subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

Who’s on the A List of the most important California vintners?



I once had a sensei who was quite well known in karatedo circles for the historic role he had played in spreading this traditional Japanese martial art throughout North America in the 1950s and 1960s, thereby stoking its popularity and leading directly to Bruce Lee and Chow Yun-Fat and today’s mixed martial arts.

My sensei was indeed a sort of legend, possibly more in his own mind than in other people’s, but well-regarded nonetheless. When the history of karate in America in the 20th century is recorded, his name will be more than an asterisk, but less than a superstar. Somewhere inbetween.

Which got me thinking, how do we decide which are the most memorable and important figures in the history of California wine? I suppose there’s always an arbitrary element to it. We can argue about this person, or that one. But surely, no one would object to the inclusion of Count Agoston Haraszthy, André Tchelistcheff and Robert Mondavi on the short list. But where do we go from there?

I don’t mean individuals who were historically important on a regional basis. Each county and wine region possesses such people: Santa Barbara boasts Richard Sanford, Monterey had Dick Graf at Chalone, San Benito’s star was and is Josh Jensen, the Santa Cruz Mountains had pioneers like David Bruce, Livermore Valley had its Wentes, Anderson Valley had Dr. Edmeades. the Russian River Valley its Rochiolis and Joe Swans, and so on. No, I mean individuals without whom our modern, successful wine industry would not be what it is today.

What are the criteria by which we can even pretend to make such momentous decisions? Well, let’s turn to the three men we all agree on: Haraszthy, Tchelistcheff and Mondavi. What did they have in common? What did they do to get on the list?

What they had in common was that each of them contributed something so vital that we can’t imagine California wine today without them. Haraszthy of course brought all those cuttings over from Europe, started Buena Vista, wrote his influential report to the State legislature, and in fact provided the intellectual basis for California wine to emerge onto the world stage. Tchelistcheff can be credited with inventing Napa Valley, in its modern sense, transforming its 19th century mentality to one firmly anticipating the twentieth. Others were making fine Cabernet Sauvignon—at Inglenook, at Charles Krug, at Louis Martini—but it was Beaulieu, under Tchelistcheff’s leadership, that emerged as the prime example of a boutique winery. No Beaulieu, no 1960s explosion of boutiques, end of story. Add to that the fact that Tchelistcheff mentored several generations of superstar winemakers, and his place in history is assured.

As for Mr. Mondavi, well, he was and is and will remain for all time the face of California wine, not just for his technical contributions to wine quality but, possibly more important, his tremendous drive, energy and communication skills. How we think about wine (and food) today is largely defined by how Mr. Mondavi taught us to think about them.

Measured by this fantastic yardstick, who else can possibly claim membership on the short list? To tell you the truth, no one, in my opinion. The A list remains the exclusive enclave of this trio of geniuses. There is, indeed, a very impressive B list, and I might draw that up one of these days. But not now.

  1. Here are a few more: Henry W, Crabb. He established To Kalon Vineyard [Oakville] in 1872 from property purchased from the heirs of George Yount, the first european settler in Napa Valley. His plantings eclipsed 400 varieties and wines from the property won competitions around the globe. During prohibition the property was one of the world’s largest cherry orchards. The property began subdivision in the 50s (under the direction of Martin Stelling who bought it in 1943) that was done in a way to promote viticulture. John Daniel Jr. of Inglenook [Rutherford] belongs. the grand nephew of founder Gustave Niebaum took over in 1939 creating one of the top wines of the 20th century (and responsible for the planting of JJ Cohn in 1945. Peter Martin Ray began producing in the 40s and fought for truth in labeling while establishing benchmarks in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. All three have a lasting legacy that greatly influenced the modern era of wine in California.

  2. I think Robert Mondavi stands above your other two.

  3. charles wetmore

  4. Bob Henry says:

    Echoing Doug’s comment — and no disrespecting David Bruce — but Martin Ray’s and later Paul Draper’s efforts best showcased the Santa Cruz mountains.

    And Tchelistcheff’s B.V. protege Joe Heitz and his Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet made him the most acclaimed winemaker of its era.

    (That legacy was a motivating influence on Bill Harlan to seek out land near Martha’s Vineyard for his eponymous winery. And with it the rise of the “cult” California Cabernet.)

  5. Ron Saikowski says:

    Great start to a list of venerable vintners. Most are showcased at CIA. However, great wines start with great grapes. I nominate Mark Houser with Alexander Valley Vineyards/Hoot Owl as a vineyard manager to be showcased. All he does is manage and work in the vineyards where it all begins! I believe he manages over 1,000 acres for t he last 30+ years.

