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A wine guy at City Hall

Special to The Times

Last fall, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom was in Washington, D.C., he says, “I heard from a couple of Republican senators that they wanted to see me. I thought, ‘Well, that’s kind of strange,’ since we didn’t exactly have a lot in common.” If anything, a typical Republican senator in this Congress might want to avoid being seen with the California politician who brought a tempest to the national stage by issuing marriage licenses to gay men and women at City Hall.

“But I met with them,” Newsom says, “and they just wanted to tell me how much they loved my wine.”

The wine in question was the estate Cabernet from PlumpJack, the small Napa winery that Newsom founded in a limited partnership in 1997. Born from a lease agreement on 50 acres of valley floor, with an old barn for an address, the winery made an immediate splash when Robert Parker gave its inaugural Reserve Cabernet 95 points in the Wine Advocate, putting it in the company of other cult Cabs of the era such as Harlan, Colgin, Dalla Valle and Screaming Eagle.

It’s fitting that San Francisco, with its incredible food and wine culture and proximity to Northern California’s great wine regions, should have a wine guy as a mayor. Despite the fact that Newsom seems destined from birth to be a politician, he’s been a wine guy in one form or another for much longer than he’s been involved in government. In fact, the PlumpJack Group, a collection of hotel, restaurant and retail businesses the mayor created with partners that include family friends Gordon and Billy Getty, got its start with a wine shop.

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Fifteen years ago, Newsom and Billy Getty were in their early 20s, and like a lot of kids in their early 20s, frequented their share of liquor stores -- mostly to purchase wine, for which the pair had developed a mildly patrician taste through the good graces and deep cellars of Billy’s father, Gordon. What typically happened amounted to a dis: Seeing two guys in their 20s, the store clerk, without so much as a second thought, would point them in the direction of the beer cooler.

Eventually Newsom and Getty got sufficiently indignant to launch their own wine shop in San Francisco’s Marina District in 1992. They called it PlumpJack, after an opera Gordon Getty wrote based on Jack Falstaff, Shakespeare’s magnificent rogue. From its outset, PlumpJack Winery was about making wine accessible to people Newsom’s age, presenting it affordably and, whenever possible, devoid of mystery. “I knew nothing about the business,” says Newsom, “and very little about wine. I just knew that I loved it.” He knew, too, that people his age were not being served. Indeed the wine-shop vibe in San Francisco at the time was often red-carpeted and gallery-like, trading on rarity and reinforcing snobbery. Newsom found this objectionable.

“Gavin’s whole idea was to try and be unpretentious and reasonable so as many people as possible could enjoy good wine,” says Paul Birman, who has run the shop and served as Newsom’s wine buyer almost from the start. Markups were kept low and Newsom and his staff sought out small, unknown wineries, often stumbling onto the next big thing in the process. PlumpJack got early allocations of such highly prized wines as Marcassin and Peter Michael -- pricey bottles, but even on these, Newsom kept his markups low.

“They went into this whole business thinking, ‘Why should we gouge people?’ ” says Birman.

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A few years later and a few doors up on Fillmore Street, Newsom opened the PlumpJack Cafe, a restaurant with such an aggressive wine-pricing structure that each bottle was priced only a few bucks above retail. In a town with impressive wine lists and even more impressive wine prices, it was seen as a bold move, and the Bay Area’s wine geek population took immediate notice.

According to longtime general manager Rose Gibson, the cafe became Newsom’s wine education salon. “Late in the evening there’d be 10 guys sitting at the big table,” says Gibson, “including the Gettys and sometimes Gavin’s father [retired Judge William Newsom], and we’d bring out 10 or 15 brown bags covering Italians, Bordeaux, all of the new California Cabs. This is when Araujo and Bryant Family had just come out and were still cheap, $50 or $60 on our list. And they’d spend the evening -- in the interest of research -- trying to guess what was in each bag.”

The wines that did well became fixtures in the wine shop. “We’d know of course what they liked by the empty bottles,” adds Gibson, “and those were mostly the Cabs.”

Gibson and Birman agree that like a lot of Northern California wine drinkers, Newsom started with a clear penchant for the bold, brash Cabernets that vaulted to prominence in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. And that is how the mayor cultivated a special affinity for Oakville, where his winery came to be. “I love Oakville,” says Newsom. “It’s always been the place for me where terroir speaks the loudest.”

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Newsom cites producers Groth and Silver Oak as two of his abiding favorites (both are now PlumpJack’s neighbors). In 1995, when the opportunity to land a property in Oakville presented itself, Newsom assembled partners to make it happen.

Gordon Getty is the principal financier of the winery, and if he has a pet project among all of PlumpJack’s ventures, it’s this. Naturally, Getty wanted to hire a top-of-the-line winemaker. “I loved the wines being made by Helen Turley and Heidi Barrett,” he explains, “but the price tag [for their consultation] was a little too high.” Instead, he went with Nils Venge, who had made a reputation for himself as the winemaker for Robert Parker’s first 100-point wine, the 1985 Groth Reserve. Venge has gone on to be a star Cab consultant in his own right, developing a reputation for powerful, deeply tannic, texturally ample wines, wines that accentuate depth and minerality.

Today, PlumpJack wines are made by Anthony Biagi, a young, energetic winemaker and former wrestling star who came to PlumpJack by way of the Hess Collection and Duckhorn. He counts among his mentors Tom Rinaldi, Duckhorn’s chief winemaker for many years, and Rinaldi’s penchant for lush, seamless textures is something that Biagi seems to have inherited.

