News and Notes from the World of Wine

Runway Models Spark Runaway Sales

On April 6 and 7, South Africa’s Nederburg Auction celebrated its 27th anniversary with record sales totaling $806,000—and the first occasional rain in its history. Wet weather did not dampen the event’s festivities, which were held on the grounds of the historic Nederburg homestead.

The first Nederburg auction was set up to showcase Nederburg Edelkeur, South Africa’s pioneering botrytized dessert wine; this year, the auction featured 144 wines of all styles from 70 producers. Aside from the extremely rare, one-case lots of Lanzerac Pinotage from the 1960s, Bordeaux-style blends and Cabernets dominated red wine sales. Veenwouden Classic 1996, from the tiny cult property owned by operatic tenor Deon van der Walt, fetched a hefty sum of R566.66 per bottle, which is equivalent to $71.

The auction’s star performer was Klein Constantia’s Vin de Constance; 10 cases of this reincarnation of the internationally renowned 18th-century Constantia saw brisk bidding. The original-style 500-million bottles fetched as much as $103 each.

California winemaker Zelma Long got rave reviews for her opening speech. She advised local producers to develop the American market and "lead with your best to position South Africa in the super- and ultrapremium categories." Long and her viticulturist husband, Phil Freese, have a joint venture in the Cape. She said that if South Africa met certain challenges, it would be "well positioned to be the new wine discovery of the 21st century."
If wine weren’t enough, Saturday’s agenda also included a fashion show in which local designers showed off their latest collections, Next year’s auction will be held April 12-13.

—Angela Lloyd

R.I.P. Taylor

Bully Hill Vineyard’s Walter S. Taylor, who built his Finger Lakes winery’s success around not using his last name, died April 20. He had been a quadriplegic since a 1990 automobile accident.

Taylor grew up in the New York wine industry, where his family’s Taylor Wine Cellars was, for many years, virtually synonymous with New York wine. With his father, Greyton, Walter started Bully Hill Farms in 1958, which became Bully Hill Vineyards in 1970.

An active and vocal advocate for New York State wines made from French-American hybrid grapes, Taylor was ousted from the business that bore his family name in 1970, after he spoke out against the then-common practice of beefing up New York wines with bulk wine from California.

Ironically, Taylor’s big success at Bully Hill came out of a courtroom defeat at the hands of Coca-Cola in 1977, when a judge issued an order barring him from using his family name on Bully Hill’s labels. The quick-thinking and artistic Taylor created labels like the famous "goat" label, many of which were signed Walter S. Taylor. The famous slogan reads, "They have our name and heritage, sold us into bondage, but they didn’t get our goat."

The publicity generated by Taylor’s David vs. Goliath story made Bully Hill one of the largest wineries in the Finger Lakes, despite his insistence on the superiority of hybrids during a time when vinifera varieties were gaining acceptance. Today, his wife Lillian, who has managed the winery for the past decade, has relaxed that stance and Bully Hill produces more than 200,000 cases from both vinifera and hybrid grapes.

—Joe Czerwinski

West Coast Hung(a)ry for Tokaji

Hugh Johnson proudly hoists a glass of his
Royal Tokaji Wine Company’s nectar

There was a time when Tokaji, or Tokay, was the most precious of sweet wines. But World War II and the Cold War hit Tokaji hard. By the 1960s, Tokaji was unavailable beyond the Iron Curtain, and western connoisseurs could only read about it and wonder.

Twelve years ago, British wine writer and television personality Hugh Johnson, along with several of his associates, went to Hungary and founded the Royal Tokaji Wine Company. The nation’s wine industry was in a shabby state upon Johnson’s arrival.

"I couldn’t resist bringing back to life a wine that had been so renowned centuries ago," Johnson said. "The only problem was that none of us spoke Hungarian, and
it often wasn’t clear what to do," he recalled. Not only were the two major grape varieties—Furmint and Harslevelú—new to the westerners, but so was the winemaking technique. Tokaji is made by blending aszú, a sweet juice made from botrytized grapes, into a dry base wine. Typically, the results yield a rich, sweet, velvety wine redolent of spice, dried apricots, orange peel and honey.

