Beringer Enologist Dies at 73 : Myron Nightingale Leaves a Legacy

Times Wine Writer

Myron S. Nightingale, wine maker emeritus at Beringer Vineyards and one of the state's most respected enologists, died following a lengthy illness on Thanksgiving evening at the age of 73.

Nightingale, known as a lovable curmudgeon by his co-workers, was one of the true pioneers of California wine making, ignoring the early textbooks and creating great wines. In 48 years as a wine maker, he literally rewrote the rules on premium wine making.

Nightingale formally retired from full-time work three years ago after suffering a heart attack. However, he stayed active until his death, continuing to consult with Beringer's head wine maker, Ed Sbragia.

Over the years, Nightingale, blunt though he was, remained shy about taking any credit for the great number of sophistications in wine making that became standard practice throughout the industry. Recently, a few of those contributions were noted by some his colleagues at a testimonial luncheon for him, yet still Nightingale pooh-poohed taking the credit.

"The whole idea is to make good wine," he said simply.

Despite growing frail and being in ill health in the last two years, Nightingale remained feisty, wielding a dry wit that showed in twinkling eyes over the top of wire-rimmed glasses.

'The Stuff Is Awful'

At a recent wine competition, after two judges on a panel voted gold medals for a particular wine, Nightingale was asked for his vote. He barked, "No award. Ladies and gentlemen, the stuff is awful." The other two judges blinked at the bluntness.

He didn't feel Johannisberg Riesling could be made well in the Napa Valley. "It's just too damn hot," he often said.

Once Nightingale experimented with Pinot Noir from Napa Valley grapes. This is another variety he felt should be planted in cooler regions. The project turned out great wine, but Myron himself was unsatisfied with the result.

Months later at a wine symposium, he was asked the best way to deal with Napa Valley Pinot Noir.

"First you get a D-10," he said, referring to a tractor that is used to tear out grapevines.

Nestle S.A. of Switzerland bought Beringer in 1970 and hired Nightingale in 1971. That marked the start of a remarkable run for the 111-year-old winery that in its previous life never achieved what Nightingale brought it.

Indeed, the story of Beringer is more a story of Nightingale than of anyone or anything. Beringer today is a respected winery of top-quality wines because of what Myron and his wife, Alice, brought to the place.

Nightingale always acknowledged that Nestle did commit a great deal of money to bring Beringer into the 20th Century, adding new equipment and planting premium vineyards. And he noted that a major replanting of vines in the 1970s was a big step.

Still, by 1978, Beringer wines had attained a level of acceptance no one would have believed, and the straight-talking man behind it all was the small, testy genius who dove into every project with a zeal rarely seen in this business.

Beringer's greatest successes were with the top varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, but without fanfare the winery also made exceptional Zinfandel, Chenin Blanc, and a dozen other varieties. Moreover, from time to time, Nightingale would surprise the industry with a wine that created loads of conversation--and more experimentation by his colleagues.

One year, Nightingale came up with a stunning Gewurztraminer made in a dry Alsatian style. Another time he made a Nouveau Beaujolais from Zinfandel grapes that was marvelous. Yet another time his 1978 Pinot Noir, made in an experimental manner using the wild yeast strains found on the outside of the grape skins for fermentation, was a marvel.

However, many of Nightingale's projects died because others came up that seemed more intriguing and, in the long run, more meaningful. Indeed, today the most exciting part of the huge Beringer complex north of this central Napa Valley town is a small building to the rear of the winery that houses the experimental winery, a kind of "skunk works" where projects of all sorts are carried on.

One recent experiment that paid handsome dividends was a change in the house style of the Sauvignon Blanc. Nightingale and Sbragia worked with a consultant from Bordeaux to restructure the Sauvignon Blanc. The project turned out brilliantly.

When I ran into Nightingale last August (we both were judging wine at the Mendocino County Fair), I mentioned to him that the new Beringer Sauvignon Blanc was excellent.

"Yeah, it's damn good wine," said Myron in his direct, stone-faced manner. And I recalled an interview with him about a year earlier when he told it straight: "Too many people make Sauvignon Blanc with no character. I want the Reserve (Sauvignon Blanc) to taste like Sauvignon Blanc."

'Make It Taste Like Chardonnay'

Once we were chatting about Chardonnays with too much oak. Myron cracked, "Any damn fool can put oak in a wine. The trick is to make the thing taste like Chardonnay. You want the wine to have complexity, but I think once the oak becomes noticeable, you've lost the battle."

To make the best wine, Nightingale didn't stick to formula wine making. His Reserve Sauvignon Blanc a couple of years ago had a Sonoma designation on the label, even though Beringer is based in the Napa Valley. Myron defended himself: "Just because we're a Napa winery doesn't mean we have to make our reserve wine from Napa. Sonoma can grow grapes, too." A few of his neighbors bristled at the remark.

Beringer Reserve wines over the years often took less-traveled paths. Nightingale felt reserve wines should be harmonious; huge tastes were unnecessary. "A reserve wine should be better, not just bigger," he said.

In 1977 and 1978 Beringer produced its first reserve-style Cabernets (then designated Lemmon Ranch, for the vineyard where the grapes grew). But Nightingale was unhappy with the Lemmon Ranch lots in 1979, so he made no Reserve Cabernet. Few other wine makers would have made this decision.

One of Nightingale's greatest achievements actually came some 30 years earlier when he and his wife, Alice, a wine technologist, developed a method for making a special dessert wine. That wine originally was made while both worked for Cresta Blanca Winery in Livermore.

The wine was made again nearly three decades later at Beringer and was called, simply, Nightingale, homage to the husband-wife team that created it.

It is a dessert wine, similar to the sweet wines of Sauternes in France. There, Semillon grapes naturally gain a bit of a rare mold (Botrytis cinerea) while on the vine, and such rich dessert wines as Chateau d'Yquem are the result.

A pure strain of this mold rarely occurs naturally, so Alice decided to create it.

Alice developed the mold carefully, sitting for hours in a laboratory doing the precise and demanding task of isolating, under microscope, single spores of the mold. This mold was then sprayed on grapes lying on trays and the grapes were encouraged to turn slightly into raisins.

Then at the proper moment, Nightingale crushed the grapes and made the wine.

The Nightingales first began experimenting with this "induced Botrytis" method of making sweet wines in the 1950s while they were at then Schenly-owned Cresta Blanca. The result in 1956 was called Premier Semillon, one of the greatest experiments in the history of California wine making.

So experimental was this wine that it was not viewed as much of a wine by some people. "Nobody had done it before," said Myron. "Schenly sold it for $3.75, and when it didn't sell right away, they dropped the price to a buck-eighty-nine. In 1972, a wine maker friend of mine found a bottle marked 92 cents in a discount bin."

Today, remaining bottles of the famed '56 Premier Semillon are worth hundreds of dollars.

The resurrection of the concept in 1980 was a success and Beringer continued it thereafter. The wine sold for $30 a bottle.

Sipping it one day with Nightingale and Alice, I commented that it was a rare treat.

Nightingale said, "It's a hell of a lot better than the Premier Semillon."

Alice added, "Yeah, we should get it right pretty soon."

Nightingale and Alice always lived quite simply, and one of his great pleasures was a dry martini before dinner. After his heart attack, he chatted about how his life style would have to change. "The worst part is, no more English Chablis," he said, shaking his head.

Nightingale is survived by his wife and sons, Myron Jr., Barry, and Dan.

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