cellarmaster a silent cue. He removed the capsule.

The cork snapped out with a satisfactory explosion. A puff of smoke, a white whiff of cloud evaporated into the chill cellar air. M. Hungue brought the bottle to the tip of his pointed, red nose. He gave a sharp sniff. He looked at the Countess.

“Well?” she said, imperatively.

M. Hungue smiled, a small, profound grin spreading beneath his bushy white mustaches, and said not a word.

A servant handed out glasses. M. Hungue poured. The liquid came out clean and clear, the color of molten gold. The mousse was excellent, consisting of fine, small, violent beads of gas. I inhaled. Perfect old Champagne aroma, all honey and marzipan. In my mind, I gave it 100 points.

The Countess called for food: beluga caviare on toast points, paté de foie gras, smoked sturgeon. A celebration was in order! The Mayor, the priest, the chamber of deputies all were summoned. The Marsellaises was sung. The Countess was generous enough to offer each guest a tiny sip of the precious nectar. And then she summoned her secretary.

“Arrange for M. Parker and M. Voss to visit,” she commanded. “Inform them they are invited to taste my Champagne from Le Vintage de Mer, the Vintage of the Sea, which was created by my great-great-great grandmother herself, La Veuve Clicquot.” And then, turning to me, she added, triumphantly, “You see, cher Etienne, I still know how to market.”

And that is the story of how I tasted the rarest, most wonderful wine it has ever been my good fortune to enjoy! (My full review of the 1785 Clicquot Champagne will appear in an upcoming issue of Wine Enthusiast.)

  1. Youl’ll get a raft of “what about __________” comments. In my case, I was amazed/disappointed that your list failed to include John Alban whose Rhone wines are second to none in California. Moreover, it was he who launched the interest in Syrah, Mourvedre, and the whites in part through Hospice du Rhone, not just in the Central Coast but statewide and indeed nationwide. The man should be one of your Master Vintners.

  2. Tom, my list wasn’t “master vintners,” it was winemakers who inspire me, and I said it was incomplete.

  3. I didn’t make myself clear (not the first time). I meant I was disappointed that John Alban was not among the winemakers that “inspire you”, meaning you may not know him or be as exposed to his various creations, oenological and organizational, as you have been with others. Clearly, your short list included those pros with whom you had some involvement over the years. It was personal. The list, I understand, wasn’t of “master vintners”, but as I wrote “your master vintners”.

  4. Tom, I gave a chapter in my last book to John. I respect him enormously. He has done enormous things for red Rhône varieties. So you don’t know what you’re talking about, as usual.

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