A Historic Winery Bucks the Trend : Dan Gehrs Revives Congress Springs Venture at Saratoga

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

When Dan Gehrs, a former tour guide for Paul Masson Winery, revived the old Congress Springs Winery of 1892, little did he realize that it would become the largest wine enterprise in the historic Santa Clara County town of Saratoga. With an annual production of 7,000 to 8,000 cases, he now produces more wine there than anyone, including current producers of such pioneer labels as Paul Masson and Martin Ray.

"No question about it I'm in love with these lovely foothills, even though the old top producers have gone," Gehrs said. "I hope my wines not only will revive my label, but the region, too, which I believe still produces some of California's best Cabernet, Zinfandel and Chardonnay."

Indeed, much of California's best of yesteryear was made by Masson and Ray, and although Gehrs tries to emulate their lofty standards, the styles are definitely his own.

Marvelously stylized is Zinfandel, 1984, Congress Springs, a wine from the Santa Cruz mountains, Chaine d'Or district. The beauty of this wine is its appealing, early drinkability, although it has the ability to age. This is a claret-styled Zinfandel that is round and flavorful with a spectacular spicy, Zinfandel nose. Made from low-yield 74-year-old vines, it is very rich and generous, with unobtrusive 13.4% alcohol and features a nice blend of 90% Zinfandel, 4% Carignane and 1% Grenache grapes. Considering the quality, it is inexpensive at $10.

Bucking the Trend

I asked Gehrs why he is making red Zinfandel while many other vintners are getting rich on white Zinfandels. "My passions as a wine lover are not aroused by white Zins, and it seems I will always feel this way," Gehrs said. "No matter what the fashions are, I will want to make a red Zinfandel. I also refrained from making a late harvest type when that seemed to be in vogue."

Bucking the trend seems to come quite naturally to Gehrs. A prime example is Cabernet Franc, 1984, Santa Cruz Mountains, Chaine d'Or, from old vines which were retrained in a three-acre vineyard. Very few California vintners produce Cabernet Franc as a varietal, but based upon the success of this wine, more may be in the offing. This is a big wine, with greater density and texture than the Zinfandel, not unlike that found in Pomerol with outstanding forward opulence. Blended with 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, there is good backbone and structure, suggesting long-term aging possibilities.

"I am very fond of the Cabernet Franc grape," Gehrs said, "because of the unique varietal character, which in its youth resembles ripe black cherries, with a hint of black peppercorns. I also like how it seems to fit with toasty oak, from its 20 months aging in 4- to 5-year-old 60-gallon French oak, freshly shaved and retoasted." A fine change of pace red at $12.

Cabernet Sauvignon, 1984, Santa Cruz Mountains, is almost as appealing. It exhibited a jam-like nose, full-in-the-mouth, soft, supple texture and a blend of assertive jam and cherry taste. Greater aging time for elegance and complexity development is needed here, and although it is quite good at the moment, the Cabernet Franc is drinking better.

Another trend deviation is Pinot Blanc, 1985, which could well be a style-setter for the variety. This has Chardonnay character, buttery rich, although without any barrel fermentation, in a soft appealing style. Blind tasted, it could well be mistaken for a Chardonnay, especially with its somewhat intrusive 13.2% alcohol and wood tones from eight months of barrel aging in 60-gallon French oak.

A Personal Pinnacle

"To me, this wine represents a personal pinnacle in the production of this oftentimes difficult variety," Gehrs said. "We succeeded here because the grapes are from two vineyards that have married well, that is 70% from St. Charles, Santa Cruz Mountains Vineyard, and 30% from the San Ysidro, Santa Clara Valley Vineyard."

In the overall scheme of white wine making, California has used this variety for sparkling wines and for filling in when more expensive Chardonnay grapes were not as abundant as now. In earlier days, the Pinot Blanc was often referred to as the "poor man's Chardonnay" with many wineries producing it as a convenient alternative to higher-priced Chardonnay. Expect this wine to age for at least three years, but it is good drinking now at $8.25. Do not overchill to enjoy the more subtle and delicate flavors than generally found in aggressive Chardonnay.

Also from the San Ysidro Vineyard is Chardonnay, 1985, representing Gehrs' fourth vintage there. An unassertive, tropical fruit-like nose and taste is featured in this big-structured, lean, long-to-age wine. There is considerable fruit here and a bit of heat in the finish from 13% alcohol. This is a superior Chardonnay from a superior vineyard and harvest, 1985. Gehrs accurately describes the wine's finish as lemony, tart, crisp and with a butterscotch-cream smoothness. The style may not be for everyone but it's a good beginning, at the price of $12.

An even better Chardonnay, in a leaner, more austere style, definitely suggestive of the old Martin Ray days, is Chardonnay, 1985, from Gehrs' own estate at Saratoga. This is a superb Chardonnay, which, although lean, is rich without being oppressive. There is greater complexity here, and because of the overall quality the $20 tab appears justified.

Chardonnay Clone

The wine's quality may be partly due to a Chardonnay clone known as Mt. Eden, whose origins date to Paul Masson's tour of France in 1898 to obtain vine cuttings from his old friend Louis Jadot, the noted negociant from the estate of Corton Charlemagne. The clone was used by both Masson and Ray. Gehrs' estate vineyards, planted in 1977, are just beginning to mature nicely. Santa Clara has a long history with Pinot Noir, too, a fact not overlooked by Gehrs. He does not appreciate the negative comments generally directed to Pinot Noir and feels there is more said and written about the difficulties and problems of California Pinot Noir than about its pleasures and virtues.

"Let's positively talk and taste Pinot Noir," he said. Pinot Noir, 1985, Congress Springs, produced 72% from the Santa Clara Valley Vineyards and 28% from Santa Cruz Mountain, is the kind of wine that merits positive talk. This is a big, powerfully structured, yet elegant Pinot Noir that competes well with top California and Oregon Pinot Noirs. It is reasonably priced at $12.

Gehrs claims that production techniques used to make his Pinot Noir are grounded in awareness of the classic Burgundy method of pigeage , that is, whole cluster fermentation, mixed bodily in the fermenter. Whereas the Burgundians reportedly perform this maneuver in the buff, Gehrs' objective is a gentle treatment of the wine from crushing through bottling.

Now that Gehrs is the largest wine-making enterprise at Saratoga, he feels a responsibility to maintain the high quality levels of his pioneer predecessors. Gehrs said, I guess I am making wine and continuing tradition at the same time."

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