From a distance, one reads there is no more vineyard land to plant in the Napa Valley and hears descriptions, French-sytle, on the characteristics of wines from this winery or that. But no matter how good the wines of California -- and more than a few are very good indeed -- the comparison to the classic winemaking regions of Europe just doesn't hold. Closeup, it is truly an unfinished country, even in Napa.
None of seven wineries I visited earlier this month could be considered other than a work in progress.
At Raymond Vineyards, off Zinfandel Lane in the heart of the valley, work is literally in progress. The Raymond family is building their winery and winemaker Walter Raymond came down a ladder and stripped off his tool belt to greet visitors.
Further north, at Chateau Monthelena, the old vineyard has been planted over to new grape types: cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and chardonnay with 10 more acres of chardonnay still to come. Winemaker Jerry Luper, enthusiastic over the 1977 Napa cabernet, says "this is proof of where our reds are going." oWhere they are going? Chateau Monthelena is one of Napa's established wineries, a winner (for Chardonnay) in Steven Spurrier's now-historic 1976 Tasting of Paris. Try to imagine a new winemaker taking a great French chateau in a new direction while the vineyards are replanted.
Joseph Phelps, whose winery went into business in 1973, has added a second large press which "helps enormously during the crush, especially with quality control decisions." That should make a difference in Phelps' wines.
Furthermore, Phelps added "We grow varieties in three, maybe four, different locations and keep some of the wines separate through the aging process with the idea of indexing the soils on our ranches. Someday, we'll really know which grapes produce the best wine where, but probably not in my lifetime."
The essential point to all this is to underline how much vitality there is in the California wine industry and how permature it is to insist on absolutes, in the vineyards or the wines, or to expect the wineries to jump into the pages of a textbook. In the most recent issues of the California Grapevine, Chappellet, another of the established wineries, finished eighth in a tasting of 1978 Chardonnay behind such newcomers of Matanzas Creek, Quail Ridge, Zaca Mesa and Roudon-Smith. The confusion will continue for some years, and it should.
But something is emerging. According to winemaker Robert Picota, it is the development of the chateau concept, the Europization of Napa." He is convinced that in time wineries will be using their own grapes to whatever extent possible, producing more limited lines of wine "with a certain consistency of style so that variation year-to-year will be caused by vintage characteristics rather than whim."
Some indication of that may be found at Jordan in the nearby Alexander Valley. Built in the French style at great expense by oilman Tom Jordan, it is turning out to be functional as well as beautiful. Both the 1978 chardonnay and the 1978 cabernet will be estate wines. The single red and white are the only wine types planned. Jordan's deservedly acclaimed 1976 cabernet contained purchased grapes. For a preview tasting, the 1977, made from 85 percent Jordan grapes, will differ markedly in style. Yet the '78 and '79 wines show every promise of having a distinct resemblance to the '76, though perhaps they will be richer and even better wines. Sterling, one of the showcases of the Napa and now the property of Coca-Cola's Wine Spectrum, is winnowing down its line to four wines, developing some new hillside vineyards and gradually giving a brilliant young winemaker his head. Insiders expect Sterling to produce some spectacular wines in the 1980s. The winery has already begun with a splendidly dry and crisp '79 sauvignon blanc.
These two wineries have large bankrolls and virtually limitless ambitions. By contrast Robert Picota's winery is behind his home on the valley floor north of Calistoga. You haven't heard of it, or of him, but you will. He and a man named Charles Shaw are producing the closest California approaches yet to French Beaujolais. Picota also has gained favor in the Napa with French Columbard Flora and Petite Sirah.
A Berkeley economist who had made wine as a hobby since his teens, he bought his vineyard in the early '70s, studied viticulture two days a week at Davis while working, and bonded the winery only two years ago. "I couldn't afford to get into the industry today," he said frankly. "I don't think anyone could without an independent source of wealth. The cost has gone up so much. I live comfortably, but I'm land and equipment poor. That's my Mercedes (pointing to the cement pit where a modern stemmer-crusher is installed). But as I see it I'm sitting on an asset that has incredible value."
Picota's aim is a production of 10,000 to 12,000 cases a year, but that could double. "To me," he said, an ideal-size winery is one in which an individual can control all aspects of it. That could be 5,000 cases or it could be 40,000. It depends on the individual." These days Picota runs his operation almost singlehandedly.
He strikes the visitor as a remarkably sensible man in something that -- at this scale -- is too often a romantic adventure. Picota has developed a careful game plan and he runs a notably well-ordered winery. But he has an artistic side, too, and has developed a series of very handsome labels for his wine. "Packaging is fun to me," he said. "It's a diversion, a way to be creative." Like most owners of new wineries, he is looking for markets beyond overcrowded California, and hopes to have the entire line of his 1981 vintage on sale here.
There are several trends in the Napa worth reporting. Hillside vineyards are in vogue, prompted in part by the cooler growing conditions there. Viticulturists are quick to point out that before Prohibition grapes were grown on the hillsides. But the return seems to be prompted as much by the scar-city and enormous cost of land on the valley floors as it is by a respect for history. There are some flirtations with aging wines, red as well as white, totally without wood. Again economics has prompted scientific curiosity. The 65-gallon, French-oak barrels favored for cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, now cost about $300 each to import. Another alternative being explored is the use of American oak barrels. Big industry investments continue. Disney interests have been buying Napa vineyards and one land specialist reported that inquiries about available vineyards are nearly constant, with 85 percent of the requests coming from foreign companies. A leading winemaker announced at dinner that he has been "blanc de noired to death," and predicted the vogue for making white wines from red grapes will peak soon.
Of local interest, Albert Vacarro, a Washington wine buff and recently retired foreign service officer, has taken up residence in the Napa Valley. He may be found on Saturdays and Sundays aiding customers at Groezinger's, a handsome wine shop in Yountville that features, appropriately enough, a broad spectrum of California wines.