Ancient in the New World
California’s not Greece but it has some history
By Tim Protzman firstname.lastname@example.org
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..