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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.


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