  6. Anthony Bell is always overlooked, but deserves a spot if not at least some serious recognition.

  7. Louis M. Foppiano says:

    The Gallo brothers cannot be left off of this list. They taught us how to produce clean wine. People today have no idea how dirty wine was, Copper clouds, iron clouds, high VA, color dropping out, heat & cold instability, and etc. These were all common problems.

  8. Chris Scanlan says:

    Louis, I would not add Gallo Brothers for that reason, I have zero appreciation for chemical winemaking which is typically borne of sloppy, mass-production. Just because they learned how to strip VA, and any other life force from a once living wine, does not imply they made clean wine, only that they cleaned it, sterilized it, made it all taste the same. I associate Gallo with the opposite end of greatness. Perhaps one man who will never receive recognition for his labors (and high VA) is Tony Coturri. And what about Paul Draper?

  9. Scott Rich says:

    Robert Mondavi has to top the list. Every current winemaker in the state owes a debt to him for the worldwide success of California’s wine industry. Jean-Louis Vignes should be added to this list, as he could correctly be considered the father of commercial California winemaking (the padres who established vineyards for the missions long before Vignes had a different purpose in mind). Vignes established vineyards along the eastern bank of the Los Angeles River early in the 1800s. He was the first person in California to bring cuttings for fine wine from France, importing cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc cuttings in the mid-1830s, some twenty years before Agoston Harazsthy brought European cuttings to Sonoma. By 1850, Vignes’ winery in Los Angeles was the largest producer of wine in the young state and Los Angeles was the center of the wine industry in California. As the industry in southern California dwindled, so did the memory of Jean-Louis Vignes.

  10. Patrick says:

    Not serious: Ludwig Stossel, the guy who played “That Little Old Winemaker, ME” on the early Italian Swiss Colony TV commercials. He helped to popularize wine on the dinner table, right? (Even though he was voiced by Jim Backus)

  11. Jim Barrett. No other words needed.

  12. Jim Barrett? Don’t you mean Mike Grgich?

  13. Bob Henry says:

    “I mean individuals without whom our modern, successful wine industry would not be what it is today.”

    Not to come off as someone who lacks an historical perspective in appreciating the contributions of “first movers” (Vignes, Harazsthy), or who is parsimonious in his praise, but when you ruminate over our “modern” wine industry you are weighing the contributions of post-Prohibition pioneers who restarted a moribund industry.

    And André Tchelistcheff stands alone at the summit.

    “André Tchelistcheff — The Voice of Wine: The Story”

    [A feature length documentary film now in production directed by Mark Tchelistcheff]



    “André Tchelistcheff, the ‘Dean of American Winemaking,’ was a seminal figure, a legendary winemaker, and one of the most remarkable men of the twentieth century. His influence and contributions almost singlehandedly made possible the rapid development in the quality of wine in the United States after the repeal of Prohibition. For over five decades, he worked with numerous wineries that together helped establish the American wine industry: Beaulieu, Charles Krug, Louis M. Martini, Buena Vista, Firestone, Schramsberg, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Hanzell, Heitz, Simi, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Hoffman, Jordan, Quilceda Creek, Sequoia Grove, Villa Mt. Eden, Conn Creek, King Estate, Rodney Strong, Niebaum Coppola, and many more.

    . . .

    “He was known as ‘The Maestro’ and ‘The Winemaker’s Winemaker’ and believed in sharing information and teaching all those who yearned to make great wine. He mentored countless winemakers: Louis Martini, Robert Mondavi, Joe Heitz, August Sebastiani, John Daniel, Mike Grgich, Richard Peterson, MaryAnn Graf, Warren Winiarski, Rob Davis, Michael Silacci, Mike McGrath, Jan Shrem, Rick Sayre, Marco Cappelli, Heidi Peterson Barrett, Jill Davis, and others. . . .”

  14. Great premise, Steve. I hope there will be a “part 2” for this.

    My first thought was Mike Girgich; someone else mentioned him as well. That guy is a legendary winemaker. I didn’t think of the Gallo Brothers, but they definitely belong there. No matter how you feel about the industrialization of wine, the Gallo brother turned tens of millions of Americans into wine drinkers.

    The other people I would add to this list are Paul Draper from Ridge, because Ridge. I would include Erath & Lett for inventing the Oregon wine industry, and I imagine there are equally important winemakers in Washington and the Finger Lakes. I would also suggest the Rhone Rangers of Lunquist/Clendendon/Beckman, and I couldn’t resist Randall Graham.