When Newsom was elected mayor, he divested himself from the businesses in San Francisco for the time being, but he retains his stake in the properties outside the city, including the winery. The mayor, who is intensely personable, with the emphasis on “intense,” has an aversion to risk aversion in business and in politics. “Measured fanaticism” is how Gordon Getty describes his partner’s attitude, and it’s a fair assessment. At times Newsom seems gripped with an almost teeth-grinding ebullience; at other times he can be disarmingly unbridled. In 20 minutes during an interview recently, he used the word “maniacal” four times.

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One of Newsom’s earliest efforts to encourage creativity at PlumpJack was the Failure of the Month award for his employees, which honored those whose well-intentioned efforts might not have gone as planned. But by far the biggest risk the winery has ever taken was its decision in 2000 to finish a portion of the Reserve Cabernet using Stelvin screw caps. It was far and away the most expensive wine to make a commitment to that technology at the time. It’s not an overstatement to say that without PlumpJack’s bold move, screw caps would not have the sweeping industry and consumer attention that they now enjoy.

Not surprisingly, the wineries Newsom admires are fairly iconoclastic. He loves the wines of Sean Thackrey, the former art dealer who lives and works in Bolinas and makes exotic field blends named for constellations, like Pleiades and Orion. He loves Bonny Doon, led by another well-known raconteur, Randall Grahm. He especially loves Chateau Potelle’s top-of-the-line tier of reserve bottlings called V.G.S., which stands for something very good that cannot be printed in this newspaper.

There’s a pattern here that suggests Newsom might be just as enamored of great marketing as he is of great wine, but perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise; politicians are nothing if not image-conscious, after all, and his image is carefully crafted. And yet such a head-on attitude can fly in the face of image management, particularly in how the public life intersects the private.

This proved to be the case during City Hall’s gay marriage initiative, when Newsom encountered a brief but sharp backlash at the winery and at his other establishments from regular customers who objected to the policy.

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“I’m used to criticism,” says Newsom, “but when I did the gay marriage thing -- well, let’s just say some winery customers decided to no longer be customers. And some distributors too, in certain states, contacted us and said, ‘We’re not going to carry your wine any longer.’ Some of course said, ‘Give us more’ -- but I didn’t really expect that.”

The PlumpJack restaurants, too, were affected, and the fallout was the first time, Newsom says, that he realized that his public life as mayor and private life as an entrepreneur might clash in some unexpected way.

Newsom’s personal wine selections range well beyond Napa Cabs. “He absolutely loves Burgundy,” says PlumpJack’s wine director Gillian Ballance, especially lately the crisp whites of Chablis and the Macon such as St. Veran. And the mayor’s residence has been stocked lately with a variety of Pinot Noirs and Italian whites.

But when Gavin Newsom really wants to impress somebody at dinner, he orders PlumpJack Reserve. It’s a fine choice: substantial, mineral, ample, and at the same time seamless, articulating Napa’s valley floor terroir on a cushion of generous fruit. As a statement, it’s bold and unequivocal, and that, perhaps, is a quality the wine shares with the mayor.

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Cabs and more

PlumpJack is a Cabernet house, first and foremost, and it makes two: an estate wine and a reserve. But winemaker Anthony Biagi also makes an interesting, somewhat atypical Napa Chardonnay that’s only partly barrel fermented, and as a result is relatively crisp. There’s also a fine Napa Merlot and a Syrah (only available at the winery).

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2004 Napa/Rutherford Chardonnay. A crisp, green, almost Chablis-style Chardonnay, made without malolactic fermentation in a very refreshing style -- with aromas of wheat grass and green apple. It’s ample on the palate, with firm yellow apple flavor and a crisp, acid-directed finish. Available at Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa (949) 650-8463; Wine House in West Los Angeles (310) 479-3731; and Twenty-twenty Wine Merchants in West Los Angeles (310) 447-2020, about $46. Also available on the wine list at Morton’s in West Hollywood (310) 276-5205 ($79); Kincaid’s in Redondo Beach, (310) 318-6080 ($72); and Bistro 45 in Pasadena (626) 795-2478 ($64).

2003 Napa Merlot. Bright and fresh with plenty of red cherry fruit and dusty tannins. Less polished than the Cabs, but typical of Merlot from Napa’s valley floor. Available at Twenty-twenty Wine Merchants; Wine House, about $48. Also available at Ji Raffe in Santa Monica (310) 917-6671 ($80); and Bistro 45 ($72).

2002 Napa Cabernet. The aroma has an almost Graves-like dustiness. Smooth and elegant on the palate, with a hint of minerality and a rich and creamy texture that gives amplitude to its plush plum and black cherry fruit. The finish is smooth as glass. Available at Hi-Time Wine Cellars and Twenty-twenty Wine Merchants, about $70. Also available at Ortolan in West Hollywood (323) 653-3300 ($118); Grace in Los Angeles, (323) 934-4400 ($115); Nick & Steph’s in Los Angeles, (213) 680-0330 ($111); the Cannery in Newport Beach (949) 566-0060 ($105); Bistro 45 ($88); and Table 8 in Los Angeles, (323) 782-8258 ($128).

2002 Napa Reserve Cabernet. As burnished as a river stone, rich and seamless, with plum and red cherry flavors. Still more polished than the Estate, with a sumptuous oak component, gentle, supple tannins leading to a long elegant finish, dark as cocoa. Available at Bistro 45 ($170).

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