It was 1981. I was a judge at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair wine competition, on a panel with four others that included famed winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff.
Judging a flight of six Pinot Noirs, we came to one wine on which there was debate. Tchelistcheff and I voted the wine a gold medal, but the other three panel members voted it no medal, and by majority rule, the wine was to get no medal.
Moments later, on a break in a patio, Tchelistcheff fumed, "Wine No. 4 is great wine. It deserves gold, at least silver."
The panel coordinator overheard Tchelistcheff and asked for a re-tasting of the wine. Two of the other panel members changed their votes and the wine wound up with a silver medal.
The wine was 1978 Davis Bynum Pinot Noir, the first red wine ever made by Gary Farrell, the least-known great winemaker in the state. Farrell, a reticent fellow, is shy almost beyond description, and has apparently never heard the phrase "public relations." He's never advertised or promoted his wines; he doesn't even announce their release.
Using exceptional grapes, mainly from the Russian River area of Sonoma County, Farrell has made superb wines every year since he became head winemaker at Davis Bynum. Now he also makes wines under his own brand, Gary Farrell, and they are at least comparable, even though he lacks the funding usually needed to make wine at this level.
The man I've selected as California Winemaker of the Year got into wine almost by accident, without formal training in the craft. "I was a political science student (at Sonoma State University)," he says. "A number of us who liked wine formed a tasting group."
In 1973, former newspaperman Davis Bynum, converting a run-down hop kiln west of Healdsburg into a winery, sought help with the construction. Farrell and a friend, Scott Harris, hired on part-time. During the harvest of 1974, Farrell and Harris helped consulting winemaker Robert Stemmler make the Bynum wines.
Farrell remained at Bynum as a "cellar rat," helping Bynum's son, Hampton, make the wines. Harris went on to become winemaker at Arbor Crest in Washington.
"(Over the course of many) weekends I took 20 or 30 of those two-day extension courses in winemaking at U.C. Davis," says Farrell. By 1978 he was ready to assume control at Bynum; six years later the Farrell brand was born.
Farrell now makes some of the most consistent and stylish wines in the state. Five of the Farrell wines won a total of 19 medals at major wine competitions this year and demand has forced the price of his best wine--Pinot Noir from the Howard Allen Vineyard--to $25.
But his other wines are striking too. Farrell's recent Cabernet and Merlot are superb and his Chardonnay is a delicate and flavorful wine with classic lines.
Farrell has no winery of his own. He makes his wines at Bynum, where he remains winemaker.
"I owe so much to Dave (Bynum) for a lot of what I've done," says Farrell. "Sometimes I feel a little uncomfortable when my wines do better in competitions than the Bynum wines." Still, the Bynum line is near in quality to the Farrell line and often priced more reasonably.
If there is a reason Farrell's wines are so successful, it's partly the fact that he pumps virtually all his profits back into making wine. "My tax man keeps telling me I'm making money, but I haven't seen any of it yet," says Farrell with a laugh. "I close my eyes to the costs.
"I do what I think makes the best wine, and for the Pinot Noir that means I have to have Louis Latour barrels. They cost $620 each. I know I can get French oak a lot cheaper, but the Latour barrels make the best wine."
Farrell's 1990 Chardonnay ($16), also aged in expensive French oak barrels, is a stylishly complex wine with a lean, crisp finish following an aroma of delicate citrus-y notes. A wonderful wine that should improve with a year or two in the bottle.
His 1989 Pinot Noir ($16) is lighter-styled than many California Pinot Noirs, like a Beaune from Burgundy with its light cherry and roasted-nut components. Farrell made no Howard Allen Vineyard Pinot Noir in 1989 because the fruit wasn't strong enough to warrant it, but the 1990 version, which will be released March 1, is a stunner: loads of fruit and amazing concentration.
The 1988 Gary Farrell Cabernet ($18), from Ladi Danielik's Santa Rosa vineyard, is a marvel of complexity, a wine that ranked at the top of the list in wine competitions last year with seven medals.
If the Farrell wines seem a bit pricey, the Bynum wines are close in quality and offer a glimpse of what Farrell can do. The 1990 Bynum Chardonnay ($10) has lovely tropical fruit with layers of flavor and depth; 1990 Bynum Chardonnay "Limited Release" ($12.50) is richer and more complex; the Gewurztraminer is annually one of the best in the state.
I especially liked the 1988 Bynum Pinot Noir ($15), a marvelously complex wine with a hint of Burgundian spice. It won five medals in wine judgings this year, including two golds.
In the past, my choices for winemaker of the year have been from well-financed operations--John Thacher of Cuvaison (the Schmidheiny family of Switzerland), Bill Dyer of Sterling (Seagram) and Paul Dolan of Fetzer (a multimillion-case family-owned producer).
But the California wine industry is composed mostly of small, underfunded people who struggle financially even though they make great wine. Most can barely pay for their grapes, let alone $600 oak barrels; few have any money for advertising or promotion.
Farrell represents all these dedicated people who make great wine and gain little recognition. Without them, the industry would lack the texture and personality that makes the world of wine so interesting.