Thursday, August 3, 2023

California Wine Adventures 3

The second episode of my adventures in California wine (posted July 14), was about my early years in Colorado writing about wine for a newspaper and a handful of local magazines. The third episode wraps up the Colorado times with comments on two unique tastings and then continues on with a first visit in California at the remote Chalone Vineyard and its classical-music loving founder and winemaker.


At some point in every wine lover's life comes an opportunity to join a local wine club. It's a convivial opportunity to share wine experiences, taste new wines and enjoy fraternal companionship.

My unexpected invitation came about in Colorado when I was invited by a wine distributor I knew to join the "Grapenuts."  Well, I thought, that's the same name as a breakfast cereal I had in the kitchen cabinet.

"Is this a gag," I asked in my most indignant voice? There was a pause...then, the voice I recognized, but with a noticeable edge, quietly said, "No, it's the name of our wine club."

How could I turn down an invitation to become a "Grapenut?" 

And so, I joined a small group of fellow wine aficionados at the distributor's home to taste a flight or two of wines from a member's cellar or wines we purchased from a local wine store.  The idea was to select a wine which the members were not familiar with but that would be a pleasureable learning experience.

At one memorable meeting the distributor presented a small flight of red Burgundy from the Dr. Barolet Collection, an eye-opening experience and one that set me on a quest to learn as much as I could about the seductive charms of Burgundy wine.  Dr. Barolet was an eccentric medical doctor who practiced in the city of Beaune and, over a lifetime, amassed a jaw-dropping collection of Burgundy, many of which were sold to private collectors after the doctor's death. 

I don't remember all of the wines, although there was a Beaune from the 1930s,  the rich texture of Pinot Noir, supported by supple tannin and impeccable acidity remain in my wine memory. 

Rumors have circulated for decades that Dr. Barolet would "dose" those wines he felt needed it, with Cognac. If so, the brandy in the wines I tasted only helped the Pinot Noir age longer and the wines still tasted like Burgundy to me.

Unforgettable Sauternes in Denver

Another taste experience in Denver that is still fresh in my memory, was at a late afternoon showing of some of the wines that would be offered that year at the Heublein Auction of Rare Wines. 

In the late 1970s, the Heublein auction was a major wine event that attracted many wealthy wine collectors. Pre-auction tastings were open to the public, for a fee. Before each public tasting, a special tasting was set aside for the press to wander, sample and interview. 


At the pre-auction tasting in Denver, Heublein showed a few select vintages of Chateau d'Yquem, grand premier cru Sauternes, the tres plus ultra of French sweet wine, that Heublein was selling at auction for a private collector.

Private cellars often have multiple bottles of the same vintage wine and that was the case with the collector's 1929 Y'quem. When word got around that Heublein would open a '29 Y'quem to sample, the press cued for a thimble full of the famous wine; a once in a lifetime opportunity to taste a rare bottle-matured, I quickly got in line. 

A writer's main job is to come up with words to adequately describe an experience in which the reader can vicariously participate.  So, here goes.  Deep complex bouquet of honey, ripe apricots, sweet spices and a subtle hint of beeswax. Rich, unctuous mouth-coating flavors echoing all those things I smelled.  The 1929 Ch. Y'quem was one of the most complex and delicious wines I've ever had.  

An hour later, I returned to the table where the Y'quem was poured. The glass, of course, was empty but the dried wine still clung to the inside and when I took a long sniff, it was as though there was still wine in the glass.  Amazing!

Wine On the Mountain

My first trip to California, courtesy of Uncle Sam, was an assignment at the USAF Satellite Tracking Station in Sunnyvale.  My knowledge of California wine then was limited, but I was eager to learn. An account of the visit to David Bruce Winery is  in "California Wine Adventures 2," July 14, 2023 post. 

In my off-duty time, I worked a side gig as a wine writer.  I snagged a magazine assignment to write about California wine, so an Air Force colleague (now a civilian photographer) and I headed for Napa and Mendocino.  We had an appointment at Chalone Vineyard, in the Gavilan Mountains, high above Soledad, Monterey County, to interview Owner/Winemaker Richard Graff. 

Graff said to arrive at any time, so we left San Diego, arriving in Soledad in late afternoon. After checking in to a motel, we headed up the winding road to the winery. The sun was setting but there was enough light to see the number on the mailbox at the end of the lane. It was very quiet as we approached a Quonset hut, with one small lighted window. The door was unlocked, but there was no one around.  So, I left note and we headed back to the motel.   

Chalone Pinot Noir vineyard in Gavilan Mountains

The following morning Soledad was buried under a thick blanket of fog.  We had only one day at Chalone and I was worried about getting photos for the story.  As we rolled up to the Quonset, a rangy dog loped up to the car, lifted its leg and christened one of the VW's hubcaps. It was a humorous distraction but not as much as the classical organ music coming from the hut.   

Richard Graff stepped to the door, pushed it open and, smiling behind a neatly trimmed black mustache, greeted us with an out stretched hand. I told him about our visit the night before and he explained that he was in Soledad filling the tank truck with water. It seemed that not only did Chalone not have its own water, but it didn't have electricity either. 

We looked around the winery and then tasted a few wines.  Graff didn't have any whites to show, but we did taste his Pinot Noirs.  The depth and complexity of the wines reflected the mountain vineyards.  Rich and packed with ripe fruit, the Chalone Pinots recalled the Burgundies from the Barolet collection I had tasted a few years earlier in Denver. 

Cabernet be dammed, I was a true convert to Pinot Noir.

With the visit to Chalone lingering in our memories, Jack pointed the VW north and we headed to the Napa Valley and appointments at Heitz Cellars, Joseph Phelps and then on to see John Parducci in Mendocino.

Next blog: Albarino and Alvarinho

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