News and Notes from the World of Wine

Taste Washington

The Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics, Seattle Seahawks and Oakland Raiders have been going at it for years. This March, for the first time, the upstart Washington wine industry traveled to the Bay area to take on the top guns of Napa and Bordeaux in a good old-fashioned shootout.

Part of a six-city "Taste Washington" promotion put on by the Washington Wine Commission, the blind taste-off was first tried in San Francisco, then repeated in Miami. "We chose to make kind of a gutsy move," notes the Commission's Stacie Jacob, and it might seem so, given that the audience was composed exclusively of members of the California wine trade and media.

They were told only that the eight wines in front of them were all Cabernet or Cabernet-based, and included four from Washington and four from other top regions. Tasters were asked to rank the wines in order of preference. Although the vintages varied, they were chosen to represent the best that each region currently had to offer.

"To level the playing field, we chose superior vintages from each appellation," notes Steve Burns, the Washington Wine Commission's executive director. Level or not, the Washington wines took four of the top six places both events, and finished an impressive 1-2-3 in the San Francisco tasting. There the top-rated wine, a 1998 proprietary blend from Gordon Brothers winery called "Tradition," which retails for $40, was the least expensive in the flight. A blend of 56% Cabernet Sauvignon and 44% Merlot, it finished a close second in the Miami polling.

The San Francisco rankings (and approximate retail prices of the wines) are shown below, with the Miami ranking in parentheses:

1) Gordon Brothers 1998 Tradition, Columbia Valley, $40. (2)

2) DeLille Cellars 1998 Chaleur Estate, Yakima Valley, $45. (4)

3) Col Solare 1998 Red Table Wine, Columbia Valley, $70. (5)

4) Opus One 1997 Red Wine, Napa Valley, $140. (1)

5) Caymus 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, $68. (3)

6) Quilceda Creek 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon, Washington State, $55. (6)

7) Château Cos d'Estournel 1996, St.-Estèphe, $128. (7)

8) Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1996, Pauillac, $235. (8)

What the folks from Washington were quick to point out is that all eight wines are world-class; there are no "losers" in the bunch. The results indicate that both Washington and California produce consumer-friendly, fruit-laden wines with plenty of immediate drinking appeal. The more austere Bordeaux style may ultimately last longer and develop more complexity, but very few people anymore are willing to wait that long.

Most importantly, the Washington wines—the least expensive ones featured in the tasting— were clearly able to hold their own among an elite group. And that ought to bring smiles to both producers and consumers.

—Paul Gregutt

Mondavi Inaugurates To Kalon Project

Three generations of the Robert Mondavi family—and about 350 colleagues and friends—gathered together on March 9 to celebrate the completion of their winery's $28 million renovation. Known as the To Kalon Project, it was named for the 550-acre To Kalon Vineyard bordering the Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley. The vineyard was originally planted in the 1880s by wine pioneer H.W. Crabb, who gave it a Greek name that means "highest beauty." Robert Mondavi purchased the site in 1966, when he founded his eponymous winery. The vineyard has long been a source of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.

The celebration commenced with an early-morning vineyard foray led by Robert Mondavi's daughter, Marcy, and son, Tim, the winery's managing director. A tasting of Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon dating back to 1984 followed.

However, it was the show-stopping evening dinner gala in the new 20,000-square foot fermentation room that capped the event. In attendance were such wine-country celebrities as Joe Montana, Eleanor Coppola, Christian Moueix, Heidi and Bo Barrett, and Italian vintner Vittorio Frescobaldi. The soiree kicked off with a concert by the 70-member Napa Valley Symphony and featured an original piano concerto composed by Daniel Brewbaker entitled "Ode to To Kalon." Written in the grand American tradition of Copeland and Bernstein, it offered lush harmonies and intricate counterpoint, conjuring up musical traditions from Bach to Gershwin. The dynamic patchwork of sound was framed by the stark, spacious beauty of the new winery, with its rows of giant oak tanks offering acoustics reminiscent of the best concert halls. In a surprise move, Robert Mondavi stepped to the podium to conduct the orchestra's grand finale of John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes."

"Wine has a role in the cultural theme of life," said Tim Mondavi, commenting upon the juxtaposition of art, architecture, music, food and wine that graced the To Kalon spectacle. His words were echoed throughout the festivities, which highlighted not only the To Kalon Project, but also the Mondavi family's extraordinary role as innovators in the evolving culture of American wine.



Making abode bricks for Sanford's new "breathable" winery

Santa Ynez Valley winegrower Richard Sanford, prompted half by his innate love of the land and its need to breathe, and half by Taoist teachings that reinforce the need to breathe fully and completely, has put both meanings of the word into practice at his Santa Rosa Road estate.

The land lies at the base of the winegrowing pyramid, and there Sanford has gone organic, in part to let the land "breathe," and in part because it leads to healthier workers and healthier fruit. "It is interesting it me," says the former Navy navigator, "that once you get away from the herbicides and the pesticides, it is as if the vineyard has returned itself to life. Something of a regeneration, if you will. Where there was silence, now there is noise. Where the vineyard looked like a still-life painting, now there is movement, the scurrying of insects, birds, small animals."

The thoughtful, soft-spoken Sanford has taken that line of thinking into new territory, and has constructed a "breathable" adobe winery, erected from 100,000 adobe blocks dug from the earth and fashioned by hand on-site. Initially, the county rejected his plans. "For earthquake safety, they wanted a veneer façade. We're not veneer people," he says with a laugh, "so we found an engineer who came up with a series of threaded metal rods, set in plastic sleeves, that could give us the necessary compression from stem wall to ceiling to make the adobe walls secure in and of themselves. And, because we're using adobe mortar, the entire wall will have the same expansion coefficient. Thus, the entire wall will expand and contract, in response to temperature variations, without cracking."

