May 29, 2008


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Ancient in the New World
California’s not Greece but it has some history
By Tim Protzman

It’s been a woebegone week in Lake County, to paraphrase Garrison Keillor.

First my father’s gated community home in Florida was robbed by organized crime figures. OK, they were juveniles, but they were into cockfighting, which takes some organization. Then my uncle had a heart attack. Well, he wasn’t really my uncle because he was my uncle’s late wife’s brother, but I thought of him as my uncle. Oh crap, I don’t know why I’m writing it that way because I’m adopted to boot, so I want to be very clear and not get into any James Frey A Million Little Pieces thing. But legally, my uncle, whose late wife’s brother just had a heart attack, is my uncle and my robbed father is my father — even though there are no blood ties, which really pleases everyone in my family.

I just don’t like telling people I’m adopted for two reasons. First, it scares couples who can’t have children biologically (something about losing the luck of the draw) and second, it creeps me out thinking that I could have unwittingly had sex with a close relative. One last James Frey thing, my pseudouncle lives in Mendocino County, not Lake County. Which completes my truth-in-advertising disclaimer. And James Frey’s new book Bright Shiny Morning is getting good reviews. And it’s fiction. Just like the last one.

Uncle Ollie is doing OK after the heart attack. He was a builder. In 1973 he was building a vacation home for a wealthy San Francisco couple and he unearthed an old wine cellar with maybe 200 old undrinkable bottles. They were in the dirt, with the remnants of an old stone wall. No one knew how they got there. Speculation was rampant. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake buried them. The cabin burned down and they just filled in the old earthen cellar. They were a Prohibition-era cache of fine wine. Some beatniks stole them and buried them. The couple later sold what they could at auction for the antique value. I don’t think they ever tasted it. But thinking of Uncle Ollie made me nostalgic for old wines, ancient vineyards.

Wine has been a part of California since the first Spanish settlements. Later, when it was part of Mexico, California became an exporter of wine. Spain had banned Mexican winemaking on a large scale because it was competing with the vineyards of the Motherland. So Mexico concentrated on tequila and mezcal. Mezcal can be made from 11 kinds of cactus and tequila can only be made from one, the blue agave.

The first vineyard in California was in San Diego. By 1848, there were hundreds of vineyards all over the state. The warm hillsides with cool nightly ocean breezes were the best. By 1900, Californian wine was exported to countries all over the world. And it was considered serious stuff. It only diminished in world stature because of Prohibition, which the rest of the world considered a prudish farce.
I could spend an entire column on the history of Californian wine. But that’s bores-ville. So here are some ancient wineries by New World standards and their wines, which are readily available for tasting. And while the vineyards are just babes compared to the clos of the Rhone Valley or the terraced Greek isles, they stand out like redwoods next to the zygote-aged new Napa wineries like Screaming Eagle.
• Inglenook An ancient name in wine dating back to 1879. The winery land in Napa now belongs to Francis Ford Coppola, but the brand name belongs to The Wine Group, which is pretty typical for the wine industry. The wines are not what they used to be and the Chablis? Has no chardonnay in it, only French Colombard and Chenin Blanc. But it’s the best tasting of whole lot. Pear fruit note with the slight hint of lemon Slurpee. $3.99 to $7.99.
• Schramsberg They make delicious sparkling wine and have made it since 1879. From 1920 to 1940, the winery property on Diamond Mountain in Napa was a vacation home. In 1888, they made something called Sauvignon Vert, which could have been either sauvignon blanc or Muscadelle, a blending grape used in sauterne. Schramsberg sparkling wines are worth trying. $14 to $34.
• Buena Vista Carneros Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Gris and Syrah & Merlot made on an ancient estancia in the Carneros region of Napa. Nice wines, kind of everyday, but quality. $13 to $27.
• Charles Krug Wonderful wines. Full deep reds. Natural, lively whites. Owned by Peter Mondavi family. $22 to $99. On the original winery established 1861.
• Beringer Since 1876 they’ve made really good wine and a lot of it. Almost every variety. Last week I tasted the Pinot Noir from the Napa estate. Very nice, but I find the merlot a little more elegant. From $11 to $134. One of the best properties to visit in Napa, full of old buildings.
• Gundlach Bundschu The name’s a mouthful and so is the wine. Although I’ve always found it a tad flabby, the older vintages have aged as well as anything in Piedmonte. $17 to $44.
• Korbel Known for their champagnes and established in 1882. Their sparklers are nice but not stellar. From $9.99 to $21. In 1954 the winery was sold to Adolf Heck, whose grandson runs it today.
• Italian Swiss Colony Once run by Adolf Heck of Korbel, but now a real “street wine” brand producing muscatel, a cheap white that packs a swift kick.
• Ridge Once owned by a wealthy Italian doctor who settled in San Francisco, this property in the mountains south of San Francisco produced its first vintage in 1892. Today Ridge makes a small portion of its wine from grapes grown on Monte Bello Ridge. They have vineyards in Napa, Sonoma & Paso Robles, although their premier bottling is still produced on Monte Bello Ridge and aptly called Ridge Monte Bello and is all cabernet sauvignon. From $27 to $175..

