Dan Berger On Wine: California’s Non-Cabernet Sauvignon legacy
On Wine

Dan Berger On Wine: California’s Non-Cabernet Sauvignon legacy


Cabernet Sauvignon –- the grape that launched California into the world’s wine spotlight 43 years ago — created a heritage that constantly reminds us how important it is as a grape and a wine.

But when California’s wine history is written, the chapter on Cabernet rightfully should a lot smaller than most people think — especially in relation to the state’s north coast wine/grape culture dating nearly 140 years.

Indeed, Cabernet is a relative Johnny-come-lately to the party. The grape was basically non-existent in the first two stages of California wine history — pre-Prohibition (before 1919) and Rebirth (1933-1966). Since 1967, I see the third epoch as World Greatness.

And yes, in the last five decades, Cab has been king. But has it seen better days? Are we entering a new era in California wine? More about that next week.

I was reminded of Cab’s place last week when irrepressible Jean-Charles Boisset formally opened “1881 Napa,” what is being called “the country’s only wine history museum.”

The museum is based in one of America’s most important Cab regions, Oakville. It’s a handsome facility adjacent to Boisset’s upgraded Oakville Grocery. It offers visitors a look at how Napa began as a wine-growing region two decades before turn of the last century.

One feature of the Grocery: visitors can purchase tastes of dozens of Cabs — the grape that’s the Grocery’s major wine focus.

But Napa and the entire North Coast had ostensibly no Cabernet (or Chardonnay for that matter) until relatively recently. Only scant acreage of either grape could be found anywhere in the North Coast as recently as the mid-1960s.

In Napa, only Beaulieu and Inglenook consistently produced Cabernet in the 1940s and ‘50s. It wasn’t until 1961 when the late visionary grapegrower Nathan Fay planted the variety on his large Stag’s Leap ranch that Napa had any significant acreage of Cab.

Indeed, even then Fay was considered a bit daft to plant in an area many thought too cool to ripen Cabernet!

The North Coast’s almost-lost legacy of wine grapes was based on Petite Sirah, Chenin Blanc, Carignane, Barbera and Zinfandel — and much more recently Pinot Noir.

Petite Sirah: This dense red grape has always produced monumental, dark, age-worthy reds, including the sensational, long-lived 1971 and 1975 versions of Petite Sirah from both Ridge and Freemark Abbey — two of the best Petite Sirahs ever made in the state.

Napa’s top Petite Sirah producers in the late 1960s and 1970s often used fruit from 70- to 80-year-old vines, many from old vineyards near Larkmead Lane south of Calistoga.

One vineyard, owned by Larkmead Vineyards (which today is operated by the family of the late Inglenook executive Larry Solari, who bought the property in 1948) made a tiny amount of a 1968 Larkmead Petite Sirah — still my all-time favorite bottling of the grape.

Not many wineries in California have continuously made a Petite Sirah since the 1970s. Among those that have are Foppiano in Sonoma County, Concannon in Livermore, Parducci in Mendocino, and Ridge high above Cupertino.

When Vince and Audrey Cilurzo (Cilurzo Vineyards) pioneered vine development in the new growing area of Temecula in 1976, the first red grape they planted was Petite Sirah.

Today, more producers (more than 1,000) are making Petite Sirah than ever before in the state’s history, and a support group, PS I Love You, stages many public events that are well attended.

The next one, Dark and Delicious, is July 14 at the CIA in Napa. (psiloveyou.org)

Chenin Blanc: A long-time favored white wine varietal in France’s Vouvray, melon-scented Chenin found favor here in the 1970s after Charles Krug’s soft, delicate version became all the rage among Americans.

At about the same time, Chappellet Winery’s mountain-grown dry style of Chenin was considered a classic, and it still is. Another star Chenin was made by Casa Nuestra. And Chenin Blancs from Husch and Simi (the latter since abandoned), both from Mendocino fruit, were always stellar.

Late in the 1980s, I asked Rutherford grapegrower Ed Chaix why he hadn’t converted his large Chenin acreage over to Cabernet. Cabs sold for more, he said, but wineries that bought his Cabs demanded he keep production to 4 tons per acre.

“I can get more than twice that of Chenins,” he said, “so I make more off an acre.” Besides, he added, he liked the taste of Chenin.

Today, on the same site the respected Chaix winery makes only Cabernet.

