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A Tale of Two Counties

For wine and food lovers, California's Napa Valley and Sonoma County offer distinctive experiences
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Sopranos, Mar/Apr 2007

(continued from page 1)

They'd married in 1982 and filled a 120-bottle wine storage unit. That gave way to a 5,000-bottle cellar hidden behind a bookcase. Cool-climate Pinots and Chardonnays spoke to the terroirist in both of them. They still recall the wording of the tiny classified ad that Joan spotted in Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication, in 1989: "320-acre Sonoma Coast property. Vineyard potential."

They were readers, hikers, contemplators—not glamorous people. Yet Sonoma felt right. The couple bought the land in 1989, built a road and created infrastructure, then started making wine from purchased grapes in 1991. Their own vineyards came on line shortly thereafter. A 1996 Camp Meeting Ridge Pinot Noir was served at the White House to 44 heads of state. "I think there was a lot of, 'Hey, who are these people?' after that," Joan says.

A decade on, the wines are magnificent—and utterly site-specific. The Camp Meeting Ridge 2004 shows cherry and spice, not the raspberries and strawberries of Burgundy or the straight-on richness of the Russian River Valley. A 2003 from the Frances Thompson vineyard is elegant yet firm, with the promise of many years ahead.

The typical yield is less than two tons an acre, but they don't need many bottles of anything to make the winery pay. With help from Flowers, the Sonoma coast has become one of California's hottest appellations, in less time than it would have taken to harvest one crop of trees.

Williams Selyem: The Passing of the Torch
For years, Williams Selyem meant the artistic vision of Burt Williams. Self-taught, focused to the point of obsession, he started making his Russian River Valley Pinot Noir in a garage in 1981 and almost single-handedly created a paradigm of greatness for the appellation. His tempestuous pride was legendary. If you innocently spit out his wine during a tasting, the tasting was over.

In 1997, Williams and Ed Selyem sold out to enthusiasts John and Kathe Dyson. John had helped revamp Times Square for former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and John's father, Charles, had pretty much invented the leveraged buyout, so the Dysons had plenty of money. By then, Williams was weary of the grind. He agreed to stay and consult. But he needed somebody to make the wine.

Bob Cabral, 44, has long hair and granny glasses. Raised in Modesto, he was 19 when he started buying Williams Selyem Pinots: customer No. 576 on the mailing list. He worked as a field representative for winemaker Fred Franzia, served as the assistant winemaker at DeLoach from 1987 to 1992, then moved on in succession to Kunde, Alderbrook and Hartford Court. An affable journeyman who could turn out serviceable wine from most any variety, he was hardly someone you'd pick to succeed Williams. But Williams did.

After a long, oblique tasting session that Cabral never realized was an interview, Williams asked if he'd meet the Dysons. Cabral couldn't believe it. "I remember thinking, 'Holy cow, I'd get to work with the greatest fruit in California,'" he says. He didn't exactly drive a hard bargain. All he desired beyond what they were proposing was a case of each wine for his own use, since he couldn't afford to buy them anymore.

Cabral has calibrated his vision to Williams's template. The resulting wines bridge the gap between what the best American Pinots tasted like a generation ago, and what they taste like now. Volume has gone from 8,000 cases in 1997 to 12,000 today, but the pinpoint intensity, rich texture and long finish of the wines have remained. Like the old Williams Selyems, the wines are manipulated as little as possible—and never filtered. "If I have to filter it," Cabral says, "I dump it down the drain instead."

He pours a 2001 from the Allen Vineyard in the Russian River Valley, a 2000 Hirsch Vineyard from the Sonoma Coast, then a 1999 from the Rochioli Vineyard redolent of plums and blackberries. All are different, but they share the common thread of bright, intense fruit. And they all taste unmistakably like Pinot Noir, which Williams insisted on.

Cabral is the first to say that he's no visionary. "Where Burt was a mile ahead, I'm only about 50 feet ahead," he says. But times have changed, and what's needed now isn't vision so much as standards and a steady hand. Cabral is adamant that the quality of Williams Selyem will not decline on his watch. And he'll let you spit when you taste his wines.