5/15/2008 You are the expert

5/8/2008 The must-drink list
5/1/2008 Gaming wine futures
4/24/2008 Chronos and me
4/17/2008 Getting lucky
4/3/2008 The daquiri's of spring
3/27/2008 Germans play well with others
3/13/2008 Complain yourself happy
3/6/2008 Operatic wine tasting
2/28/2008 Everything must go!
2/21/2008 His & hers bottles
2/7/2008 Friends in spam
1/31/2008 Warm up the wine
1/24/2008 A drink to them
1/17/2008 Stalking the barking dingo
1/10/2008 Wishes and predictions
1/3/2008 Bit of bubbly
12/27/2007 Drinking blind
12/20/2007 Not fighting for the right
12/13/2007 The liquor store suite
11/29/2007 World of drinkin'
11/22/2007 Thanks for the Napa cabs
11/15/2007 Drinks with Diwali
11/8/2007 Candy Corn hangover
11/1/2007 Drinks with History Channel
10/25/2007 Schooled in Shiraz
10/18/2007 Spooky wines
10/11/2007 Location, location, location
10/04/2007 Shiraz history
9/27/2007 Ingenious appellation
9/20/2007 Small world of wines
9/13/2007 How not to get screwed
9/6/2007 Wine lover's shopping trip
8/30/2007 Bottle surfing
8/23/2007 Lobster goes red
8/16/2007 Emotional tasting notes
8/9/2007 Stop, wine thief
8/2/2007 Be your own sommelier
7/26/2007 You do know your wine
7/19/2007 Booze free association
7/12/2007 Raiders of the sidewalk
7/5/2007 A sustainable buzz
6/28/2007 We are the merlot
6/21/2007 Forgot Dad? Bring booze.
6/14/2007 Jack & Jill and a pail of wine
6/7/2007 Our lady of the Rioja
5/24/2007 Breaking the fast
5/17/2007 What the best bears drink
5/10/2007It's OK to be pink
5/3/2007 In praise of tastings
4/26/2007 Invention-tini
4/19/2007 More 'Mas'
4/12/2007 Futures in a bottle
3/29/2007 Uneasy glass of spring
3/22/2007 Chateau de blech
3/8/2007 Finding new beauties
3/1/2007 Infatuation or addiction
2/15/2007 The extraordinary ordinary
2/8/2007 A glass of sweetness
2/1/2007 A glass of sweetness
1/25/2007 Ham it up
1/18/2007 Cheating on wine
1/11/2007 Burning down the tree
1/4/2007 New Year's hangover
12/28/2006 Sins of the vine
12/21/2006 Kissing frogs
12/14/2006 Wine for horrible friends
12/07/2006 Like dregs in the wine glass
11/30/2006 Gift of calmer shopping
11/23/2006 YouTube for YouWine
11/16/2006 Welcome to wine
11/9/2006 Fine art, supermarket wine
11/2/2006 The geography of grapes
10/26/2006 Please continue to hold
10/19/2006 The trouble with reds
10/12/2006 Making new friends
10/05/2006 TiVo-ing the wine
09/28/2006 From an unknown battle
09/21/2006 Toast to turkey
09/14/2006 Wine for life
09/07/2006 What are Malpeques, Alex?
08/31/2006 Hanging out wines
08/24/2006 Falling into new wine season
08/17/2006 Where has that wine been?
08/10/2006 Bringing out the dead
08/03/2006 The birth of a wine fop
07/27/2006 Slow process of maturation
07/20/2006 The pain of adolescent wines
07/13/2006 Nice day for a white wedding
07/06/2006 Scoring goals with booze
06/29/2006 Beer, it's what's for dinner
06/22/2006 A drink fit for a czar
06/15/2006 A summer of beer and fried clams
06/08/2006 Keep your cool, fool
06/01/2006 The social lubricant
05/25/2006 Water, water everywhere
05/18/2006 Big fat greek wine tasting
05/11/2006 Drinking to the end
05/04/2006 Schooled in the art of wine
04/27/2006 Make a wish
04/20/2006 Immigrant wines
04/13/2006 A pain in the glass
04/06/2006 Got milk?
03/30/2006 Throw a dart and there's wine
03/23/2006 A life of good wine
03/16/2006 Honoring the dead soldiers
03/09/2006 What once was old i new again
03/02/2006 The taste of sibling rivalry
02/23/2006 Wine travels, doesn’t sing
From grape, to barrel to red-tape jungle