Side note: After the Cilurzos founded Cilurzo Vineyards in Temecula in 1978, they fell in love with Chenin Blanc – so much so that they named their daughter Chenin. (Their son, Vinnie, is one of the world’s great brewers, the founder and owner of Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa.)

Today, Chenin and her husband, Sean Carlton, own Basket Case Wines near the Oregon coast, where they produce a dry Chenin Blanc ($17).

In an article I wrote for The Los Angeles Times in July 1997 (www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1997-jul-09-fo-10882-story.html) I formally announced “The Death of Chenin Blanc,” even though it is still being produced by about a dozen wineries. Among the best: Dry Creek Vineyards.

Carignane: Known throughout California as the workhorse of reds, Carignane (old-timers called it “kerrig’n”) is blessed with a vineyard consistency that allows it to make sound if occasionally boring red wines that are not always distinctive.

It’s widely appreciated by growers because it’s prolific. Between 1933 and the 1980s in Napa, Sonoma, and the Central Valley, many wineries relied on it as the heart of their generic reds, usually called “Burgundy.”

For decades, Simi Burgundy was based on old-vine Carignane and it became one of the most popular inexpensive reds nationally of the 1960s and ‘70s.

Zinfandel: In the 1970s and ’80s, Zin became popular as a red wine partly because of its overt berry-like fruit. Unique to California, it found huge favor among fans of rustic and fruity reds in those two decades because it came of age about the same time that its victual soul mates (Italian pizza and pasta) became radically popular nationally.

One of its secrets is that it can make a wine as simple, elegant, and quaffable as Beaujolais as well as wines dark enough to rival Port.

In spite of recent sales declines for the variety (alcohol backlash?), Zin is still high on the “wine favorites” charts and various major public events honoring Zin are still heavily attended.

A major Zinfandel festival each January now is called ZinEX. The 2020 event starts Jan. 30. (https://zinfandel.org/)

Barbera: In the 1960s, most of the Barbera in the north coast was planted to provide a lower-in-tannin red wine grape blessed with great stability and acidity. As such, it ended up in many of the blended reds that put California on the map.

In the post-Prohibition period, notably the 1940s and ‘50s, the most popular red wine brand in the country was Roma, which advertised heavily during nighttime radio dramas.

Wine lore has it that Roma Burgundy was likely a blend including Carignane (for value), Petite Sirah (for color depth), Barbera (for acidity), and Zinfandel (for fruit) — plus, one winemaker told me decades ago, “the whole damn kitchen sink.”

Most of Roma’s fruit came from warm interior regions, where Barbera was appreciated in blends.

However, in the North Coast, Italian-heritage wineries like Louis Martini, Sebastini, and Pellegrini, and even Lou Preston in Dry Creek Valley, loved the grape so much that all made Barbera for years.

More recently, led by dozens of wineries in the Sierra Foothills (Jeff Runquist, Monteviña, Lava Cap, Terra d’Oro, Hatcher, Andis, Sobon, Urban Legend, etc.) a flood of world-class Barberas today are targets of collectors.

Today, the grape and its resulting wines are on a fast upward trajectory because of greatness from the grape in the Sierra foothills.

There, it’s a cult wine. Barbera typically sells out faster than formerly iconic Zinfandel, and the Amador Barbera Festival is one of the state’s hottest wine-lover events annually. The 9th annual Barbera Festival is scheduled for Sept. 14 and tickets usually sell out well in advance. (https://barberafestival.com/)

As for the impact of Pinot Noir on the state’s wine history, that’s a huge story for another day. Pinot surely has altered the industry’s varietal mix, profit picture, and collectors’ wallets and may have ushered in a new epoch in the state’s wine image.

In any case, Boisset’s new wine museum may some day need an enlargement to include some of the state’s non-Cabernet history.

Wine of the Week: 2018 Paradise Ridge Sauvignon Blanc, Russian River Valley ($28) – The aroma of this strikingly dramatic rendition of Sauvignon Blanc has both wildflowers and spices alongside a faint hint of the varietal’s challenging tea leaf and anise notes. The amazing thing is how dry it is, yet how astoundingly succulent as well. Far too many Sauvignon Blancs these days are compromised by either sugar or low acid, but winemaker Dan Barwick has crafted a classic that calls for food. Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa is carrying this wine for $13.99, lowest price in the nation.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

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