    My two cents

  15. Is your A list too restrictive to be limited only to vintners? I would nominate Maynard Amerine of UC Davis. One example, would be the work on degree days. It helped vintners know what to varietal to plant at a specific site.

  16. bob dickey says:

    Steve.. Your three are definitely a good start. And I would echo Gallo brothers, not so much for their “clean wine” but because they reestablished wine after prohibition and introduced millions of us to some form of wine. Along that line, though this may be blasphemous, Fred Franzia showed that if you put a cork in a bottle of mass produced wine you can make people think it’s a highly discounted premium wine. If there was a single person responsible for the 200 gallon exemption in prohibition, he should be on the list as well. If not for that, all the vineyards in Northern Cal would have been ripped out as they were in So Cal and we’d probably just be drinking beer and spirits now. Probably should include someone from Davis and I agree with Brad that Maynard Amerine would be a good choice. (I think Ann Noble, would be, too. I can’t conceive of an introductory wine class that doesn’t include “we can only taste 5 things, but we can smell thousands..” where the speaker has the aroma wheel in their mind..) And, though I’m from SB county and love all of Gabe’s suggestions, I think Randall Graham is the only one that really transcends regions. good column.. makes one think of how we got here.. another question: who’s going to be that person in our future?

  17. redmond barry says:

    The folks at Hanzell and Schramsberg come to mind. And Kistler and Turley.

  18. Yes well, with the exception of Mr. Mondavi and Mr. Tchelistcheff, (as unfashionable as it is to say) Robert Parker trumps pretty much every name here combined in terms of tangible impact on Napa Valley.

  19. I’ll second Turley. Not sure about Schramsburg, but the first sparkling house in California deserves mention. Also think Benziger deserves mention for their contribution to Organic and Biodynamic

  20. Shaun McDonald says:

    John Patchett and Chas. Krug put St. Helena winemaking on the map.
    Also, echoing Doug Wilders comment on To Kalon purchaser Martin Stelling, his holdings also included now-home ranch of Nickel & Nickel and also bought Far Niente from the Doak family. A tidy little package of holdings indeed before perishing in a very mysterious auto accident just a few years after…

  21. When I got into the business in the 70’s there were two great winemakers out there. André Tchelistcheff has rightly been mentioned as bringing winemaking expertise to many seminal wineries of the era. His winemaking abilities are still appreciated and he had the flair to become a “personality” in the business. Many of the other aforementioned names shared the same ability to garner the spotlight.
    To my mind though, the winemaker who will not make the Winemaker’s Hall of Fame and who arguably deserves it more than any other is the one who created the winemaking at Hanzell – Brad Webb. Yes Brad was the first winemaker in California to use French oak barrels, the first to use jacketed tanks, the first to use stainless tanks, the first to use inert gas and vacuum filler technology and of course, the one acknowledged claim to fame – the first inoculated malo-lactic fermentations.
    However, for those of us who had the great good fortune to be influenced by Brad, his greatest contribution was his use of scientific experimental technique to pursue the idea that wine can be made better through careful exploration of alternatives. I believe Brad recognized that California was different from our European archetypes and that we needed to find our own way to greatness. An inspiration to many of us.
    Brad was too self-effacing, too focused on making ever better wines to ever become one the “personalities” mentioned above – but remains one of our greatest winemakers.

  22. Tim Martinson says:

    I notice the creeping use of the term ‘varietal’ to refer to grape varieties.

    “It helped vintners know what to varietal to plant at a specific site” (from Comments above)

    Varietal is an adjective that can be best thought of as shorthand for ‘varietal wines’.

    But grapevines themselves are not “varietals” they are varieties or cultivars.

    -Vit guy

  23. The three listed are, of course, the obvious top shelf trio. I was going to add the Gallo brothers also and, what I’m most curious about is why Steve didn’t list them. (He didn’t say. Didn’t mention them at all. And he surely thought of them, so must have had a specific reason for exclusion.)

    Besides that, I think Wente deserves a second thought. To a great extent, the Wente clones have shaped premium California chardonnay, which is no small feat.

  24. Bob Henry says:

    As of 9 PM (Pacific Time) this deadline day, with 3 hours still to go before calling an end to fundraising, Randall Graham has made his “nut”:


    raised by 1,111 people in 1 month
    107% funded 3 hours left

Leave a Reply


Recent Comments

Recent Posts