Thursday, August 26, 2021

Beyond Napa

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In 1977, my photographer friend and I visited wineries in Napa Valley, Mendocino and Monterey County, gathering material for magazine articles. Napa highlights included an interview with Joe Heitz, plus meetings with Joseph Phelps and Warren Winiarski.   Parducci Wine Cellars in Mendocino was the next stop.

One of the first wine articles I wrote was about Ivancie Cellars, a pioneer in Colorado wine making.  Dr. Gerald Ivancie's idea was to use California grapes for wines made at his small winery in Denver.  The California connection also included hiring a wine making consultant and a gape grower. 

Wines Vines Analytics
John Parducci

John Parducci, head of the leading Mendocino winery, Parducci Wine Cellars, helped Ivancie find grapes in California and had them trucked across two mountain ranges to Denver. The plan may go down in the record books as one of the most ambitious (and hare brained) vineyard-to-winery schemes in U.S. wine making.  

By comparison, wineries in western Washington purchase grapes from growers east of the Cascades, possibly making that annual trek the longest today.

The Ivancie connection was one of the reasons I wanted to meet and interview John Parducci.  There was also Parducci's reputation for speaking his mind and for being a great California wine story teller. 

So, Jack and I cranked up his tired VW Beetle and headed north to Ukiah and an extensive tasting of Parducci wines.

We met John Parducci in what passed then as the tasting room for Parducci Wine Cellars.  Two wine barrels supported the tasting bar, in a dark space for a wine tasting, but the atmosphere was bright and friendly.

Parducci poured wine after wine, while providing a running commentary on the vineyards, his non-stop schedule, in and out of his pickup truck, between the winery, the tasting room and the vineyards. All of this done while favoring a sore back he said came from riding a tractor for hours in the family vineyards. 

"Everything is automated today," Parducci groused with a trace of admiration. "When I was a teenager, my father taught me how to drive a tractor and sent me with boxes of grapes on the train to New York. I stayed with relatives in Brooklyn and went to an outdoor market, in a railroad yard, every day to sell the grapes out of a box car."  

Parducci Wine Cellars was founded just after the repeal of Prohibition, but despite winning awards in wine competitions and attracting attention from writers, Parducci wines never got the attention and acclaim bestowed on Napa wines. The lack of attention to his wines and Mendocino wines was a sensitive subject for Parducci and he never really let it go. 

In fairness, Anderson Valley, did bring well-earned national attention for Pinot Noir and aromatic white wines like Riesling and Gewurztraminer to Mendocino County.  Anderson Valley is not on any well-traveled wine trail, but the high quality of its distinctive wines have attracted visitors.

The large Mendocino AVA includes nine other AVAs, from the tiny Cole Ranch  to the larger Anderson Valley.  There are vast differences in the growing environments between the coastal influence of the Anderson Valley and the more continental environment of areas around Hopland. 

Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc grow best in the corridor between Ukiah and Hopland, Zinfandel is good along a stretch of the  Russian River in the south county.  And, of course, aromatic whites and Pinot Noir are signature grapes in the Anderson Valley.  Pinot Noir does double duty in the bubbly from Roederer Estate, one of the best producers of California sparkling wine.

Monterey County

We were reluctant to leave the hospitality of Parducci Wine Cellars, but it was time to move on, with one more stop in Monterey County.

Chalone Vineyards, in the Gavilan Mountains, rests on a ridge about 1800 feet above the small farming town of Soledad.  I had arranged an interview ( in those days contacts were still by mail) with owner-winemaker Richard Graff at his isolated mountain retreat, but we had to get directions in Soledad, as there were no signs pointing the way.  

Richard Graff - Wikipedia
Richard Graff

Soledad, in northern Monterey County, is known for lettuce and other row crops.  Chalone Vineyards, had a reputation then for its Burgundian style wines.  In the early 1980s, the small nondescript winery and sprawling vineyards were in the shadow of the Pinnacles, an imposing rock formation, with a honeycomb network of caves. The one-lane narrow road to the Pinnacles, with its many switch backs, put a strain on Jack's aging Beetle.

At the top of the hill, the blacktop turned into a dirt driveway, leading to a Quonset hut in a small grove of trees.  The rattle of the VW announced our arrival but the only thing stirring, besides a large number of birds feasting on the grapes, was a rangy dog that circled the car and then christened our presence by lifting his leg and peeing on the left front wheel.

After relieving itself, the dog backed away and began barking, so we were wary about getting out of the car.  But all the barking did was disturb the intermittent silence, broken by loud blasts from an air cannon. 

