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 Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch

martin SAMPLING CALIFORNIA

BY MARTIN B. DEUTSCH

July 1, 1984 -- "Iíll take the Pinot Noir with anything, including classical music." "Many of the Cabernets were much more approachable, even at an earlier age." "Itís a large wineÖit showed real complexity in the nose."

You think youíre hearing snippets from an overblown script for Falcon Crest? (Thatís a ranking after-dark soap set in California wine country.)

Hardly.

Those three quotes, serious observations by very serious people, were among the many I was exposed to during a recent four-day weekend of wine tastings in Napa and Sonoma counties, just north of San Francisco where the grapes reign.

Why was I there, passing judgment on more than twenty Cabernet Sauvignon, nine Sauvignon Blancs, seven Johannesberg Rieslings, seventeen Chardonnays and seven Pinot Noirs? Why were the owners and winemakers of seventeen of the most prestigious California wineries blind-tastings their way through each otherís most prized bottlings?

Good questions.

It wasnít so very long ago that hotels and restaurants around the world, including those in the United States, were importing French and German wines almost exclusively for their top-of-the-line wine lists. The California product got a small and grudging play, if any. But times and attitudes have changed, if the activities of which I write are any indication. The tastings marked the second year for Hilton International to sample, select and export Napa/Sonomaís best for many of its 90-plus hotels in some 45 countries. Last year, HI sent more than 30,000 bottles around; the total in 1984 is higher.

It follows that the pricier vintners here would compete for HIís favor, as well as the chance to parade their better wines before affluent local clients and business executives in major foreign cities. Quite a plum (or grape) for the chosen. "Final selections are based on quality, menu compatibility, price and availability," I was told by my host, Charles Bell, HI executive vice president from New York who led his companyís food and wine experts into these engaging valleys. Notice the emphasis on food wit wine. "Itís more and more important in what wines we buy," said Bell. "Does the wine go with the food?"

And when you taste, you eat, or at least munch. Tables with white linen set for four or ten tasters are set up in comfortable, sometimes elegant rooms in the vintnersí home or wineries. The indoor temperature is apt to be on the cool side, probably in deference to the wines. Bread sticks, crackers, and cheese biscuits are provided, bland and neutral without salt, as well as ice water and paper buckets. The latter hold the wine you did not swallow; it would be impossible to drink even a fraction of what you taste.

Thereís even a remote aura of the laboratory in these settings, although on further reflection itís more like being in a shrine. Whatever the case, this is serious business indeed, with little conversation during the tastings, although itís certainly not forbidden. Despite the thoughtful faces, you get the impression that the tasters are enjoyingónay, savoringóthe task at hand. Iím convinced that the very practice of inhaling these heady fumes lends a rosy glow to the proceedings. Luckily, as Iíve said, you swallow little of the wine; otherwise, youíd really get blown away.

Early on in the tastings I felt uneasy, an imposter, even intimidated. (What the hell am I doing here? What are they talking about?) But my confidence level grew as I realized that no one was watching or judging me. They were too much into the wines, judging them. My ego got a liftónaively soówhen my first and last choices were identical with the groupís for the first two tastings; the amateur was in sync with the pros. But my ability to swim (or sniff) with the consensus diminished as the weekend progressed. I also began to appreciate just how subjective those tastings can beóthe results might well vary from day to day, from hour to hour.

Robert Mondavi, who coordinated the vintnersí program and is an active, outspoken and down-to-earth 70-year-old, told us "we sculpture our wines, they have finesse, texture, delicacy, drinkability." He referred to more of the same predicted in the next decade. The word "elegance" is often spoken. Mondavi said he didnít know where in todayís world you could taste as many wines as in California; this proliferation of product is gaining momentum and has a long way to go. Napa now has some 143 wineries, Sonoma seventy, ad the numbers are growing. I saw next to a gentleman from France at one of the lunches; he has just sold a chateau or two back home in order to buy acreage here. "This is where itís at," he said, without enthusiasm.

It rained on "where itís at" for the weekend, but the downpour was soft and steady, much like Ireland; I didnít find it depressing. A vintner explained that the wines need the long cool wet winter to give the grapes the strength to carry them over the long hot summers. Incidentally, the rain was unable to dampen the pleasure I take in the soft symmetry of this pastoral country side. I can see why Napa/Sonoma ranks second only to Disneyland in Californiaís visitor sweepstakes.

The landlords of these fortunate acres compete not only in the wines they market, but also in the splendor of their homes. I was told that we missed what is possibly the most impressive spread (Jordan), but we did stop off to taste and dine at several remarkable homes and wineries, a recap follows:

The Cabernet Sauvignon tasting at the Robert Mondavi Winery; lunch at home with Louis M. Martini, his wife, and a song and daughter, both in the business; Sauvignon Blanc at Grgich Hills Cellar (pronounced gergitch); a fine dinner at Joseph Phelps, whose dinning room is handsome woods has one wall lined with massive wine casks.

After breakfast on to tackle the Johannesberg Rieslings at Stagís Leap; lunch with the Joe Heitz family (FYI, the Cabernets we tasted retail from $30 to $62 a bottle, and excellent Pinot Noir for $7.50); a Chardonnay fest at Conn Creek; reception at Beringer Winery, dinner at Rutherford Hill. (By the way, you always taste a "flight" of wines, an expressive and intriguing choice of word.)

Brunch at the engaging Mount View Hotel in Calistoga (I like the bottled water which carries this name); the Pinot Noirs at Alexander Valley (a handsome home in the traditional style); dinner at Robert Mondaviís new domicile, with a panoramic view of the valleys below. I was moved to envy by the indoor swimming poor area and the duplex kitchenóand I donít even cook, not hardly swim. I also felt you could land an airplane on the light-lined walkway from the parking lot to the house. A delightful evening with gracious people.

In corking this column, let me return to Falcon Crest. Not surprisingly, I ran into none of the bitter rivalries which fuel that highly-rated TV series. I did hear of one family rift, but where there are families there are rifts. The wine barons seem to respect if not like each otheróa risky assessment on my part, considering my brief exposure. The vintnersí children and grandchildren grow up together, attend the same local schools, and share the same intoxicating growth environment. (Most of them go into the family business. Who wouldnít?)

I see this tour experience though a gentle haze.

This column originally appeared in Frequent Flyer magazine.

Copyright © 1991-2007 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.