Wine — Basking in the Mondavi light

A conversation with wine’s superstar

By Tim Protzman

Every world has its stars.

Some are well known, others are more hidden. We all recognize Nicole Kidman, but would we have appreciated the greatness of Pedro Martinez from his 1991 Los Angeles Dodgers rookie card? And how about Jason Jones? Does his name ring a bell?

It does if you’re into the world of gaming or have been following the Halo and Halo 2 phenomena. Jones is the team leader for Bungie Entertainment, the Microsoft division that developed the popular video game.

In the wine world there are stars too. And while most of them mean very little to those on the outside, those on the inside know their names and more importantly, we know their work. Occasionally these stars leave their vineyards and travel the outside world promoting their creations. That’s how I got to speak with David Akiyoshi, Winemaker for Woodbridge Vineyards, when he visited New England last week.

We spoke for an hour and a half, until his host, Mark Simmons, Regional Manager of Robert Mondavi, gently intruded to remind David he was hosting a tasting for 50 beverage managers and retail sales personnel at the Bedford Cheng Yang Li restaurant in 20 minutes.

David’s worked for Robert Mondavi’s Woodbridge line for 24 years, following in his father’s footsteps, who made a mid-career leap into wine after he earned a Masters in Food Service. David’s childhood is full of memories of winery and vineyard visits. David enjoys art collecting and is a member of the American Institute of Wine and Food, but I found him most easily summed up by one word: Farmer.

Akiyoshi’s love of the soil and his desire to “tell the story” of his vineyards easily comes through in his laidback style. But don’t forget, Akiyoshi sells 42 million bottles of wine every year. He’s committed to producing delicious wines to grace the everyday table, and that means affordability. And he’s very grateful to Mondavi for giving him the tools to complete his vision.

There are two Mondavi’s. Robert and Peter are brothers. Their parents Cesare and Rosa came from Italy in 1906 and soon became prosperous shipping winemaking grapes from California to homemade winemakers throughout the country. Business was so good that they moved from Minnesota to the Lodi, California area, to be closer to their suppliers.

In 1943, they bought the Charles Krug Winery, one of America’s oldest and began creating an empire.

In the early 1960s a rivalry between the brothers led to Robert’s leaving the family business and the creation of the Robert Mondavi Wineries. Today, Robert Mondavi includes; Opus One, Arrowood, Io, Luce, Sena, Caliterra and Errazuriz. It was recently announced that Constellation Brands will buy Robert Mondavi for $1.35 billion, and keep its vineyard portfolio intact. Very good news for wine lovers!

David’s latest project is born of the rich delta soil of the Lodi area. Here the soil provides the grapes with distinctive terroir-like characteristics and the warm days and cool nights provide the grapes with the optimum growth and rest cycles. David purchases grapes from several growers who’ve had successful long term relationships with Mondavi.

David is busy year-round. The year begins with pruning, then blooming, then the ripening, called veraison and finally the harvest. Some mornings find David on the road at 3:30am to reach the outlying producers. In the fall the fermentation and bottling begin. One of David’s most effective tools is the extended maceration. This is the process red wines go through where the skins, seeds and tiny twigs are left in contact with the wine so the flavor and color become more intense. David credits the large tanks Woodbridge uses that allow for a thinner “cap” of skins which means the wine has more overall contact with these little flavor makers. The goal, in the words of Tim Mondavi, is to “best express the varietal character of each grape” and to “allow the taste of the grape and soil to come through.” David feels he’s hit the mark with Woodbridge’s Select Vineyard Series from the Lodi AVA (American Viticultural Area, similar to the French term appellation).

Akiyoshi speaks of the Select Vineyard Series like a proud parent. This is a bit strange since we’re both fathers and not once in the 90-minute conversation did our children come up. Perhaps he feels like me, get the little buggers into college and get on with your life. But I doubt it. I just think he’s very proud of the Select Vineyard Series and his enthusiasm gets him carried away.

As our conversation drew to a close I asked a few journalistic questions. Is there any difference between the Asian wine lovers and their occidental counterparts?

David: “Not really. Asians love food and the same fine wines match just as well with Asian cuisine as western cuisine. The big change in Japan is that there’s more fusion cooking with South American, French and Italian influences being more prominent. More Japanese are willing to serve a white wine in place of the traditional sake.”

I asked about big expensive wines and he said, “I had a 1982 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild that was nice, but that was at the Chateau… I would like to try a Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti, but who wouldn’t?”

Indeed. Which brings me back to my assessment of farmer. David’s a simple man with simple tastes, balanced by an encyclopedic knowledge of grapes, wine, soil and winemaking. While he could very well afford the rarest and most exotic of vintages, he derives his pleasure from producing wine that graces and enhances the “everyday table.”

It’s become his mission and calling: a chicken in every pot, an affordable wine for every meal.

Here are David Akiyoshi’s Woodbridge Select Vineyard Series by Robert Mondavi Wines;

2001 Fish Net Creek Old Vine Zinfandel- $8.99. From vineyards along the banks of the Mokelumne River, this wine takes its name from the Miwok Indians who used willow branches and wild grapevines to construct net-like barriers to trap fish. The vines, some of which qualify for Social Security produce a deep, inky wine with spice and a touch of pepper. This wine had me scared because it took some time to open up. On opening I found it tannic and a bit harsh, but after 10 minutes it was purring like a kitten and presenting a wonderful elderberry flavor. David blends a tiny bit of Barbera into his Zinfandel.

2001 Clay Hollow Merlot- $7.99. Dry, with hints of cherry and plum. Like an elegant woman, this wine made a stunning entrance and subtly loosened up over time,  but never lost that Bordeauxian structure and grace it exhibited on fist sip. Named for the low lying clay soil that produces the best Lodi Merlots.

2000 Red Dirt Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon. $7.99 The extra year has given this wine the quality of a smooth stone, with no rough or sharp edges -- to use David’s words. The wine was fruit forward with hints of raisin, plum, black and elderberry. I loved the aroma which contained chocolate and tobacco. The structure was limited, but the price more than made up for that. Takes its name from the ultra-rich red dirt that produces great wines in California and Australia.

2002 Ghost Oak Chardonnay. $7.99. The best House White one could imagine. UnOaked, clean, refreshing with a sweet and crisp finish. And remember, I don’t drink a lot of white wine, but when I do it tends to be Riesling or Burgundy, pricey and older. So I was ready to trash this one. But I found it alluring and fun, although it begs to be served with food as it is a touch heavy. Lots of creamy vanilla, cinnamon and a touch of green olive vegetal flavors. Gets its name from the spectral form the vineyard’s oak trees take on at dawn, when the early morning light starts to break through the Tulle Fog, that special weather condition San Francisco Bay’s famous for.

Many Thanks to Nick Conti of Robert Mondavi for helping me sample these wines.

Tell Tim your wine stories. You can reach him at tprotzman@sbcglobal.net

Find the wines discussed in Hippo’s food section at state liquor stores. For exact locations of your favorite juice, go to http://www.state.nh.us/liquor/products.shtml


—Tim Protzman

 
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