Earlier this year, Johnson traveled to California, where the outstanding reputation of the Tokaji wines (and the outstanding reputation of their ambassador) inspired a parade of West Coast sommeliers and restaurateurs to line up to sample his wines, which featured an array of single-vineyard bottlings. These lusciously sweet dessert wines are made by taking advantage of the same Botrytis cinerea mold that infects the grapes of other sweet wines in the world, such as Sauternes, German trockenbeerenausleses and California late harvest sweeties. The mold shrivels the grapes and concentrates their sugars. But, in Tokaji’s case, there’s a twist: It is one of only two wines in the world (the other is Champagne) to be fermented twice. Some 500-ml bottles cost as little as $18; others cost up to $150.

Today, the Royal Tokaji Wine Company controls some 260 acres of vineyards in Hungary. Johnson’s current mission is to spread the gospel of Tokaji in a manner that might, oddly enough, earn him a reputation as the Robert Mondavi of Hungary. Judging from the accolades he received during his latest West Coast encounters, the itinerant wine master is succeeding mightily.

—Jeff Morgan and Steve Heimoff

Bear MARKET Blues?

The bull market is a thing of past. Gone are the days of overnight windfalls and high double-digit returns. We called a few popular wine shops around the country to find out just what Americans are drinking during these jittery economic times.

Scott Goldstein of New York’s Park Avenue Liquor Shop says that, in spite of a low demand for high-end wines, the 1997 Volker-Eisele Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa ($42) is still a best seller. Their top-selling Chardonnays are 1999 RH Phillips Toasted Head Chardonnay ($15) and 1999 Cartlidge & Browne Chardonnay ($10).

In the midwest, Bob Calamia at Binnys Beverage Depot in Skokie, IL, said that "Merlots have died because they’ve gotten too expensive. You used to be able to get a good one for $12 or so. Now the good ones have all gone up." Binnys is doing well with 1998 Rhônes, though, particularly Domaine Les Goubert’s Côtes-du-Rhone, ($8) and Les Haut de Montmiral Gigondas ($18). The $18 Australian Domaine Wines Alliance 1999 Shiraz is very popular. Recession-era shopping is becoming more evident in Chardonnay, where everyday values are particularly hot. The 2000 Lindemans Bin 65 ($7) and the 1999 Meridian, Santa Barbara ($8) are leading the pack.

Out on the West Coast, at the Wine House in Los Angeles, a sales rep tells us that "California Cab and Chard are still driving the business." The 1999 Edna Valley Chard ($11), 1998 Fieldstone Cabernet ($18) and 1998 Silo Cellars Cabernet ($28) are all very popular, but customers are taking notice of Bogle’s 1999 Petite Sirah ($9) because it stands out among a swarm of California Syrahs—some of which cost twice as much as the Bogle. Value-priced Italian wines have also caught on: Falesco’s 1999 Vitiano ($9) and Allegrini’s 1999 Valpolicella ($10) are big movers in Los Angeles.

In Las Vegas, at the tony International Vintage Wine Cellar, owner Eileen Devito says that the limos are still pulling up with high rollers looking for Opus One. The store’s list of its most popular offerings is an impressive one: 1998 Kendall Jackson Grand Reserve Chardonnay ($22), 1997 Ferrari-Carano Merlot ($25), 1996 Haut Bages Averous ($40), 1996 Chateau Calon Segur ($85) and the hundred-bucks-a-bottle 1997 Quintessa. They’re also selling a lot of Piccini’s 1999 Chianti at $9 a bottle. Could even high-rollers be feeling the pinch?

