Wilfred Wong, the Mondavis, and how Chardonnay got to be #1
At the Michael Mondavi tasting the other night, Rob Mondavi, Wilfred Wong and I were tasting a Chardonnay from the Isabel Mondavi brand, when the question arose of how Chardonnay came to be the top-selling wine in America.
Between the two of us, Wilfred and I have approximately 400 trillion years of experience in wine, and so we began to offer our own explanations of this phenomenon. Rob listened to us gently correct each other, interrupt with added details, agree on a shared memory; at one point he laughingly described us as an old married couple, which I suppose most old friendships become, in the best sense.
I suggested Chardonnay’s triumph was due to a small cadre of California-based wine writers in the 1970s–Bob Thompson, Charlie Olken, Norm Roby, Earl Singer, Gerald Asher, Robert Lawrence Balzer, Nate Chroman–who told a wine-ignorant but increasingly wine-curious America what to drink and what to avoid; and when it came to white wine, it was Chardonnay, “the great white grape and wine of Burgundy” (as they used to put it), they pushed. Theirs were just about the only voices of knowledgeable wine opinion in the country; it was so unlike today’s cacophony. But, far from people resenting these “top-down” critics for their dictatorial approach, consumers were happy that someone impartial and knowledgeable was willing to teach them, and they were equally happy to buy their handbooks and subscribe to their newsletters.
Then Wilfred, with a gleam in his eye, said I’d forgotten someone very important. When I asked for a clue, he said his name started with “R.”
I racked my brain, but couldn’t recall anyone. So Wilfred had to tell me: Robert Finnigan.
I had indeed forgotten Finnigan, who died in 2011. He published one of the earliest newsletters, Robert Finnigan’s Private Wine Guide (this was well before Wine Advocate), and was hugely influential among restaurateurs and merchants. I knew Bob for a while in the 1990s, when he was perhaps a little past his prime, but still active, and certainly a pleasant, dignified San Francisco gentleman. He was running the old CMCV society in San Francisco, a marketing group sponsored by the Champagne houses that had established wineries in California. (I can’t remember what CMCV stood for; can someone help me?) Bob also was sort of the personal wine consultant for the Getty family, and it was in that connection that we were brought together. Billy and Gordon Getty had teamed up with a very young and ambitious Gavin Newsom to launch their first wine shop, PlumpJack, and Gavin asked me to join a small circle who would taste wine together, once a week for six months, in order for management to decide what wines to stock on the shelves for opening day. The whole idea was to choose only the best, so that staff could assure customers that every single bottle in the store had been hand-selected.
Well, the Big Day finally came, and PlumpJack opened their doors to the public. I wasn’t there, but about a week later, I stopped by on my way home from a tasting at nearby Fort Mason. Gavin was working the register. I asked him how things had gone, and he scowled. On the very first day, a customer had come in, told Gavin he wanted a mixed case of wine, and added that he didn’t care what the particular bottles were, so long as each had scored 90 points or higher from Parker. (This was in 1992, as I recall, maybe ’93.) After all the diligence Gavin and the rest of us had applied in personally selecting the store’s stock, Gavin’s Irish temper was–most properly–aroused.
Anyhow, Wilfred was right, and he made me apologize for forgetting Finnigan, right there in front of Rob Mondavi, which I, having no ego, was happy to do.
The point remains that Chardonnay was launched on its path to superstardom by a small group of smart, visionary writers who understood that it was the greatest white wine in California, which made it the greatest white wine in the America. And such was their power, nearly 40 years ago, that America listened to them. That was the kind of top-down, one-way conversation so loathed today by the social mediacs, and it worked. No group of writer/critics will ever approach that degree of authority, much less unanimity, in our quarrelsome times. But you know what? It’s all good.