Gewurztraminer 1977 Napa County From selected overripe grapes Blended with 36% White Riesling and 13% Muscot of Alexandria
In this time of uncertainty and pessimism, what could be more pleasing than to encounter people - instead of cattle in a TV ad - who are bullish on America?
Alfred Baxter and Bernard Fetzer, winemakers and businessmen, came from California last week on the heels of a Wine Institute announcement that wines from that state had shown healthy sales increases during the first four months of this year. Baxter directs Veedercrest Vineyards. Fetzer's winery in Medocino County carries the family name.
Both men, interviewed separately, confirmed that a growing sense of confidence is sweeping the wine country. Not only are sales rising, the two-year drought is over. It limited production of some quality grapes, but the vinegyards survived and it created conditions in which some extraordinary wines were made. Thus far nothing has marred the possibility of a large, healthy crop this year.
"It's very exciting time," Baxter said. "These are the 'good old days' for sales and for market reception outside Calironia for our product."
Baxter, a former management consultant, is among the most innovative of the state's small winemakers (current production is 10,000 cases with a target level of 20,000 to 25,000). He pioneered a dessert-style Gewurztraminer that has been widely heralded, as well as sweet white Rieslings, and defies tradition by making cabernet sauvignon wines that are meant to be drunk young.
Daring to be different and enthusiastic critical reaction to several of the wines have helped Veedercrest, which made its first wines in 1972, stand out from the crowd of young, quality-oriented, small wineries. But Baxter hasn't been content to sit at home and listen to the applause. Veedercrest is shipped - in understandably small quantities - to 40 states and six foreign countries. One triumph was an order from West Germany, where the riesling grape is king, for Veedercrest California riesling.
Why ship the wines out of state when a market for them exists at home? "To survive," Baxter answered, "we have to get pretty good prices. The overhead is high at our level of production. So there is a price advantage to scarcity - if the wine is good. People will pay more for a comparative rarity. Thinking in a long run, it should be easier to sell our wine in California if we can sell it in Europe.
Baxter, an articulate man with a well-refine sense of humor, makes a white pinot noir "as pale as possible with the stylistic feel of a still champagne." His cabernet is cold fermented, aged no more than a year in wood and should be "as good as it will be" within two to three years. At Veedercrest, he has been experimenting with merlot and other grapes used in the Bordeaux cabernet blend and feels the wine gives nothing away in fruit or elegance of finish.
"First, I prefer this type of wine," Baxter said. "Second, I looked at the market and saw it was full of dark, heavy, slow-maturing red wines. We wanted to stand out among 75 good California cabernets, so I went this way. A full symphony is fine, but what's wrong with a string quartet once in a while?
"This is our only wine that is doctrinairely derived," he said. "I don't go out of the way to do an ideological chardonnay."
In the 1950s, Bernard Fetzer was a pioneer grower fo quality grapes in Mendocino, the northern-most wine area in California. The first Fetzer wines were made in 1968 and the winery has enlarged to its present level of about 50,000 cases.
"It really looks good not," he said. "So much better than even two years ago. Demand has really blossomed. We're satisfied now that Americans' interest in wine is not a passing fad. All our wineries are expanding, ordering more tanks for aging. The biggest worry is whether there were be enough grapes to meet demand."
Though the winery's reputation rests primarily on its red wines - a low-cost "premium red," zinfandel and cabernet, Fetzer has been following one trend by increasing white wine production. "About a third of our wine is white now," he said, "and we're aiming for 45 percent." His distribution plan, like Baxter's, is to market widely. He cited Rhode Island, San Juan, Iowa and North and South Carolina as examples of a "wine renaissance" east of the Rockies, and reported shipping zinfandel to England. He would like to sell about 60 percent of his wine outside California.
But evidently the battle for recognition is not over yet. Like others among his proud colleagues, Barney Fetzer is quick to notice slights.
He complained at the placement of California wines in local retail stores. "It's frustrating. When you enter there are huge displays of imports. To find California you still have to go to the back of the store." He, and others, are equally unhappy at the reluctance of most French restaurateurs to sell top California wines and their willingness to list a few mass-produced, banal samples as token American entries.
In summation, he recounted the following story: A fellow winemaker was seated in a French restaurant (not here) at a table featuring handsome, outsized wine glasses. With the meal he ordered a California selection. When the wine arrived, he was surprised to see the waiter remove the large glasses and replace them with small ones.
"Why are you taking the glasses away?" he inquired.
"Monsieur," the waiter replied, "these glasses are for the French wines."
C'est la guerre!