It was comical to watch.  The birds would roost on the vines pecking away at the ripe grapes, the cannon would go off and the birds would scatter, then plunge back to the vines, as though their skinny legs were attached to a rubber band.

Nature defeating human innovation was mesmerizing, but we soon became aware that there was no one around.  So we left a note and retreated down the hill to Soledad. 

The next morning, I looked out the window hoping to see clear weather as this was the only day we had for photos of Chalone.  To my surprise, the fog was so thick and impenetrable that I couldn't see the VW parked outside the room. 

Fortified with plenty of coffee and a breakfast burrito, we headed up the hill, hoping for the best, but not knowing what to expect.  The narrow road seemed even longer, or maybe it was just the dense fog.  

As we eased slowly around one of the blind turns in the road, the fog started to lift and suddenly we emerged into blinding sunlight.  Jack found a pull over and we got out to look at the beautiful sight that stretched out below us. 

Everything in the valley was covered by a brilliant white irregular bumpy blanket that reminded me of cotton batting.  We had emerged into a complete reverse of the earlier foggy surprise in Soledad. 

The dog wasn't around to greet us but Richard Graff was, as we pulled up to the Quonset hut. He apologized for not being around the night before but he had gone down to Soledad in his truck to haul water up to the vineyards. 

Graff explained that it was the limestone soil base that attracted him to the hilly remote site.  Although Pinot Noir thrived in the shadow of the Pinnacles, Graff was also making Chardonnay in the Burgundian style.  In fact, Graff and Chalone became known for the use of malolactic and oak barrel fermentation.  

Chalone wines were a testament to what was possible with those grapes in California in the late 1970s.  The 1974 Chalone Pinot Noir placed third in the famous 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting the pitted California Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay against French Bordeaux and Burgundy.


Next blog:  My Life in Wine Episode 18

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Thursday, August 19, 2021

Napa, then and now

                           5,299 Napa valley Stock Photos | Free & Royalty-free Napa valley Images |  Depositphotos


Although I'm not a resident of northern California anymore, I still like to keep up with the latest from wine country.  Recently, an interesting article in Time magazine caught my attention.  Time placed the Napa Valley on its list of "2021 World's Greatest Places." 

"Greatest" can be a questionable honorific awarded by an unknown person or persons. Moreover, "greatest" lists are open to broad interpretation.  

Webster defines "great" as "much higher in some quality or degree; much above the ordinary or average."  So is the claim of the "world's greatest" over blown?  Perhaps, by today's standards, the Napa Valley is great. 

But the honor stirred some memories of the Napa Valley at a time when things were decidedly different in the valley.

In 1977, fallout from the seventies wine boom was still being felt and, as a wine writer, I needed to get up to speed on what was going on in California.  So, I contacted a professional photographer friend, who I knew from the Air Force, about going with me on a road trip to California wine country. 

The plan was to spend a few days visiting wineries in northern California.  The trip began with me flying from Denver to San Diego and then Jack and I headed north in his VW Beetle for appointments at Heitz Cellars, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars and Joseph Phelps, all in the Napa Valley, then Parducci Wine Cellars in Mendocino.  Finally, on the way back to San Diego, a stop at Chalone Vineyards in Monterey County.   

I chose these wineries mainly for their Colorado connections, but also because the wines were personal favorites.  Heitz Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon was a hot brand in those days and a big seller in Denver; Stags Leap and Parducci  had helped Denver's Ivancie Cellars get started and Chalone was just a great wine and a great story.

Motoring up H-29, in the mid seventies, past Yountville into the heart of the valley, I don't recall thinking the Napa Valley was "great."  Bucolic and open was more like it. 

The Napa Valley had not yet exploded into the tourist magnet it is today.  According to "Visit Napa Valley," there are presently 550 wineries (yes, you read that right), 400 open for tasting by appointment, 150 restaurants and 130 hotels and small inns. 

Now, my memory of those days is a little foggy; but we are, after all, talking about a time and place nearly 50 years ago.  

I wasn't on assignment and travel costs were a consideration.  So we settled for the modest (then) El Bonita motel, on the south side of St. Helena. The place looked a little worn, but from what we could tell, there were few alternatives, except for a small hotel in St. Helena.  So, we dropped our bags in the rooms, got back in to the Beetle and scouted out the location of our visits the following day. 

Not far from the El Bonita, we found a Heitz Cellars tasting room, set back from the Napa Highway.  While Jack was checking out the setting for photos, a Chevy Camaro convertible came racing down the gravel lane, braking to a stop before merging into the steady stream of traffic on 29.  As I jumped out of the way, I  recognized the impatient driver as Joe Heitz, the irascible owner of Heitz Cellars.

