Thursday, September 14, 2023

Remembering Mel & Janie

 The other day, I was scrolling through a recent edition of "Wine Industry Network" and stopped at the shocking news of the passing of Melvyn (Mel) and Jane (Janie) Masters, both at the age of 79. I knew the Masters, as colleagues and friends, when we both lived in Colorado and latter in California.

Mel and Janie were born and raised in England and became prominent members of the Denver wine and food scene in the 1980s and later, they helped build the reputation of Jordan Vineyard and Winery.

Jordan Vineyard & Winery

The Masters were an inseparable team: Mel an erudite wine man and Janie a talented chef.  Among his many achievements in wine, Mel Master worked in Portugal in the Port trade, in Burgundy and Bordeaux and in the Rhone Valley. He and Janie then came to Colorado and later moved to California.  Mel was also co-author of a comprehensive book on Rhone wines. Janie had a cooking school in Denver and was a private chef at the Jordan winery.

After California, the Masters set their sights on Manhattan, joining noted New York chef Jonathan Waxman to open Jams (Jonathan + Mel) to wide acclaim.  Then, it was back to Denver, where Mel and Janie opened Mel's Bar and Grill and founded the wine brand, Les Jamelles and Master Wines. Throughout, Mel worked the wine angle and Janie cooked and lent her expertise to successful kitchen crews.

There is so much more to say about Mel and Janie Masters and their contributions to the American wine and food scene, but two personal anecdotes, recalled from a brief visit to Healdsburg and an evening in Littleton, Colorado, will provide a small  glimpse at Masters personal approach to telling the story of wine and food. 

Denver to Healdsburg and Back

Rumors had been circulating for months that Tom Jordan, a Denver oilman, and his wife, Sally, were about to open a new winery, on a hill outside Healdsburg.  The Jordans were Francophiles and it was a French esthetic they brought to Sonoma County, in the form of an elegant chateau-style winery, set in a grove of California valley oak trees. 

As a Colorado based wine and spirits writer, I was about to find out how different the Jordan concept was. One afternoon, my phone rang and it was Mel Master with an invitation.  "Tom Jordan would like to invite you to lunch at the winery," said Mel in his familiar English baritone.  

"That's very nice, but I have no plans to be in California soon," I said a little amused at the idea. 

"A few Jordan oil exploration engineers are flying to Healdsburg for a meeting with Tom on Sunday, so if you're free, we'll leave from the commercial side of Stapleton at 9 am and return that evening in time for dinner."  Jordan moved his oil company employees around the world in two private jets, known in the company as Jordan Air.

"There's only one caveat," Mel added, "Because the wine (1976 Jordan Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon) hasn't been released yet, you can't write anything about the wine.  But Tom would like to discuss the wine with you and he's not going to be in Denver anytime soon, so he thought you wouldn't mind this idea."

The next  thing I knew, we were landing at Sonoma County Airport, and heading for the winery. Jordan is open only by appointment, so the long road that winds up the hill is not marked.   

Vineyard manager and interim winemaker, Mike Rowan, was there to show me around the winery and then we were to join Jordan and Master in the dining room, for the tasting and a light lunch and some conversation.  But we would have to wait, because Tom Jordan was upstairs in one of the luxury apartments watching the Denver Broncos on television. A little odd, I thought, but then it was Sunday.

My memory of the 1976 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon was that it wasn't like other California Cabernets.  The fruit was more subdued, the alcohol a little lower and the tannins finer and more integrated. Tom Jordan wanted to make a Bordeaux-style wine in California and he got his wish.   It was a wine sure to get the wine crowd talking.

As we headed back to Denver, I thought about how the release of the Jordan Cabernet would impact the market, and then we were there...just in time for dinner.

An Evening at the Masters

On another occasion, Janet and I were at the Masters for dinner in the Denver suburb of Littleton.  Janie was in the kitchen and Mel was holding court, pouring wine and chatting up the guests. 

Denver at the foot of the Rockies

One guest, a flamboyant Frenchman, was unforgettable, not because he was a great conversationalist, but because, in a way, he became the evening's entertainment.  His name is lost to me, but the impression he left remains clear. Throughout the meal, at the end of each course, he would disappear and then reappear in a different outfit. His one-man fashion show was unexpected, and after the first course, everyone quietly anticipated the next change.

An impromptu wine tasting, by an unexpected person,was the other memorable part of the evening.  The post-dinner conversation had turned to wine tasting when Mel left the room and returned with his young son, Charlie. 

Mel sat down, poured some wine into a clean glass and set it near where Charlie was standing, leaning with one arm resting on the top of the dining room table. 

"Charlie," Mel said, cuing his son. 

The boy, who was probably eight or nine, raised the glass, put it to his nose, swirled, took a long sniff, sipped a little wine, sloshed it around in his mouth, spit the wine in to an ice bucket and quietly described the wine to the amused guests. 

"Thank you, Charlie," Mel proudly said. "You were close."  Charlie smiled shyly and left the room.  

The little parlor game, played by father and son was a clear indication that, for the Masters, the grape didn't fall far from the vine. Today, Charlie Masters carries on Master Wines, in partnership with Winesellers, Ltd. 

Next blog: My California Wine Adventures 5

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