We’ve recently started, in our bar, serving wines from the Swanson Winery, which seems to be a very interesting operation. There are two winemakers on board, men who represent very different aspects of contemporary winemaking. The first is Chris Phelps, a California native who, early in his life, became a devout Francophile. He studied at the Institute of Enology at the University of Bordeaux and then worked as a winemaker in the Bordeaux. On returning to California, he worked at a few different wineries, but when he came to Swanson it was to dive back into his dedication to merlot, the biggest red variety in Bordeaux. He’s a minimalist who prefers to grow and harvest the grapes perfectly and then do a minimal amount of technical intervention during the winemaking. Old school French, in other words.
Marco Capelli, by contrast, is more of an innovator. Yes, he studied in the old world, crediting the Italians with teaching him that wine is food and an important part of the daily meal. He also, though, went to Australia to study their techniques which, apparently, evolved parallel to, but relatively uninfluenced by, their European counterparts. He was thus able to bring cutting edge innovation to Swanson, an example of which is that in 1992 he started making sweet wines, becoming one of the only, if not the only, sweet wine specialist in the country.
So, there you have it. You have the option of a refined merlot made the ancient way, or the rare experiment of an American dessert wine, both from the same winery. But, then, since it’s free when you’re with us, you might just want to try both!
The Blue Rock Vineyards are all about size. Tiny, small, modest, to them, are synonymous with individual, personal and unique, which actually doesn’t sound so foreign or crazy, but it’s just not what we’re typically told by wineries that may be perfectly happy to invest in their small businesses, but would not be so unhappy to see those little ventures grow up and out, either.
Blue Rock is different in that it is the second career of a man who worked in finance and wanted to be, not a winemaker, but an artist. Where others seem to come into this out of an interest in farming, in the land, in the history or tradition of viticulture, Nikitas Magel came in because he got fascinated with the beauty of a single bottle of wine and wanted to learn to do that as intricately and gorgeously as a painter wants to paint on a single canvas. He tells a story about a man he knew once, not a wine maker but a wine collector, who collected because he loved the wine and started selling them because it had become impossible for him to drink them all. I suppose Magel would style himself in the same fashion, only selling his wines because he’s made a few too many for personal consumption. Of course, where he professes admiration for this man he learned from selling his rare wines for $2 a bottle, he sells his own artistic excess for $45-$100 a bottle. Lucky for you, we’re giving it away for free here in our bar, as you know, from 5-7pm every night.
Every winery I read about, month after month, professes some relationship to the history of their craft. True, some claim rebellion and superiority, but this is still a relationship. Of those that offer respect, and intend to be working in the lineage of traditional French winemakers, Terra Valentine stands out in one significant way that may or may not be purely superficial: Their facility is the closest thing to a replica of the ancient stone buildings that house the winemaking operations in France, that I’ve seen outside of France.
As I said, this is an observation of the way they’ve chosen to decorate themselves, and doesn’t necessarily mean anything about the wines they make, and yet they’ve gone to great lengths to copy that medieval architecture and décor. This says something, to me anyway, about their dedication to the particulars of the lineage they’ve chosen. Their counterparts mostly decide to house their ancient craft in more contemporary digs, after all. Plus, might the accuracy of the execution of this ancient design possibly bode well for the way they get into the details and history of their winemaking? Could be.
Come see for yourself. As you know, 5-7pm every night in our bar is the time for experimentation. Try a red, try a white, go back to your Bud Lite. We don’t mind.
Every now and then, when I’m feeling fancy and highbrow, I’ll go see a show at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. All of the big, old names in performance pass through there. Alvin Ailey and the Joffrey Ballet for example. Lots of classical music. Most of the audience has gray hair and wears sensible shoes. That kind of culture, you know.
There’s also a grant named Zellerbach. Every year my artist friends compete for it and are happy when they get it because it’s not insubstantial.
What I’m trying to say is that, around the Bay Area at least, the name Zellerbach carries some weight. James D Zellerbach was a successful businessman, he was instrumental in the administration of the Marshall Plan, he served as ambassador to Italy, he was a big philanthropist and, it turns out, he founded a winery in Sonoma County too. The Hanzell Winery’s name is a combination of Zellerbach’s wife’s first name, Hana, and, well, Zellerbach, and the wines it produces are as respectable, successful and well heeled as everything else Ambassador Zellerbach laid his hands on.
It makes us, here at our humble little hotel, seem kind of cool, pouring Ambassador Zellerbach’s wines out for free every night. It’s like we get to participate in the world of international diplomacy and the kind of snooty, out-of-touch philanthropy that is the reason a company like the Joffrey Ballet gets to stay alive in spite of its cultural irrelevance. The people who made this wine never had to sully their hands with cash and, my friends, when you sip their wares in our bar, neither do you. From 5-7 anyway.
Just for the fun of it, I’m going to take a little bit of a leap with the use of this space this month. Normally this is a place to learn a little something about one or another of the wines we serve in our bar. In the last few months, though, I’ve dallied a bit, telling you about my favorite trips to the places where the wines we serve in our bar are made. This month I’m going way off track and trying to try to send you away to The Picchetti Winery, where wine that we don’t serve in our bar is made. Seems a bit silly, I know, but maybe you’ll get my enthusiasm when you hear that this winery is right here in Cupertino. Which, to me, sounds like such a great opportunity for a bit of an exotic, California adventure, just randomly after work someday.
