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Thinking about history, while it’s being made all around us

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  In these dog days of summer, with dangerous wildfires burning up and down the coast, and the country in a state of political hallucination, I retreat into the pleasanter realms of wine history, where everything is neat, tidy and comprehensible.

Well, almost. Dan Berger’s recent column on Santa Barbara wine history ignores one of the Founding Fathers of modern-day viticulture and winemaking in that county, H.W. “Bill” Collins, whose Tepusquet Creek vineyard was planted as far back as 1964, according to the historian Leon Adams, in his signature 1973 book, The Wines of America. It was Collins, Adams tells us, who planted 100 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Johannisberg Riesling, Sylvaner and Chardonnay “on virgin land in a sparsely populated area where nobody had ever tried to grow grapes before.”

That area was, of course, the Santa Maria Valley, and specifically a high bench of the San Rafael Mountains above the winding Sisquoc River, 20 miles inland from the sea. Those first grapes, Adams reports, were bought by the old Mont La Salle winery, belonging to Christian Brothers, in Napa Valley; the winemaker who bought them was then-Brother Justin Meyer, who famously went on to found Silver Oak. Meyer, says Adams, “said the wines were of superior quality.”

One wonders what the Cabernet tasted like. Back then, more than fifty years ago, growers had little idea which varieties to plant in which locales. The notions of site-specificity, terroir and even of climate regions were little developed. In their place, the Marketplace ruled; growers planted what they thought would sell, and they planted it anywhere they could. Today, of course, practically nobody would think to plant Cabernet Sauvignon in the Santa Maria Valley, where the average summer temperature is barely in the mid-70s; Cabernet doesn’t get ripe there (which is why Santa Barbara vintners developed the more inland Happy Canyon region). As for Sylvaner, I don’t know if it would ripen in the Santa Maria Valley, but who cares? Nobody would buy it anyway; maybe a somm here and there. Instead, the valley has become a hotbed (pardon the pun) of Pinot Noir, but fifty years ago, only a clairvoyant could have known that Pinot would become a superstar.

History is a very important thing to “get right” but it’s all too easy to get it wrong, or at least to omit the details, like that of Collins planting his vineyard well before the other vintners Berger mentions (Mosby, Zaca Mesa, Firestone, Fess Parker) planted theirs. Having said this, as one who’s done a lot of historical wine reporting over the years, I’m the first to testify how hard it can be to pin down the facts. My own employer, Jackson Family Wines, who owns the Tepusquet Vineyard, on their own website states that the vineyard “was planted between 1970 and 1971.” But whether or not the Tepusquet Vineyard was or is the same thing as the Tepusquet Creek vineyard of which Adams wrote, I have no idea. A tantalizing hint is contained in this reporting from The Prince of Pinot, who states that a certain “Bill Collins” was—not the owner, but the vineyard manager of that original vineyard, which was owned by Uriel Nielson and Bill De Mattei. (The Prince of Pinot article agrees that the planting dates to 1964.) And Uriel Nielson, we know, planted his eponymous vineyard, now owned by Byron (also a Jackson property) in 1964. Coincidence? Was Nielson’s Tepusquet Creek vineyard that which today is known as Nielson?

All this at any rate suggests how slippery history can be, an alarming thought when we consider Santayana’s prescient warning (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”) and also how certain politicians in this country try to take cynical advantage of certain people’s ignorance in order to launch themselves into power. An ignorant fool is always more susceptible to the snake oil of a charlatan than an educated man or woman, who cannot be persuaded by some charlatan’s blatant lies on Twitter. An ignorance of wine history, fortunately, is not nearly so dangerous to the republic as ignorance of political and cultural history. But still, ignorance, in any field, never is a good thing. One might object—it certainly is feasible—that it hardly matters who planted what, when; what counts is how the wines are today. That is certainly true. But anyone who enjoys a good glass of wine, from a property with significant history behind it, will find her enjoyment of that wine immeasurably enhanced by a proper understanding of that history.

  1. Santayana is one of the more quotable people. A sample:
    There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.

    The wisest mind has something yet to learn.

    And this: Almost every wise saying has an opposite one, no less wise, to balance it.

  2. Bob Henry says:

    “One wonders what the Cabernet tasted like. Back then, more than fifty years ago, growers had little idea which varieties to plant in which locales. The notions of site-specificity, terroir and even of climate regions were little developed. In their place, the Marketplace ruled; growers planted what they thought would sell, and they planted it anywhere they could. Today, of course, practically nobody would think to plant Cabernet Sauvignon in the Santa Maria Valley, where the average summer temperature is barely in the mid-70s; Cabernet doesn’t get ripe there . . .”

    What did these wines taste like in its youth? I can’t say, as they predate my drinking experience.

    But I can tell you what early 1980s vintage Cabs and Merlots taste like today.

    I recently opened some bottles from a client’s wine cellars. They taste like . . . pickle juice. Green tomato juice. A really bad glass of V-8 juice.

    Nothing that you would willingly wish to swallow.

    Made no doubt to appease the winery’s distributor, which told them they had to offer an obligatory Cabernet (and Chardonnay) in order to secure shelf space in wine stores.

    The vintner went on to greater acclaim with Pinot Noir.

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