The small wineries of California, more legend than reality for local wine lovers in the not-too-distant past, are increasingly available here as determined merchants make marketing contacts that bring wine as well as winemakers from California to Washington.
In past weeks, for example, representatives of Kenwood, Llords & Elwood and Sebastiani have visited the city for tastings and left samples of their wines for retail sale.
Why is Sebastiani included in this group? These wines are sold almost everywhere and their introduction of a line of jug varietals is now considered among the decade's cleverest wine merchandising moves. But Sebastiani began small and has become very big while still preserving the image of personalized wines.
"Big isn't fashionable in California," said Don Sebastiani, who handles marketing for the family enterprise. "But we can't deny it, we are big now. But size gives us flexibility. We don't have to put wines out as top of the line, if the quality isn't there."
One marketing wrinkle the Sebastianis have come up with to keep the "boutique" image is a line they call "proprietor's reserve."
At first these were, Don Sebastiani said, "my dad's stock." Taken from the family cellars, they "caught fire like crazy." Now various wines of great promise are being held back - given additional time on wood before bottling, or allowed to mature in bottle before release. They will cost more, but they are, Don Sebastiani claims, "special wines." Look for a 1972 pinot noir and a 1976 pinot chardonnay to go on sale here in limited quantities next spring or summer.
Limited quantity is the name of the game for Llords & Elwood's Richard Elwood. His family firm (Llord's is an affectation that came with the family retail liquor business his father built) specilizes in sherry. It is very good sherry, so good in fact that Elwood is happy to put it up against Spain's best in comparative tastings.
"California sherry gained a bad name," he said, "probably because after Prohibition ended in 1933 there was such a hurry to get (products) on the market. You can bring sherry from vine to shelf in less than a year." That is accomplished by "cooking" wine at 120-degrees or so in large tanks for several months. To make a traditional sherry flor yeast and high proof brandy (to raise the alcohol level) are added to table wine. Then it undergoes a second fermentation and is aged in small cooperage outdoors under the heat of the sun. Casks containing wines of different ages make up a "solera." Wine is transferred and blended until sherries of the desired flavor and degree of sweetness emerge.
"It's not really very hard to make sherries," Richard Elwood said. "You just have to be patient. We began in 1955 and came on the market in 1961.
"People said the overhead and cost were too high; that we couldn't sell a California sherry at the price we would have had to ask. We had a retail business, so we knew what was available and thought we could made an appreciably better product. We knew what we wanted, what style we wanted."
There are now three sherries - Great Day, dry Wit and The Judge's Secret (a cream sherry) - and a port, Ancient Proverb. Llords and Elwood also produces a champagne and a handful of notably soft, well-made table wines. The entire line is on sale exclusively at Harry's Liquors.
Marty Lee, one of several brothers in n charge of the fortunes of Kenwood Vineyards, is a team player. On finishing a meal in a restaurant, he often leaves a small card with a wood cut of a European in 18th-century garb studying a bottle. On the reverse is this message: "We enjoyed our meal very much, but a wider selection of the better California wines would have enhanced our dining pleasure."
It's soft sell, but one that is entirely appropriate in most of our local restaurants. There's no mention of Kenwood, though Lee has nothing to be embarrassed about. In the seven years since his family took over the Pagani Brothers Winery in Sanoma County's Valley of the Moon, Kenwood has gained considerable attention with a delicate chenin blanc, its cabernet sauvignons and zinfandels. Like several other wineries, they have experimented with pinot noir overproduction and have a 1977 pinot noir blanc on the market here.
Lee said the winery is building toward a production level of around 30,000 cases. Kenwood is seeking national distribution partly as a hedge. More small wineries crowd into the California marketplace each year and Lee doesn't want to become lost in the crowd. Also, "there's pride. I'd like to see our wine served in the White House one day. And I like to travel (on sales trips) once in awhile."
Kenwood's wines are on sale in half-a-dozen local shops that carry extensivve selections of California wines.