VINE CUTTINGS

News and Notes from the World of Wine



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MONDAVI, NASA EXPAND VINEYARD RESEARCH

Robert Mondavi Winery and NASA's Ames Research Center have launched a new phase of their ongoing vineyard studies involving remote sensing. A new three-year grant from NASA will allow the winery to expand the scope of the project and incorporate additional ground data into the study. Daniel Bosch, vineyard technical manager for Mondavi, hopes that the new study will further expand the utility of remote sensing in vineyard management. "Earlier studies allowed us to further subdivide vineyard blocks and adjust harvest timing within blocks that had been previously kept together as units. We hope that these investigations will aid us in customizing nutrient and water application within the smaller units."

Digital photos like the image of Napa's Stags Leap District shown here are taken with special cameras flown at 14,000 feet. The colors on the photo correspond to vegetative vigor: white/light brown represents low vigor; yellow represents moderate vigor; and green/blue represents high vigor. The irregular areas of highest vigor are largely unfarmed hillsides and native vegetation along waterways.

For all its seeming simplicity, there are many complicating factors that must be ascertained from ground observation. Because of this, it's not really possible to directly compare one block to another. Higher vine density, for example, can make one block appear more vigorous on the image, despite actual vigor being lower.

Mondavi began working with NASA on remote sensing back in 1993, as part of a project to identify the spread of phylloxera. Observed declines in vineyard vigor from one year to the next were used to spot affected vineyards in advance of when the decline could be observed by conventional means. —Joe Czerwinsk

SIMON'S DINNER FOR DOZENS

A bevy of stars were on the menu at a December party in Los Angeles for the opening of playwright Neil Simon's new work, "The Dinner Party." There was also a fair amount of wine, provided by the folks at Dry Creek Vineyard in Sonoma County.

What more appropriate way to celebrate Simon's new comedy than an actual dinner party, and that is what the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner was treated to. Spotted at the event, held at Nick and Stef's Steakhouse, were celebs Donald Sutherland, Tony Danza, Marlee Matlin, and Greg Germann and Jane Krakowski of TV's "Ally McBeal," among others.

The wines? Healdsburg-based DCV provided its '98 Fumé Blanc, a '97 Chardonnay, a '97 Merlot and also a '97 Cabernet for the cast, crew and guests in attendance.

"The Dinner Party" premiered December 2 at the Mark Taper Forum of the Music Center of Los Angeles County. The play, like most of Simon's works, is a sophisticated comedy and is directed by John Rando. It is set in Paris and stars Frances Conroy, John Ritter and Henry Winkler. —Michael Schachner

SPRING MOUNTAIN'S COOL NEW CABERNET

what does a stressed-out land developer do when he needs to relax? Buy a neglected property high on Napa's Spring Mountain and promptly clear and plant 11 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Isn't that what anyone in search of a relaxed lifestyle would do? Add the newly planted land to the three existing acres of vines, and Sherwin Family Vineyards is poised to become the next player on top of the mountain that is becoming a hot spot for structured, ageworthy wines from Bordeaux varieties.

The elevation of the Sherwins' vineyard site (2,000 feet above sea level) and the limited fertility of the mostly shallow, stony Aiken soils limit yields to about two tons per acre while providing for extended "hang time." The prolonged ripening and cool nighttime temperatures help maintain the grapes' natural acidity levels as they reach the desired maturity. A small lake nearby helps moderate temperatures and ward off early spring frosts.

Steve Sherwin and wife Linda purchased the property, situated near such illustrious neighbors as Pride Mountain and Barnett, in 1996. "When the moving truck came up the drive, all you could hear was the branches scraping the roof and sides, everything was so overgrown," says the affable Steve. "It took a lot of work to get it [the property] to where it is now."

Linda adds, "The whole family has really pitched in. To honor the kids' efforts, we've named blocks of the newly planted acreage after them. Jenny, Lindsey, and Matthew are very proud of their vineyards."

From the existing 15-year-old plantings, the Sherwins, with the help of consulting winemaker Phil Steinschriber (Diamond Creek Vineyards), produced 150 cases of dense, complex 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon that manages to combine extract with superb balance, power with finesse. Dark, briary fruit mingles enticingly with mineral and herbal elements. The suggested retail price is $52; availability is limited to select retailers and restaurants in California. That should change once the new vineyards come into full production. Plans call for 2,000-3,000 cases to be made in a new winery building.

Says Steinschriber, "I'm not a big-tannic-monster kind of winemaker. It sounds cliché, but I'm looking to make a wine that's drinkable now, with the backbone to age 10-15 years. But you've got to be careful with mountain fruit that you don't overpower what you have."

Although the Cabernet is king, consumers might have a better chance of latching onto a bottle of Sherwin's 1997 Zinfandel. Made from purchased fruit from a vineyard above Joseph Phelps on the Silverado Trail, it shows plenty of spicy fruit, but great harmony and balance. Priced at $28; 220 cases were made. —J.C.

GOT A TABLE?

Picture this scenario: You are sitting at your desk contemplating where you will have dinner during your upcoming business trip to New York … or maybe it's San Francisco … or Chicago. You could take the time to thumb through some restaurant guides, if only you had them for those cities. Or, you could log on to OpenTable.com, a fledgling website that offers real-time online reservations at restaurants in eight major markets.

OpenTable.com, while still a work in progress, has signed up several major restaurant groups in New York, Boston, Washington D.C., Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and even Vail, Colorado. In total, it had 190 restaurant affiliates as of mid January, with plans to add more establishments every month.

Based in San Francisco, the interactive website is the brainchild of Chuck Templeton, who has a background in both the technology and restaurant industries. Launched this past August, OpenTable.com offers hungry browsers the ability to search eight cities by restaurant name, neighborhood and type of cuisine. Once you decide where you'd like to book a table, the system allows for real-time reservations to be logged at participating restaurants—and it's a free service.

Currently, major restaurants on the system include the establishments of Ark Restaurants Corp. in New York (Lutèce), Lark Creek Group in the San Francisco area (One Market and Fog City Diner), and Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises in Chicago, among others.

A current visit to the site found logging on to be quite easy, but finding enough choices and more than a handful of recognizable restaurant names in even the major cities a bit tougher. For example, only one restaurant is listed for Vail, while the New York list consisted mainly of more obscure restaurants, possibly not the type for which online reservations are necessary.

Nevertheless, it seems like a site with value, especially if over time more big-name, popular restaurants are added. And this may be forthcoming, as Templeton and his management team recently secured $10 million in investment capital earmarked for advertising the site and promoting OpenTable.com to potential restaurant participants. —M.S.

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