Insights From the Outside : California Non-Professionals Who Challenged Classic Wine Concepts

Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

What is fascinating in the world of wine is the curiosity and passion of wine buffs, whether they are vintners, growers, wine critics, writers or consumers. These enthusiasts have demanded perfection in wine and that may be the principal reason for America's higher standards and achievements, not only in wine production but also in establishing an admiring public. Many California wineries, especially boutiques, have attained a measure of greatness when discovered by discerning wine buffs.

As many of these wine enthusiasts became dissatisfied with the grape's status quo, they became involved in creating changes in the production of wines more pleasing to their tastes. These were not dilettantes; they challenged classic concepts and veteran vintners to improve wines, production and growing techniques, and when improvement was at hand, most were willing to help pay the price.

More Than Grape Juice

A glass of wine was not simply grape juice and alcohol; it was more a matter of whether the soil produced its best, whether the grape was grown in the right place and whether the wine maker understood that it was art that was being put in the glass. Many of these wine buffs became wine tasters and appreciators rather than drinkers. They became increasingly aware that better American wine could only come from personal effort, even if those involved in its production lacked academic enology training or long-held family vineyards or, in many cases, had more wild hopes than sound finances. As a result many daringly entered the wine making field largely equipped with more enthusiasm than training.

A prime example is Southern Californian Jack Davies. In 1965, he purchased Schramsberg Vineyards and restored it to today's prime status after leaving a successful business career. While residing in Los Angeles he tasted incessantly while nurturing dreams of vineyard acquisition. He has raised California's bottle-fermented sparkling wines to heights that now challenge France and which have precipitated the arrival here of some of the most valued Champagne firms such as Moet-Chandon, Piper Heidsieck, Louis Roederer and Deutz.

Preceding Davies in the consumer-turned wine maker mold was the late Martin Ray, the legendary Saratoga vintner. He set sky-high pricing standards for wines like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and bottle-fermented sparklers that were among the best here and in Europe. Who can forget his Madame Pinot, 1964, a Blanc de Noir, made from the free-run juice of Pinot Noir; and earlier Cabernets, some of which were selling then for the unheard of tab of $50 a bottle.

No Negative Hint of Age

Another in the non-professional tradition was the late James D. Zellerbach, former U.S. ambassador to Italy, who established his no-expense-spared, tiny Hanzell Vineyards, in the hills behind Sonoma to produce on California soil the best of red and white Burgundies, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Perhaps the first to utilize French Limousin oak cooperage, as well as to bottle under nitrogen, his well-preserved '50s produced Chardonnays that are drinkable today with no negative hint of age.

Starting at about the same time was the late Fred McCrea, whose Stony Hill Vineyards, 1,700 feet above the Napa Valley floor between Spring and Diamond Mountain, has produced perhaps California's finest Chardonnays to date. As a retired San Francisco advertising executive, McCrea probably knew less about wine than most of today's neophyte buffs but by the time of his death in 1977, he was considered a formidable authority on California Chardonnay. Now under the aegis of his wife, Eleanor, Stony Hill Chardonnays, many of them requiring 10 years or more of aging, are still the hallmark of the variety.

Who can deny the magnificent early '60s Zinfandel revelations of the Stanford research gang of Ridge Winery. Humble, amateur beginnings prompted David Bennion, H. M. Zeidler, H. D. Crane, C. A. Rosen and later R. W. Foster, a Los Angeles business executive, to treat Zinfandel with Cabernet respect and turn it into a star varietal to the point where it was challenging Cabernet and Pinot Noir for favor. Bennion was so smitten that he departed his Stanford research calling to become Ridge's "grape pro" before today's professionally trained chief enologist, Paul Draper took over.

Studied for Years

David Bruce, a retired San Jose dermatologist, spent eight years studying wine making and vineyard techniques before his 1961 purchase of a vineyard in the mountains above Los Gatos where he has effectively uncovered the mysteries of Pinot Noir. Others following the Pinot Noir challenge sans academic and enology credentials are Mike Richmond of Acacia, Josh Jensen of Calera, Ken Burnap of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard and Terrence Leighton of Kalin Cellars.

Corporate lawyer Chafee Hall, during the '40s and '50s, made Cabernet Sauvignon that to this day suggests a style and taste of Chateau Mouton de Rothschild. Frank Bartholomew, former chairman of the board of United Press International, turned Buena Vista Vineyard into an acclaimed winery during the '50s and '60s by restyling such unfashionable grapes as Gewurztraminer and Green Hungarian. Bernard Fetzer virtually revolutionized the industry by showing the taste capabilities of Mendocino County and challenging the entrenched star-gazed reputations of Sonoma and Napa counties.

Robert Travers, an investment banker, left the field of high finance in 1968 to establish Mayacamas, but not before having apprenticed himself to Heitz Cellars. Starting from the wine glass, Travers soon made true mountain wines high atop Mt. Veeder, concentrating on big bold Cabernet, buttery Chardonnay and the best that could be made in the style of late-harvest Zinfandel.

A Bit of Wood

Don Chappellet of Beverly Hills left a food vending machine empire in 1967 to construct one of the finest-looking wineries ever. More important, as a consumer he was the first to recognize the need for a dry Chenin Blanc, in a Chardonnay-like style, as an everyday white table wine that would not be expensive.

Other prominent examples are Mike Robbins, a real estate agent, whose more austere Spring Mountain Sauvignon Blanc created as great a sensation as Robert Mondavi's Fume Blanc. Carl Doumani, a businessman, of Stag's Leap Winery is keeping the memory of Petite Sirah alive with one excellent version after another. Cakebread Cellars, founded 10 years ago by garage keeper Jack Cakebread, also set new standards for Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel.

A Cal State Sacramento English professor, Charles Myers of Harbor Winery, continues to tempt palates with early-style, sweet mission grape wine, while former corporate airline pilot Tom Burgess of Burgess Cellar makes fine wine in his own right. His winery is steeped in the traditions of Lee Stewart of Souverain, an equally dedicated wine maker who was not professionally trained but who, during the '50s and '60s, produced some of California's finest German-style Johannisberg Rieslings.

Some of the country's finest Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have been made at Chalone under the skillful eyes of Richard Graff, a Harvard music graduate whose career in wine probably got its start at a UCLA Extension wine appreciation class in the early '60s. William Hill, with a Stanford MBA, followed his palate to the risky hillsides of Napa County to prove that satisfying and profitable wines could be made. Joseph Phelps, a construction magnate, gave carte blanche to German-born wine maker Walter Schug to produce sweetish German-style Johannisberg Riesling at a time when no one cared. Joseph Swan, a former Western Airlines pilot, long before it became fashionable, made some of Sonoma's finest Zinfandel and Pinot Noir.

It is presumptuous to contend that the industry would have failed without the active participation of numerous wine buffs who had more enthusiasm than professional training, yet there is overwhelming evidence that their caring efforts, though non-professional in origin, have played a major role in pushing California to the forefront in the production of the world's wines.

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