And then, because it’s such an easy little early evening adventure, you can come back to the loving embrace of our little bar afterwards, where we’ll have plenty more wine waiting for you. How could we be jealous? It’s ok with us if you want to go out and pay, every now and then, for what we’re giving away for free. Plus, I hear they’ve got a real nice port and, you know, if those are the kinds of needs you have, it’s probably better for you to find someplace else to get them met. But, remember, if you’re gonna make that your choice for a night, we’re not going to wait up for you. Our bar closes at 11.
The story that the Trefethens, of Trefethen Winery, tell about themselves is distinctly American. When the Trefethen family decided to buy land in the Napa Valley in the 70s, they say, it was an “agricultural backwater” and they were thought crazy for their dreams of a winery. They make the point by saying that there were “fewer than 20 operational wineries” in the area when they came in. Not such a small number; they weren’t quite the inventors of the idea of wine in Napa that they might like us to believe. Still, it was early, we can grant them that.
Next they would have us believe that John, eldest son of the founder, developed a passion for fermentation that led to his blowing up a friend’s college dorm room attempting a batch of cider, but that a mere three years later this same plucky youth was the mastermind behind a Chardonnay that was named best in the world at the wine Olympics in Paris. That’s right, in three short years, this mere boy outdid centuries of French winemaking tradition. I wonder if he had any help? Still, the award is real and both winery and boy were very young.
Now that boy is the winery’s head and his children work below him. One family, one estate, one passion is their motto. It’s the Trefethens against the world. I, personally, don’t understand why we Americans must declare that we’ve invented everything that we do, totally ignoring all the learning that we’ve leaned on along the way. Still, it’s a good wine and you, our guests, can come drink it for free in our bar every night that you spend with us.
This will be a bit more about Rombauer, if you all will indulge this month’s love affair.
Normally there are two kinds of stories that get told in this space. One is a story of history, tradition and practice, passed down over the centuries. French history, tradition and practice, that is. The other is a story of modern innovation, American entrepreneurialism and Californian style. Rombauer offers us something different. The Rombauer family comes from a German winemaking tradition. And, what’s more, the family’s love of wine, almost a century ago, led into a love of all things gastronomical in Irma Rombauer, grand aunt to the founder of the Rombauer Winery, and inspired her to write The Joy of Cooking, which has been published continuously since 1936, has been one of the most popular cookbooks in this country ever since, and has probably sat on many of your kitchen shelves over the years. So when this modern generation of Rombauers started making wine, their work came not only from a different geographical region than California is used to, but also from a different kind of family lineage.
You can see it immediately on their labels. Those strong block letters and practical, unromantic color choices are neither romantic, nor are they coolly contemporary. That, friends, is German practicality. But I don’t mean to sound dismissive, there’s a reason “German engineering” is a phrase we all know. This is a powerful, correct set of wines. And if you’re wondering what that could possibly mean, stop by our bar on your next visit. Any wine you want is, as always, complimentary for you, our guests.
Recently, on a trip to Oregon, I said something very bratty. It’s nice, I said, when I was there, to be away from the cult of California wine. Forgive me, but it was so exciting, at first, to see wines from so many other states on menus. Tons from Oregon, but also Washington, Maine and I can’t remember where else. Other places, anyway, not California. How cool, I thought, to be away from the dominant mainstream, because my own thoughtless ideology says that the unknown underdog must be superior. My exuberance lasted a couple of days, and then, let me tell you, I realized that I was not getting anything all that good. So, I hoped that my little outburst would be remembered only by me and quietly switched over to what the Oregonians really do have a lock on: Beer.
Back home sweet home I am grateful not only to be a member of the cult of California wine, but to have my membership fees waved every time I decide to sit in our own little bar with a glass. This month, to truly celebrate superiority, I’m going with Ridge wines. After all, in the 2006 re-enactment of the infamous Judgment of Paris, where French and California wines, originally pitted against one another in 1976, were revisited to test how they had aged, the Ridge Winery’s Monte Bello cabernet not only won, but was 18 points ahead of the second place wine. That’s pretty convincing, when you think about it. Lesson of the month: Not all dominant paradigms must be subverted.
Those of you who’ve been reading this newsletter over the years, which, I’m not sure there’s anyone who’s been reading this newsletter at all, but if anyone out there has been reading this newsletter over the years, you’ll maybe remember that I have already told you about Chandon’s sparkling wines. But having, this same month, declared my love for the Chandon winery, it seemed a little phony to then switch over and write to you about some other wine that you can sit in our bar and drink. I thought, instead, to offer a couple of little tidbits that have sharpened my enthusiasm for our friendly neighborhood bubbly maker.
First, as we all know, even though we’ll all say that we’re going out to buy a bottle of champagne and happily come home with a beautiful bottle of California bubbles, technically, legally, the French have a lock on that name. Champagne can only come from Champagne! Which has left me, at least, wondering what’s missing from my local selection. What secret subtleties am I not sipping? Well, perhaps the folks at Chandon had that same question because they’ve charmed a young French woman, raised in a winemaking family in, yes, Champagne, to join their winemaking team. What, then, does the Chandon team not know about the secrets of French sparkle? