Fourteen California winemakers came here to the posh Four Seasons restaurant Monday to show their wares to Eastern tastemakers - restaurant owners, private collectors and the wine press. Their combined production does not measure even 10 per cent of such giants as Gallo or United Vintners, but they carry the quality standard for the industry in comparisons with top European wines.
The event was called the Second Annual California Vintners Barrel Tasting Dinner, hardly an overlong title for an evening that offered 28 wines and 14 different foods. Each vintner presented a sample of a newly made 1976 wine and the same wine from an older vintage.
To do so took courage. For non-professionals, tasting new wines presents a challenge, particularly with the distractions offered by a banquet setting. Potential masterpiece or not, each one is an incomplete work six months after the harvest. On top of that, due to weather conditions, 1976 was "a very difficult year" in California.
Why, then, did they do it? Robert Mondavi, whose Napa Valley wines are widely respected, put it most succinctly. We are pleased to come, he told the crowd, "to the center of public relations of the world to tell our story."
The story that was told by the time all 28 wines had been sampled wasn't exactly a public relations man's dream. At least a few of the samples reminded tasters of Eliza Doolittle before Henry Higgins had transformed her. There was little of the awed response or gushing praise that almost involuntarily follow the pouring of an old claret of such affairs. Yet there was praise as well.
"Credible young wines," said one taster. "Better than last year." "We see more know-how each and every year," wine merchant Alexis Lichine told the gathering. "With achievements of the sort we are seeing, no one will be able to hold California back." Speaking privately, he described the evening as "a fantastic opportunity for California."
In the end, then, the lasting impressions were of the winemakers rather than of the wines themselves. They spoke of their wines and their struggles frankly, briefly and sincerely.
Three new chardonnay wines, those of Cuvaison, Simi and Freemark Abley, were tasted one after the other. They differed radically, as did the approaches the winemakers had taken in dealing with vintner. "It's exciting," said Gerald Ather, the English wine expert credited with inspiring the first barrel tasting last year. "They have had to work with raw materials unlike what they've had to handle before. This is going to be a fascinating vintage."
Briefly, the year was difficult for grape growers and vintners because a mild winter followed by a dry spring followed by a hot, dry summer severely limited the amount of water that reached the vines. Rain came during the harvest, in some cases causing additional problems. The crop was small (30 per cent below normal is a frequently quoted figure) and the grapes were small, too, thus the ration of juice to solid matter of the berries themselves was unbalanced.The general assumption is that red wines will fare better than white, though the California growing area is so widespread and styles of winemaking so individualistic that there are bound to be exceptions.
"You won't like one of these," Ely Callaway of the Callaway Vineyard and Winery told the audience as an astonishingly deep colored, harsh tasting 1976 petit sirah was poured along with his 1974 petit sirah. "Why are we here with this monster?" he asked. "Because it represents the diversity within our wine industry - and I am hopeful it will become a lovely, intriguling, complex wine with very much grace."
"Our '74 (fume blanc) was on the vines much longer," Robert Mondavi explained as people sampled it and the '76. "It was harvested late. We left the grapes with skins on for five hours aiming for a soft, rounder taste. In '76 we left 30 per cent of the grapes with yeast cells in the barrel to give another dimension. We wanted to subdue a little of the fruitness of the (concentrated, early-picked) grapes. We wanted and elegance about them."
"I've never seen a vintage as intense," explained Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards in his turn as he presented two zinfandels.
Several of the wines were very "forward," meaning they drank surprisingly well. "It's too drinkable," someone said after tasting the 1976 cabernet sauvignon from Fetzer Vineyards. The implication was that the wine lacks the tannin and body to mature properly and develop additional character. Another that brought a similar reaction was the Stag's Leap cabernet."The '76 crush was very gently," explained winemaker Warren Winiarski. "We attempted to modify the qualities nature was supply in a abundance."
Every winemaker at the Four Seasons qualified as a wine purist, but even within those close ranks there are differences. Paul Draper argues against modifying a wine (other than to reach an acceptable balance) to achieve early maturity or to reach a foreordained standard or style. "We want every year to show through," he said, even if it means the wine will not be drinkable for several years.
"There is a problem with our approach," he conceded. "So many of these wines are drunk young that you might argue, 'why not make them for those who drink them young.'"
Two wines that tasted good Monday caused raised eyebrows, but they almost certainly will still cause raised eyebrows 10 or 15 years from now. Walter Schug of Joseph Phelps Vineyard closed the evening with Johannesberg riesling 1976 and 1974. the 1974, he said, had reached 32 on the Brix scale, meaning it had a sugar content equivalent to a German beerenauslese , a very high ranking among great, sweet white wines of the world.
Then he turned to the 1976. It was deep golden in color. It smelled of honey. Schug described the rains that came as the reisling grapes began to ripen last fall. He described three infections that brought on and enriched a fungus. In the end, he said, the grapes had "shrunk into an unbelieveable mess." The grapes became wine. The juice measured 42 Brix, he told his by now intent listeners. The wine is a troclcenbeerenauslese .
Eliza Dollittle triumphant! There are no greating and no more costly class of white wines in the world than the German trockenbeerenauslese - wines that emerge tasting like nector from rare vintages in which the so-called Nobel rot sufficiently intensifies the natural sugar of grapes within a few vineyards. Here was one and it came from California.
There is very little of either the Phelps 1974 or 1976. Those who manage to buy the '76 when it finally is released will probably pay $30 a bottle or more. No matter. Its fame will spread far. Another blow had been struck for equality and respect. "The Big Show," as one California called the tasting, accompished its purpose and in all likelihood will be repeated next year.
"We appreciate your interest," Walter Schug said in conclusion, "and your interest spurs us on."