Chateau St. Jean: Napa in Sonoma
Not all of Sonoma's wineries are hideaways down unmarked lanes, or rural farmsteads with wine on shelves alongside jams and jellies. Chateau St. Jean is a chateau that wouldn't look out of place in Margaux, let alone Napa. Its best wine is not a Pinot Noir or a Chardonnay, but a meaty Bordeaux blend.

Yet something about the place feels hopelessly, wonderfully Sonoman. There's never a crunch in the parking lot, rarely a line at the cash register. Set on the 250 acres of the old Goff Estate, its gardens are lush and perfectly tended, but utterly accessible. Pretense is abandoned at the door. A small boy whacks a balloon over the hedges and runs after it over the lawn. He looks like a character in some French movie.

Since 1974, its first vintage, Chateau St. Jean has turned out a range of high-quality wines as broad as any winery in California, from fruit grown in every corner of the county. "That's what makes Sonoma unique," says winemaker Margo Van Staaveren, who has been employed there since 1980, when she was 23. "You have that wild diversity. Not only can you grow all these varietals, but many of them can be grown in several different appellations."

It seems sensible to capitalize on that range of potential sites with distinct wines. But before Chateau St. Jean, nobody was doing it. Hired as winemaker by the original owners, the Merzoian family, Dick Arrowood found one compelling parcel after another, then set out to make wines from each in the Burgundian fashion. "At one point," Van Staaveren says, "we had nine vineyard-designate Chardonnays."

Arrowood didn't stop at Chardonnay. Hard as it seems to believe now, he also made five vineyard-designate Rieslings. Such misplaced ambition might bankrupt a modern-day producer, but St. Jean thrived. In 1981, as a statement of what the winery was and what it wasn't, Arrowood stopped making Cabernet Sauvignon.

In 1984, Japan's Suntory bought the property. Six years later, Arrowood left to start his own winery and was replaced by Don Van Staaveren, Margo's husband. By the time phylloxera hit at the end of the decade, reds had become fashionable, so he replanted some vineyards to Bordeaux varieties. That led to Cinq Cepages, which blended Bordeaux grapes into a high-end release.

When the 1996 Cinq Cepages was named Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year, it forever changed the image of the winery, which is now owned by Australia's Foster's. Those who knew it for its Robert Young Chardonnay were always surprised to see a bottle of red beside it at tastings. Now consumers see Chardonnay and say, "I didn't know you made whites, too." But the multifaceted approach has remained unaltered even as winemakers have come and gone. In all, St. Jean produces 30 different wines today, including a Fume Blanc, a single-vineyard Pinot Noir, even a rich, singular, varietal Malbec. All but the lowest-priced blends come from Sonoma.

When Margo Van Staaveren first arrived in 1980, as the first in her family to have attended college, she was looking for a permanent job with benefits. It became permanent, all right. Yet after more than a quarter-century in Sonoma, she knows little about Napa. Even names of famous restaurants and gourmet shops fail to alter her blank expression. "Sonoma's very provincial, exceedingly provincial," she says. It's supposed to be an apology, but she doesn't sound too contrite.

Benchmark Wineries—Napa

Beringer Vineyards: Living History
As you drive up Napa Valley, past fashionable restaurants and one sleek winery after another, it's easy to forget that the vinous past here extends back more than a century. Then you arrive at Beringer, where the Rhine House looks like something from a fairy tale and wine has been produced for generations. Ignore the tour groups and concentrate on the history: Beringer was founded in 1876, which makes it older than the vast majority of wineries in the world.

 

In recent years, it has been owned by Nestlé, the Texas Pacific Group, Michael Moon, Beringer Blass and now Foster's. Despite such change, it's been a model of consistency. Head winemaker, Ed Sbragia, started in 1976, when he was 26; assistant Laurie Hook arrived a decade later. "Guys in the cellar have been there as long as I have or longer," Sbragia says. "One of our cellar managers has been here for 40 years."