02/16/2006 Love and vine
02/09/2006 A dog-drink-dog world
02/02/2006 The winos' mecca
01/26/2006 Date-nite drinks
01/19/2006 Touring eastern wine country
01/12/2006 Wine, Cheese and Granny Smith
01/05/2006 Resolve to try new wines
10 Wines To Get Lucky With

Adventures in and past the Euro-Cave
A Do-It-Yourself Wine Tasting
A Red For Everything
A Red Wth Your Leftovers?
A Tasty Way To Put Wine To The Test
A Year Of Wine
An Around-The-World Holiday
A wine for every holiday

Basking In The Mondavi Light
Behind One Door Is Great Wine
Beware The Hot Bottle
Brandy and the nude beach
Champagne, The Other White Wine
Cheers And Whines Of The Vine
Days of wine and jelly beans
Deep in the heart of Texas
Drinking for your health
Drinking like a newspaperman

Drinking Whites After Labor Day
Finding A Great Medium-Weight Drink (I)
Finding A Great Medium Weight Drink (II)
Gifts for blood, love or money
Grill and sip, sip and sip. Finding the perfect wine for barbecue
Hey baby, stay cool
How The Corleones Saved Wine

In Praise Of An American Wine
In search of the girl next door
Keeping it in the family
Keeping up appearances
Looking back at the heyday of cheap wine
My Big Fat Greek Wine Tasting
The Best Drinks On A Budget
The Highly Drinkable (Mostly) Merlot
The Long, Strange Journey Of Wine
Old French grape in the New World
Olé! to a week in wine
Opening the Parker book

Our French friends — really
Our Northern Neighbor
Poker faces and wine

Presenting A New England Vodka
Presenting The Wines Of Spring
Rewarding Your Support Staff
Schooled In The Art Of Wine
Shopping for Wine Bargains

Sitting By The Fire And Dreaming Of Wine
Slipping A Little Sideways
Spending the holidays in NYC
Spirit World Tales
Springtime calls for wine and ice cream
Sudden ugly mood swings
The new face of fine wines
The wines of fall
Thinking ahead to the holidays
Time To Stay Frosty
Tipples for turkey day
TV worth drinking
What it means to miss N.O.
What To Drink When You Eat Wild
What's Your Wine Sign
White’s OK after Labor Day
Wine Between The Season
Wine for the NASCAR set
Wine is in at the Inn
Wine’ll make you crazy
Wine Works With Red Sauce