—Josh Farrell



Grahm’s Wine A Zin In Ohio

Santa Cruz vintner Randall Grahm is as renowned for his provocative wine labels as he is for his wine. Back in the 1980s, the owner of Bonny Doon first made his mark with Le Cigare Volant, a send-up to a real French village that actually banned flying saucers in its surrounding vineyards. Now Grahm himself—or, at least, one of his wines—has been banned in Ohio.

The feisty winemaker’s 1999 Cardinal Zin, a Zinfandel that features illustrator Ralph Steadman’s devilish vision of a Catholic cardinal dressed in red robes, has provoked the wrath of Ohio’s puritanical state lawmakers. Grahm’s cleverly packaged wine is not allowed to be sold in the state anymore.

"This isn’t the first time a Bonny Doon wine has been banned," Grahm said over a recent lunch in Napa Valley. "Nine years ago, Washington State forbade me to sell my Malvasia Bianca." The Malvasia label image was less incendiary than Steadman’s cardinal; it portrayed a woman walking in the company of a young girl, who is probably her daughter. However, Washington bureaucrats determined that the presence of a minor on the label was inappropriate, no matter how tasteful the graphics.

Regarding his latest legal tangle, Grahm is unrepentant. "Stay dewwned (his spelling)," he says, referring to a new batch of wines destined for release in the near future. The DEWN program is a wine series that Grahm has created in collaboration with well-known international winemakers such as André Ostertag in Alsace and Paolo di Marchi of Isola e Elena in Chianti. The wines should be good, and, given Grahm’s reputation, the labels promise to be outrageous.

—Jeff Morgan

Salamander Slows
Santa Barbara Vineyard Development

It’s earthy, supple and full-bodied, with the darkest extraction of color possible, surprising notes of honey, a broad yet pleasantly round nose and good legs. Is it a youthful red from Pomerol? A Hunter Valley Shiraz? Try the California tiger salamander, an unassuming amphibian with the potential to halt Santa Barbara vineyard development in its tracks.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) emergency-listed Santa Barbara’s California tiger salamander as an endangered species last January, and made the listing final this past September. Some accuse the county of being hostile to vintners, and see the listing as a political maneuver designed to stop the further conversion of ranch land in a county where vineyard acreage has more than doubled in the last several years. Lisa Plowman, supervising planner in the county government, denies these charges, noting that "the county is responsible for both encouraging agriculture and protecting sensitive resources." This is "often a tricky balance to achieve," says Plowman, who attributes the slowdown of vineyard development more to such industry issues as overproduction than to the salamander itself.

Development has stopped, however, and the salamander—"not a charismatic animal," according to University of California at Santa Barbara biologist Sam Sweet—is an easy target. Some critics claim that the science behind the listing is shoddy or ambiguous, an assertion Sweet finds incredible, noting that Santa Barbara’s population of this low-profile animal is genetically and morphologically distinct from its cousins in the rest of the state.

One thing that both detractors and supporters of the science can agree is not ambiguous, however, is the consequence of violating the Endangered Species Act. "Taking" an endangered species—by killing, harming, harassing, capturing or other means—carries a penalty of up to $50,000 in fines and a year in jail. Many local vintners resent the way the slender creature was protected by fiat, saying that a voluntary scheme would have worked more smoothly. "We know what’s here, we want to protect it, and we’re good stewards of the land," says Kevin Merrill, president of the Central Coast Winegrowers’ Association. Plowing, planting and other agricultural activities potentially threaten the burrows in which the salamanders live and the vernal pools in which they breed. Rather than risk harm to the salamanders and incurring penalties, most agriculturists have ceased new development in the protected habitats, which include land in the two wine-producing valleys for which Santa Barbara County is famous: Santa Maria and Santa Ynez.

With new vineyard development largely at a standstill, Santa Barbara vintners are learning what wine communities elsewhere have learned—that it’s hard to cultivate vines while still preserving a wilder kind of nature.

—Tom Fox

Published on July 1, 2001