Thursday, July 13, 2023

California Wine Adventures 2

In the first "California Wine Adventure," my introduction to wine covered a lot of ground, from France to South Carolina, Colorado and California.  Chapter 2 delves more deeply into my experiences as a Colorado-based wine writer looking for my first California wine adventure.


Here's the scenario: In the early 1970s, as the country was about to embrace wine in a big, unprecedented way, and I am in Colorado trying to launch a career as a wine writer, when all of the exciting things about wine were happening in California.

Wine writing in the United States then was in its infancy, with only a handful of people like Robert Misch, Alexis Lichine, Ruth Ellen Church and Robert Balzer contributing wine columns to large metropolitan newspapers in cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.  My plan was to join them as a wine writer, although I soon realized that it would be an uphill climb.

U.S. markets for wine writing in the early 1970s included newspapers, in-flight magazines, city magazines and what were then known as "buff" magazines, including those for wine buffs. 

The Denver print market was promising, with two newspapers, a city magazine and a small listener's guide that featured articles about music, food, art and wine, put out by the local classical music radio station.

KVOD Guide was edited by a good friend of mine who asked me to write a lifestyle piece for the guide that would somehow connect classical music with wine. It just so happens that Denver's leading wine shop, Harry Hoffman Liquor, was selling a German import with a likeness of Ludwig van Beethoven on the label. I did a little research on the wine, made a few connections and submitted my story, complete with a copy of the wine label that I had successfully soaked off the bottle...after I drank the wine.


Classical music is a major part of my life, and the wine and classical music concept was fun to write about, but I had set my sights on a wider wine audience, so I contacted Wine World, a wine magazine out of California with national distribution. 

My goal was to improve my wine writing creds, so I looked around for a Colorado wine story and found Gerald Ivancie, an eccentric Austrian-born dentist, who had opened Ivancie Winery in 1968 in downtown Denver. 

In the beginning, the fulfillment of Ivancie's dream depended on using California grapes shipped across two mountain ranges in refrigerated trucks.  And he hired Warren Winiarski as his wine making consultant.  Winiarski was then a grape grower in the Napa Valley, who would later open Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. 

California grapes were a high-ticket expense for Ivancie, so he only used them for two years, then switched to grapes from maturing vineyards around Grand Junction. Today, Colorado boasts over 100 wineries, drawing from vineyards mainly on the Western Slope.  

What made Ivancie wines unique in Denver was the market was beginning to build interest in California wines and Ivancie was the only commercial Colorado winery to use California grapes.  It was a good story, but Ivancie wines, including a rare (for the early 1970s) Pinot Noir, were too expensive and they languished on the shelves of Denver wine shops.

Nevertheless, the Ivancie story in Wine World was good for me as it opened the door for more assignments, so my friend and former Air Force colleague, Jack Whidden, who was the photographer for the Ivancie story, planned a trip to northern California. 


But before heading to California, I made a pitch to the editors of the Rocky Mountain News, since the Denver Post had a weekly wine column.  Sensing that wine interest was on the rise, the editors agreed and I was on my way to being a wine columnist.  The "Rocky," as it was known, stopped publishing in 2009, a fate too many newspapers experience today.

At the time I started writing for the Rocky Mountain News, a major overhaul of Larimer Square, the historic part of Denver, was just taking shape and Colorado businessman, Ray Duncan, owner of Napa Valley's Franciscan Vineyards, thought  that a Franciscan tasting room would fit in nicely.  And I though that it would be a good story for the Rocky.

Colorado's nascent wine industry was yet to take off, so the addition of a wine tasting room in downtown Denver would add variety to the attractions for bigger things to come.  In the early 1970s, Ivancie Winery, Colorado Mountain Vineyards and Plum Creek Winery, spearheaded the proposed expansion.

With the interest in wine exploding in the early 1970s, California winery owners and winemakers were eager to tell their story. So I managed invitations to visit John Parducci, Parducci Wine Cellars in Mendocino, Joe Heitz, Heitz Wine Cellars, Napa Valley and Richard Graff, Chalone Vineyard in the Gavilan Mountains of Monterey County.

In Chapter 3 of "California Wine Adventures," to be posted August 4, 2023, I recall joining a Colorado wine tasting group with the same name as a breakfast cereal, fondly remember my first taste of a memorable Sauternes, and pay a visit to a musical winemaker on a California mountain.


Next blog: The Pleasures of Riesling

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