One of California's legendary winemakers, Myron Nightingale, brought some of his Beringer wines to Washington recently for a public television benefit tasting. Nightingale is one of a handful of pioneers who studies winemaking at the University of California at Berkeley before World War II. He later worked with Italian swiss Colony and Cresta Blanca before coming to Beringer in 1971.
Beringer, one of the oldest wineries in the Napa Valley, was bought by the the Nestle Corporation in 1970 and is now owned by French interests. It has suffered from an unclear image and, it is said, too much corporate second-guessing. The Los Hermanos line of jug wines has been very successful, but the winery's premium products have been overshadowed by other wines made in the Napa.
Nightingale did say that while "the wine boutiques are riding the crest of a wave, they are catered to by wine writers." There are so many now that "it is confusing to the consumer, and some of their wines are just not commercially acceptable."
Beringer, Nightingale explained, has been involved in a long-term building program since he joined the winery. It has included renovation of the old winery, increasing and modernizing storage capacity and developing 2,200 to 2,400 acres of vineyard holdings in the Napa and nearby Knight's Valley (Los Hermanos wines are produced elsewhere, primarily from grapes grown in the San Joaquin Valley.)
While nightingale established his reputation with white wines (they are still his "first love," he said), he has been making small quantities of select red wines and offered impressive bottles of zinfandel, cabernet and a surprisingly rich example of pinot noir at a private tasting.
After a dry 1978 fume banc with a typical grassy nose, and three chardonnays, Nightingale served a lively gamay rose and a gewurztraminer with a pleasant flowery nose and good sugar-acid balance. Both were from the 1979 vintage. The pinot noir was an experimental bottling of wine made in 1978 from grapes grown on the Knight's Valley property. It had an intriguing nose and good fruit. There may be enough from last fall's harvest for a commercial release. fThe zinfandel, a 1977, was bottled in February. It is in the cabernet style, elegant but with considerable body and very drinkable. The retail price here should be about $4.50. A 1976 cabernet from Knight's Valley also is appealing and ready to drink. It is on the market in the $4.49 to $4.99 range.
Nightingale's final surprise was a port made from cabernet sauvignon grapes.
He volunteered that the sharp swing in popularity to white wines in this country was the most astonishing occurrence in his long career. "I didn't realize drinking habits could change so fast," he said. So, like other winemakers with a surfeit of red wine, he has been experimenting. The port is one example. It is drinkable and potent but not to be confushed with the Portuguese original.
Ironically, Walter Raymond, whose family shared the ownership of Beringer before 1970, was here with some of his wines the same week as Nightingale. The Raymonds (by their account the faction of the Beringer family that didn't want to sell) have stayed in the business and in the Napa Valley. They own 80 acres of vines, lease another 40 and produce about 16,000 cases a year in their still-uncompleted winery on the aptly named Zinfandel Lane South of St. Helena.
The Raymonds are aiming to level off in the 40,000 to 50,000 case range by 1987 with chardonnay, cabernet and sauvignon blanc as the primary wines. Walter Raymond feels that "a winemaker tends to be as good as the grapes are," so the family is putting a good deal of effort into its vineyards. All the vines are on cordons, urging them to grow up in a T-shape. This relatively new technique is better suited to mechanical harvesting (which the Raymonds feel is inevitable, even at premium wineries) and suits their philosophy that fruit grown closer to the trunk of the vine is of better quality.
At a tasting a Chez Maria, the Raymond chardonnays of 1978 and 1979 were impressive wines in the big, oaky style. The 1977 cabernet is full-bodied, too, but still in an awkward stage. Their zinfandel from the same vintage is a winner.
Raymond wines can be found in restaurants that feature California wines and several wines shops, including Morris Miller, Harry's and Woodley.
A fascinating seminar took place here recently at an informal tasting with Harry Waugh, the great British wine merchant and scholar, and John Movius, a leading commentator on the California wine scene and Les Amis du Vin official.
Waugh brought news that a line of wines bearing his signature, Harry Waugh Selections, is in the bottle and awaits only a contract with an importer to bring them into the Washington area. The wines, which will carry detailed back label information similar to that found on some California releases, include a generic claret, six petits chateaux, a sauvignon blanc, beaujolais, Cotes du Rhone and Anjou blanc and rose. They should be moderately priced in the $3.50 to $4.50 range.
Waugh and Movius discussed current trends ad events in California. They named several talked-about new wineries, among them Quail Ridge and Matonayas Creek (both with women winemakers) in the Napa Valley, Jordan in the Alexander Valley, Norvarro in the Anderson Valley, Lawrence in Pasa Robles and Sante Chapelle in the state of Idaho Champagne is a vogue that has wineries excited (Chateaux St. Jean and Ste. Michelle in Washington State are said to have great promise) and, partly on the basis of promotion by Almaden, they felt merlot could become the "hot" red wine of the next few years.
Waugh said the 1979 Bordeaux is the biggest vintage since World War II and "the wines have good color. They really are much better than expected." The failure of prices to decrease is, Waugh feels, a factor of inflation. Bordeaux merchants are "fully aware of price resistance in this country," he said, and are "deeply disturbed" about it. The red 1980s, of which he had recently completed an extensive tasting, are "good" in his judgment. The classified growths have "very good, deep color," but in some wines, particularly those from cooperatives and petits chateaux, "there's lots of acidity hanging around, perhaps due to using underripe grapes."