"Hello, Mr. Heitz.  My name is Gerald Boyd," I said stepping up to the Camaro.  He kept his eyes on the traffic, for a possible opening.  "Mr.  Heitz, my name is..."  

Joe Heitz

Without looking at me, he groused, "You damn writers are all the same, thinking all we have to do is wait around the winery for you to show up."  And with that, he gunned the Camaro and eased out into traffic. 

Jack and I stared at each other, mouths hanging open and thinking that the encounter with Joe Heitz was a rude way to start our Napa Valley visits.  So, we had dinner at the Grapevine Inn, got a good night's sleep and prepared for the unexpected at Heitz Cellars and hopefully a better welcome at Joseph Phelps. 

The following morning we found Heitz Cellars, set back off the Silverado Trail.  We were a little early, so we poked around the reception.  We didn't have to wait long.  Heitz rushed into the room, and barked "Good morning," but with a smile and an extended hand.  Compared to the encounter the day before, we were treated like long lost cousins. 

Joe Heitz was a good interview because he spoke his mind and answered questions directly without first thinking of local valley politics. I had asked him about the source of the eucalyptus character in the Martha's Vineyard wine.

"It comes from the nuts or seed pods getting in the soil," he explained.  "When I worked in the Central Valley, on days when we picked, the large hopper trucks full of grapes were parked in the shade under eucalyptus trees, waiting for processing. Leaves and nuts would fall off the trees and get mixed in with the grapes and I don't ever remember those wines tasting like eucalyptus."

"But that doesn't explain the eucalyptus character in the Martha's Cabernet," I pressed. "There are eucalyptus trees along the sides of Martha's and over the years, what fell off the trees got mixed with the vineyard soil," he said.

We concluded the interview, got a few photos of the reluctant Heitz and said good bye, and headed to Joseph Phelps, then Stags Leap Wine Cellars, followed with a drive north to Mendocino and a visit with John Parducci.  Our last stop was Chalone Vineyard in the hills above Soledad. 

Footnote: The national newspaper, USA Today, recently released its "10 Best Readers' Choice Awards" and for the second consecutive year, Washington's Walla Walla Valley was selected as "America's Best Wine Region."  The Napa Valley did not make the Top 10.

Next blog:  Napa, then and now Cont.

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Thursday, August 12, 2021

My Life in Wine Episode 17

In Episode 16, the Wine Spectator packed up and moved to San Francisco, amid an atmosphere of tension  and uncertainty.  The newspaper was expanding and the growth meant new publishing equipment and the need for more contributing writers. As the editor, it was an unsettling time for me, and I had to decide whether to stay or go. 

Opera Plaza: San Francisco, CA
Opera Plaza, San Francisco

It was 1983 and Wine Spectator owner and publisher Marvin Shanken was visiting the San Francisco offices, in Opera Plaza, and at a meeting we agreed that it was time for me to move on.  I had been with the Spectator for three years and I wasn't happy with the direction the publication was going and Marvin wasn't happy with my objections. 

Janet and I were renting a split-level house on a canyon in the Belmont hills then, so I set up an office in a downstairs room and began the long re-booting of my dormant free lance wine writing career. 

By the early 1980s, the U.S. wine scene had matured beyond the so-called wine boom of the 1970s. But the growth meant more competition among those wanting to write about wine. The field was wide open and editors at all levels knew very little about wine, so all one needed to do to be a wine writer is to convince an editor that you were a wine writer. 

Fortunately the work situation for me wasn't hopeless.  The publisher of a small wine magazine, then called Wine & Spirits Buying Guide, (W&SBG later became known as Wine and Spirits magazine) called and offered me a job as editor.  

The offer was tempting since things were slow at the time. But there was a catch; in fact, there were two catches: The magazine's offices were in the East Bay, a long daily commute from Belmont; W&SBG was owned by an affable Aussie who owned a similar magazine in Australia but who didn't quite grasp the ins-and-outs of the U.S. wine industry, the personality of the California wine community and U.S. business law and taxes.

Sometimes you feel in your gut that despite obvious concerns, you should take the plunge, so I signed on as editor of W&SBG for 12 months.  Mostly it was a good experience, the grinding commute aside.  The magazine grew in content and circulation, but there were financing problems I wasn't told about and I was itching to return to freelancing. 

The short version of a long complicated problem is bills weren't being paid, so the owner sold W&SBG and returned to Australia where he put all his energies into the magazine he had mostly neglected while trying make W&SBG work. Today, Winestate is a success in Australia and New Zealand and Wine & Spirits has carved out a niche in the U.S. wine publishing market.  