The rock for the exposed stem wall is sandstone quarried from a neighbor's property and the Douglas fir wooden trusses—some 80 feet long and straight as truth—come from a Klickitat, Washington sawmill built in 1912.

Following the theme of inspiration, in both senses, is a unique racking system installed in the new cellar. "We call it the missile silo," chuckles winemaker Bruno D'Alphonso. "Since we want to make our wine movements as gentle as possible, we've rigged up a hydraulic ram that can raise a quartet of settling tanks three stories, so that we'll always be able to allow gravity to drain from one tank to the other. In one sense, it's a little less breathing than we get from other, less gentle racking methods. But it's the right amount of breathing, and that is of vital importance."

—Richard Paul Hinkle

Red Shield From Chile

A Rothschild wine by any other name is, well, still a Rothschild. Baron Philippe de Rothschild SA's newest Chilean wine, Escudo Rojo, is the literal translation of his last name—which means "red shield" in German—into Spanish. The wine company is no stranger to Chile; it has been producing the $80 ultra-premium Almaviva in partnership with Concha y Toro for the last two years. Escudo Rojo is a solo venture headed by Patrick Leon of the Rothschild organization, who worked on both the Rothschild-Robert Mondavi partnership for Opus One and the Almaviva project.

What's surprising about this Rothschild endeavor (which hit the shelves last month) is that Escudo Rojo's U. S. retail price is only $15. As such, it is expected to have a much wider audience than premium wines such as Opus One and Almaviva. Capitalizing on his experience with the luxury cuvées, Leon has sought to create a drinkable, balanced Bordeaux-like blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet France, Carmenère and Merlot from select sources in Chile's Maipo and Rapel regions. And, in preview tastings, Escudo Rojo has lived up to its pedigree. It's an elegant, medium-weight red with berry, herb and tobacco aromas and flavors. There's a touch of sweetness, some green pepper notes, and a soft, pleasing mouthfeel. Drinkable now with modest decanting, it should improve further after a year or so in the bottle.

The labels of Baron Philippe's flagship wine, Mouton Rothschild—which were custom designed by such artists as Picasso, Chagall and Miró—have made Mouton Rothschild almost as collectible for its package as it is for its contents. In keeping with such visually conscious tradition, Escudo Rojo arrives boldly packaged, with a simple, brilliant red label with a modern, uncluttered rendering of a shield above the name. The label's clean, dramatic design and vibrant colors (and, the elegant red inside) should make this bottle stand out on store shelves and on the dinner table.

— Mark Mazur





Burgundy Comes to California At La Paulée de San Francisco

Thirteen renowned Burgundian vintners arrived at San Francisco's W Hotel on March 3 to host the year's biggest Burgundy bash this side of the Atlantic. Modeled after Burgundy's annual harvest festival, La Paulée, the San Francisco event featured a tasting, dinner gala and auction where top-notch wines flowed like water, and winemakers and collectors rubbed shoulders to indulge in their dream vintages.

Five hundred guests paid up to $1,200 each to attend. Many enjoyed a sumptuous dinner prepared by such well-known chefs as Chicago's Charlie Trotter, New York's Daniel Boulud (Restaurant Daniel), and San Francisco's Hubert Keller (Fleur de Lys) and Roland Passot (La Folie).

Among the French winemakers in attendance were Jean-Pierre De Smet (Domaine de L'Arlot), Jean-Marc Brocard, Rosalind and Jeremy Seysses (Domaine Dujac), Pierre-Henry Gagey (Louis Jadot), Michel Lafarge, Denis Mortet, Michel Niellon and Guillaume Bott (Domaine Etienne Sauzet).

Numerous California vintners were also present, albeit to taste rather than pour. Cult Cabernet producers Ann Colgin, Naoko Dalla Valle and Delia Viader were seen sipping away. Pinot Noir winemakers Josh Jensen (Calera), Bob Sessions (Hanzell) and Burt Williams (who founded Williams Selyem) flocked to the afternoon tasting as well to sample a broad selection from Burgundy's 1998 vintage. True to form, the young wines—both reds and whites—were, for the most part, tight and reserved.

"My wines shouldn't be drunk before they are at least five years old," said Michel Lafarge. "It's too bad that so many people can't wait for them to mature."

Fortunately, American collectors have long realized that great Burgundy is worth waiting for. Following La Paulée's B.Y.O.B. tradition, they showed up for dinner with their own beautifully cellared wines from such noteworthy producers as Domaine de la Romanée Conti, Henri Jayer, Michel Lafarge and Jean Grivot.

Charity also received its due: A post-dinner auction led by Ursula Hermacinski netted $267,000 to benefit Meals on Wheels of San Francisco and the San Francisco Food Bank. Another $40,000 was earmarked for medical expenses for Chef Jean-Louis Palladin, who is suffering from lung cancer. Eric Greenburg made the evening's highest bid: $75,000. The San Francisco investor won a dinner for 10 to be cooked by Trotter, with wine service by master sommelier Larry Stone of Rubicon.

Manhattan-based sommelier and wine writer Daniel Johnnes, wine director at Montrachet restaurant, organized La Paulée de San Francisco. Last year he spearheaded the first U.S. La Paulée in New York. Future plans call for alternating East and West Coast events each year. For information on next year's event, call 212/625-2519.

—Jeff Morgan

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