A Committed ‘Nut’ Is Won Over by the Taste From Sonoma Mountain
It didn’t take Rod Berglund long to discover Sonoma Mountain as a wine-growing region he liked. It happened at a tasting of home wine makers’ wines 10 years ago, and Berglund was hooked.
“I tasted this 1979 Cabernet,” said Berglund the other day, “and ’79 was a strange year, but this wine was great. I was stunned at the quality of the fruit.”
The Cabernet Sauvignon was made by David Steiner from his own young vineyard on Sonoma Mountain, above Glen Ellen. Berglund, smitten by the wine, became a close friend of Steiner and the two became associates in a wine-making venture.
It is the story of a committed wine “nut” who was so dedicated to making great wine that he volunteered to work at a winery owned by one of the legends of California wine making, then helped found a winery on a shoestring and worked virtually around the clock to keep it going.
It was 1975 when Berglund, then a student, sought to meet with Joe Swan, one of the pioneers of Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley, a man whose wines were among the most sought in the state.
Berglund harvested grapes for Swan that year (without pay) and the following year helped work the crush at the small, crammed winery.
“This was Joe’s third career,” said Berglund the other day. “And he could make a mistake if he wanted to. If he did, he could just dump the wine into the sewer. He was a perfectionist and he did only what he needed to do to make great wine.
“It was a true one-man operation, and he was happy working with the worst equipment you ever heard of. The press was small, inefficient and broken half the time.”
In 1979, Berglund and a group of wine lovers founded La Crema Vinera in a Petaluma business park and he began making wine the way Swan did, with a minimum of tinkering and using Swan’s techniques.
“It was a nightmare,” recalled Berglund. “We were willing to sacrifice everything because of this passion we all had. I had no hot water, no lab--I did everything on top of a barrel. Meanwhile, I was a biology student (at Sonoma State University), and I was working the night shift at Safeway in the produce department.”
Some of Berglund’s early La Crema wines were wonderful; some never left the other end of the spectrum.
During this period, Berglund was in constant touch with the white-haired Swan, and soon Rod married Swan’s daughter, Lynn.
After tasting Steiner’s home-made Cabernet in 1980, Berglund contracted to buy some of Steiner’s grapes. One of those early wines was the 1983 Cabernet that went out under the Petaluma Hill Cellars label, a second label of La Crema Vinera. It was a stunning achievement.
But soon the vagaries of marketing an erratic line of wines caught up with the partners and La Crema Vinera was sold.
That turned Berglund into a nomad, so committed to making these wines that he leased space at another winery to make them. There was a Cabernet from Steiner, a Chardonnay from Wolfspierre, a Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon from Berlin, all Sonoma Mountain properties owned by tiny growers.
To credit those behind the wines, Berglund named the brands of each wine after the vineyard owner. Steiner was the flagship, and the first wine under the new Steiner label, the 1984, was a great wine. But even here Berglund didn’t find the sailing smooth.
The winery in which he was making the wine eventually had financial difficulties, and to protect himself from the winery’s creditors, Berglund was forced to move his barrels to yet another winery. The barrels were moved again before bottling the wine.
Moreover, the wines were made in small quantities, and because there were no economies of scale, prices had to be a bit higher than Berglund would have liked.
In 1988, Swan was stricken with cancer and Berglund came to help out his father-in-law with the chores that were becoming increasingly difficult for Joe, then 73. Joe died a little more than a year ago, and soon after his widow, June, named Rod the full-time wine maker to replace him.
“In the last few months of his life, Joe told me everything about how to run that place,” said Berglund. “Even though he got tired easily, we walked through the vineyards and he told me about every vine. Even the eccentricities about how the tractor worked.”
The final harvest for Swan, the 1988, Berglund put into effect some of Joe’s final experiments in wine making, meanwhile making the Steiner Cabernet and the other Sonoma Mountain wines as his own project.
The 1986 Steiner Cabernet, just released at $18 a bottle, is a striking wine that shows violets and black cherries in the aroma, concentrated fruit in the mouth, and a long, complex finish that indicates it will age beautifully, as have the ’83 and ’84.
Meanwhile, the 1988 Berlin Sauvignon Blanc ($10) is a Graves-like effort with little of the grassy overtones of so many wines from this grape, and the 1987 Wolfspierre Chardonnay ($15) is rich and layered, lacking a bit of fruit, but it makes up for it in depth.
And of course the Swan wines continue to make strides toward that goal Swan himself had when he founded the winery in 1969.
Swan’s 1986 Pinot Noir ($20) is packed with cherry-like flavors, and the 1987 Zinfandel ($12.50) is typically “Swan-ish” with zesty spice elements and rich, full fruit.
The Swan wines are in a limited number of retail locations.
Another person making a statement on Sonoma Mountain is Patrick Campbell, owner of the Laurel Glen Vineyard situated not far from Steiner.
Two weeks ago, at a blind tasting of red wines staged in Santa Rosa, Laurel Glen’s first Cabernet beat a handful of classic competitors in a test of eight wines from the 1981 vintage.
The event was conducted by the Bordeaux Club, a group of local enthusiasts, and was aimed at monitoring some of the better wines of the 1981 vintage from both France and California.
The 1981 Laurel Glen Cabernet had five first-place votes and four votes for second from 16 judges and finished just a shade ahead of the No. 2 wine, the 1981 Caymus Special Selection (six firsts, three seconds).
Third place wine was Pine Ridge Cabernet, and fourth was Chateau Certan de May from Bordeaux. Fifth through eighth were Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Diamond Creek “Volcanic Hill,” Chateau Margaux and Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou.
Campbell, whose newly released 1987 Laurel Glen Cabernet has received good reviews, said he’s happy the 1981 wine is still showing so well, but he says his wine making technique has improved markedly in the years since, especially since 1986.
“I think the wines we made through 1986 were really rustic in many ways, as opposed to the refined way we’ve made them since then,” said Campbell. And a key reason is his ability to take lesser barrels and “declassify” them by putting out a second wine.
Laurel Glen’s second label, called Counterpoint, is used for lots of Cabernet that aren’t up to the quality of the Laurel Glen name. Laurel Glen Cabernets sell for $22 a bottle; Counterpoint is $13.
One reason Counterpoint exists is that the weather on the mountain can be all or nothing; when it is good, it is very, very good, and when it is bad, it is awful.
“We show what kind of weather the county gets, but in a more exaggerated form,” said Campbell. For that reason, he will make 4,000 cases of Laurel Glen wine some vintages, only 1,000 other years, with the rest going into Counterpoint.
The Laurel Glen and Counterpoint wines are made by selecting out the best barrels for the former wine, and this rigid barrel selection process is the key. The first Counterpoint wine was a 1985/1986 blend, and annually it represents good value.
Wine of the Week: 1989 Hacienda Dry Chenin Blanc ($7)--Hacienda is one of the 10 best producers of Chenin Blanc and this lively wine, which was grapes six months ago, has an aroma of leaves and melons and a fresh, almost “Loire-ish” lilt to the taste. Made with the barest amount of residual sugar, this wine matches beautifully with lighter fish dishes, and is a delight with picnic food on a patio or under a tree. But drink it young. By fall it may be fading.
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