Memorial services announced for Dallas wine pioneer Diane Teitelbaum -  CultureMap Dallas
Diane Teitelbaum, 1946 -  2014

Not long after I was back at my desk in Belmont sending out queries to editors, I got a call from Diane Teitelbaum, a friend in Dallas, who also happened to be good friends with Michael Bauer, then food editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. 

"I'm having lunch with Michael Bauer before going back to Dallas and I told him about you," Diane said.  "He would like to meet you.  Can you join us for lunch?"

In the next episode, Teitelbaum, Bauer and Boyd put their heads together to discuss the future of wine writing at the Chronicle, over pastrami on rye sandwiches at Max's Opera Cafe, near the San Francisco airport. 


Next blog: Napa, then and now Part 1 

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Thursday, August 5, 2021

Cabernet Franc

'Where Bordeaux wines are concerned, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot have a tendency to steal all the limelight.  However, both history and literature agree that the delightful Cabernet Franc deserves a prize for best supporting role."  Pierre Galet, French viticulture lecturer and author.  


A blend of grapes consists of a star variety and a handful of complimentary grapes in supporting roles.  The classic Bordeaux blend has Cabernet Sauvignon in the leading role, with four other grapes for nuance and complexity. 

Think of the blend in cooking terms: Cabernet Sauvignon is the main ingredient in the dish and the other grapes are the seasonings.

By law, the standard Bordeaux blend consists of these five varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. In practice, Bordeaux vintners prefer only the first three.

Volumes have been written about Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but not so much about Cabernet Franc. What follows, then, is a primer on Cab Franc, as it's commonly known: what the grape is all about and the characteristics of the wine itself.

 Grape Guide: Cabernet Franc

Here are ten things about Cabernet Franc that you may not know:

* Cabernet Franc is one of the world's 20 most planted wine grapes.

* Cabernet Franc, along with Sauvignon Blanc, is a parent of Cabernet Sauvignon. 

* Cabernet Franc is called Bouchet in St. Emilion, where the variety makes up about 40% of the total, behind Merlot.  In most vintages, Ch. Cheval Blanc, a top St. Emilion, is 51% Cabernet Franc.

* Cabernet Franc is becoming the dominant variety in the southwest regions of Languedoc and Quercy.

* Cabernet Franc accounts for 30% of the plantings in Pomerol, a neighbor to St. Emilion.  Ch. Petrus is a noted Pomerol with a high percentage of Cabernet Franc.

* Cabernet Franc constitutes about 10% of total plantings In the Medoc, where Cabernet Sauvignon is king.  

* Cabernet Franc is always blended with other varieties in Bordeaux, but stands on its own as a popular varietal in Saumur-Champigny, Chinon, Bourgueil and Anjou Villages, at the expense of Rose d'Anjou.

* Cabernet Franc is growing in popularity in Washington state where it is more frost tolerant than Merlot. 

* Cabernet Franc, in the northern Italy region of Friuli, is sometimes identified as Cabernet, while Cabernet Sauvignon is sometimes labeled simply as Sauvignon.

* Cabernet Franc is known around France by many different names, including Gros Cabernet, Bouchet, Breton, Bidure and at least six other names. 

 Visit Saint Emilion, France - Top things to do & places to see

 In the vineyard, Cab Franc buds and matures earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, thus its favored position in the cooler vineyards of St. Emilion and Pomerol.  But an early maturing makes Cab Franc more susceptible to coulure, or poor fruit set. Since the vine can not fully ripen all grapes if all flowers remain on the cluster, it naturally sheds flowers during fruit set.  Excessive coulure means a low yield. 

Cabernet Franc is lighter in color and tannin than Cabernet Sauvignon, allowing its juicy raspberry flavors to add another dimension to a blend.  When pushed in the vineyard to high yields, Cab Franc has a tendency to be herbal.   

There is a juiciness to Cab Franc that you don't find in Cab Sauv.  Sauvignon is more lean, angular with harder tannins in younger wines.  Franc can be deceptive, because the tannin structure is there, but the fruit is brighter and more forward. 

Cabernet Franc is grown in many parts of the world, sometimes as a varietal, other times as a component of a blend.  If you can't find any of the following wines in your local wine shop, ask for them.

Saint-Emilion: Le Dome, Ch. Cheval Blanc, Clos St.-Julien, Chapelle d'Ausone.

California: Pride Mountain, Lang & Reed, Steven Kent. Ridge Vineyards, Lieu Dit, Chappellet, Relic.

Washington: Owen Roe, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Andrew Rich

It's easy to get in a rut with wine; you know what you like and that's what you drink.  Next time you reach for a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, pause for a moment, then make it a bottle of Cabernet Franc.  You won't be disappointed.

Next blog: My Life in Wine Episode 17

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