When he started, Sbragia recalls, Chateau Montelena, Shafer and a few other wineries were making wines at the level he was shooting for. "[There were] maybe 10 of us making Reserve Cabernet," he says. "Now there are hundreds." And many taste like Beringer, or try to.

He and his team have helped define and hone not only the modern incarnation of Beringer's style, but, it might be said, Napa Valley's, too. Sbragia likes wines that are big, Cabernets and Chardonnays and Merlots full of tannin and loads of fruit, balanced by enough alcohol and a splash of acidity to keep it all afloat. Unlike many imitators, however, Beringer's top wines are built to last. On first impression, a five-year-old Bancroft Ranch Howell Mountain Merlot 2001 is hard and firm and not particularly ripe. But as it begins to open, it shows layers of dark fruit and a mountain hardiness that seems to promise it will taste good forever.

That's a product of low yields and strict selection, for even with corporate ownership pushing profits and production nosing into the millions, Beringer's best wines continue to be made in small batches. "I've fought for that for 30 years," Sbragia says. "The Private Reserve is a person-to-person thing, not mass-market."

In 1986, Beringer acquired the Bancroft Ranch. But apart from that and a few other parcels, most of the land Sbragia uses to source grapes was at his disposal when he arrived. He gets high-altitude fruit from Mt. Veeder, Spring Mountain, Diamond Mountain and Howell Mountain. "A lot of pretty awesome mountain Cabernet sites," says Hook.

By now, they know what to expect from each, and how to tweak the different terroirs toward Beringer's house style. They run vast experimental programs, but use them only to make tiny changes in the product, like those futuristic cars you see at the auto shows that end up maybe influencing a dashboard shape on the commercial level. "With a winery as traditional as this one," Sbragia says, "you need to be careful."

Beringer isn't just coloring inside the lines; you might say it drew most of them to begin with. And with such success in the past, why change? "There's a reason why people want to drink Napa wine," says Hook. "There's a reason why the wineries have gotten such attention. It's not just a couple of years, it's a long history, a great history." With every vintage, Beringer keeps on writing it.

Joseph Phelps Vineyards: The Accidental Innovator
Joe Phelps never intended to revolutionize the wine industry. He just didn't want a wine of his to be labeled "Reserve."

In 1974, he and winemaker Walter Schug constructed a blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, with other varieties added. It tasted so good, they wanted to release it as a stand-alone wine. But they had no name. Phelps believed that the Reserve designation sounded fraudulent and he also liked the idea of separating out the best cuvée he had in each vintage. In another year, that might be Merlot, or even Riesling. So Reserve Cabernet simply didn't work.

The wine was bottled without a label. Finally, a name came to him during his morning shave: Insignia.

It was, as far as anyone can tell, the first proprietary blend in the history of American wine. Certainly none would affect an industry—or a place—like Insignia. "Joe's fond of saying that the road to success is still under construction," says Craig Williams, Phelps's director of winemaking, who has worked there since 1976. "But even he would have to acknowledge that Insignia was profoundly important."

Much of the cachet that Napa has developed in recent decades comes from wines—mostly Cabernet- or Merlot-based blends—that transcend their varieties and appellations. Today, fanciful names from Archipel to Zero Manipulation are attached to some of the valley's finest (and most expensive) bottlings. They're a way to differentiate your wine from the hundreds of others on the market. "Insignia is a brand, the way Joseph Phelps is a brand," says Bill Phelps, Joe's son. "That wasn't his intention, but that's what happened."

A successful contractor who saw an opportunity building wineries, Joe Phelps had come to California from Greeley, Colorado. He built what is now Rutherford Hill in Napa, and Sonoma's Chateau Souverain. Then he bought land, cleared away the cattle and horses, and built a winery for himself. From the beginning in 1973, he brought a new outlook, at once pragmatic and visionary, to what had been an insider's field. "Joe is very much a bottom-line person," Bill says. "He approached it as a stand-alone business that would make a profit. But he was able to take the long-term view."


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