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Call Me Valdiguie

TIMES WINE WRITER

I had just completed a wine tasting with the late Sonoma County wine pioneer Joe Swan. Swan decided to pour me one more wine to taste blind and asked me to guess what it was.

The color was inky black, the aroma densely packed with fruit. I guessed it to be a 1980 Zinfandel. “Wrong,” said Swan. I guessed Petite Sirah. Wrong. Alicante Bouchet? Nope. I gave up.

“It’s Napa Gamay,” said Swan with a sly grin. The variety usually makes a wine light in color for drinking young. Swan said he still couldn’t believe it himself, because the wine had been made in 1970--it was then 18 years old and still improving.

Winemaker Rod Berglund, Swan’s son-in-law, recalled the incident recently. “For the first few years, that wine smelled just like blackberry juice, not wine,” he said. “We knew that those ‘Napa Gamay’ grapes were different.”

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Swan had bought the grapes for that 1970 Napa Gamay from a northern Sonoma County grower by the name of Teldeschi. I filed that into a side pocket in my brain and all but forgot it.

Eighteen months later, during a 1990 visit to Duxoup Wine Works in Dry Creek Valley, I tasted winemaker Andy Cutter’s 1988 Napa Gamay. The wine had a briary note to it and fruit similar to wines of the south of France. It most certainly was not Beaujolais.

Dense and rich, the wine needed time in the bottle to smooth it out. In a way it reminded me of the Swan wine.

“Where did you get the grapes?” I asked.

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“From a family that’s been growing grapes here for years,” said Cutter.

“Is their name something like Tedeshy?” I asked.

“Yeah, Teldeschi,” he replied.

Weeks later, I was at Hop Kiln Winery, a few miles south of Duxoup in the Russian River Valley. Hop Kiln Napa Gamay had a character similar to the Swan and Duxoup wines, but was richer and harder and needed lots of time to develop finesse.

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I asked owner Marty Griffin and winemaker Steve Strobel whether they bought the grapes from the Teldeschi family. “No, we grew them right here on the ranch,” said Griffin.

But then Strobel said: “We got the bud wood from Teldeschi. It’s essentially the same thing.”

Three wines named Napa Gamay, all with similar characteristics, but not like the Napa Gamays of other wineries. I began poring through ampelography books and came up with a clue. Then I tracked down Austin Goheen, retired grape science professor from the University of California at Davis who now lives in Oregon.

“First of all, there is no Gamay grape variety at all,” said Goheen. “The real name of the variety is Gamay Noir a Jus Blanc.” He said little, if any, grows in California.

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He said what we have called Napa Gamay was given that name because of an error made 30 or 40 years ago: "(Harold) Olmo (professor of viticulture at UC Davis) put that ‘Napa’ on the front of that variety"--probably with the laudable intention of distinguishing it from the true Gamay of France. “But Valdiguie is the proper name for what we call Napa Gamay.”

Goheen helped found UC Davis’ Foundation Plant Materials Service, which maintains vines with accurate names. Susan Nelson-Kluk, who heads up the service, says all the Napa Gamay growing in California is really Valdiguie and is unrelated to the true Gamay of France.

Lucie T. Morton, a Virginia-based ampelographer, confirms this and says that Valdiguie, when grown in certain ways, can make a darker, richer, more compact wine than Gamay, with the potential to age well--but because the variety has traditionally been made as a light, early-drinking wine in California, we haven’t seen those qualities. Armed with this information, I called Cutter and Griffin. Both knew their Napa Gamays were rich and improved in the bottle. The 1981 Duxoup Napa Gamay is a remarkable wine, still deep and complex, reaching a peak of enjoyableness.

Last week, after months of discussion, both Duxoup and Hop Kiln decided to change the designations on their Napa Gamay labels to Valdiguie. Both, however, say the change is intended more for stylistic reasons than anything else. Both wineries hope consumers will now give their Valdiguies a chance to age in the cellar for a year or three, to develop.

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Cutter decided to make the change on his labels only after most of his 1990 Duxoup Napa Gamay was already labeled. So some bottles labeled Napa Gamay may already be on shelves; about 125 cases will be labeled “Valdiguie.” The wines are identical and are priced at $9.50. Succeeding vintages will all be called Valdiguie.

Hop Kiln will release its 1990 Valdiguie this fall.


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