For the State dinner for Prince Charles this spring, the White House went all out in its wine selection. With the main course was 1970 Beaulieu Vineyards, Georges de Latour Private Reserve cabernet sauvignon, and with dessert was 1975 Schramsberg blanc de noir champagne. And with the first course was 1980 McDowell Valley Vineyards sauvignon blanc.
If an eyebrow or two is raised at the mention of McDowell Valley Vineyards, it is not surprising, since the winery has been producing wine for only two years and released its first bottling less than one year ago. While grape growing began in small McDowell Valley in southern Mendocino County in the 19th century, it was only in 1979 that wine was first made there. Before that the entire production was sold to other wineries, including prestigious Robert Mondavi Winery. McDowell Valley is now making up for lost time.
At present, however, McDowell Valley Vineyards may be better known among environmentalists than wine lovers, although that obviously is changing. The reason for the environmental interest is that McDowell aparently was the first, and still is probably the only, solar-heated winery in the world. Rows of solar panels heat the winery, supply 180-degree sterilization water and control the temperature in the fermentation tanks.
The winery is still under construction. Yet to be finished are a huge tasting-dining room with a cavernous stone fireplace and an ambitious kitchen, both for the benefit of furture visitors. Three sides of the main building will be packed with 14 feet of soil to provide near perfect insulation. But the stainless-steel tank, the French, American and German oak barrels, the crusher and the parabolic solar collectors are in place and operational and completion of the balance is imminent.
Richard Keehn, a former helicopter test pilot, and his wife, Karen, purchased the vineyard in 1970. With their eight children and Davis-trained 29-year-old winemaker George Bursick, they tend the vines -- and now produce wines. Under cultivation are 360 acres of varietals, some dating back to 1906. The range is awesome: chenin blanc, French colombard, fune (or sauvignon) blanc, chardonnay, grenache, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, petite sirah and others.
In the year since their first release McDowell's wines have won considerable recognition. In a March tasting in New York the sauvignon blanc was rated second to St. Jean among 26 wines by a group of wine writers and winemakers. McDowell's French colombard did even better in a tasting sponsored by Los Angeles Times' Robert Lawrence Balzer -- first out of 22.
The Keehns' 360 acres will mean about 50,000 cases of wine within a year or two, a rapid rise from the 20,000 cases crushed in 1979. The valley, a few miles east of tiny Hopland, Calif., and just north of the Sonoma County border, has an excellent climate, partly the result of 750- to 1,000-foot elevation. The valley has a potential for only about 700 acres of vines, 550 of which are owned by the Keehns. So the wines of McDowell Valley are unlikely ever to be a glut on the market.
At a recent tasting at the winery, the McDowell wines showed excellent fruit. Most have some oak aging -- the chardonnay, chenin blanc and fume blanc as well as the reds. Surprisingly, one of the most successful wines is the grenache rose, which is one the dry, but not stark, style of tavel with just under 1 percent residual sugar. The reds, which are aged in French and American oak, are somewhat tannic, but likely to develop rapidly, and show a fruity, berry finish.
Sold in 26 states, McDowell Valley Vineyards wines are now becoming available in Washington area. They can be found at Eagle Wine & Liquor Store, 3345 M St. NW; Gillies Twenty-One Liquors, 2101 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; Spring Valley Wine & Liquors, 4872 Massachusetts Ave. NW; and Woodley Liquors, 3423 Connecticut Ave. NW. mAccording to McDowell's distributor, Foremen Brothers, the number of outlets is expected to increase dramatically.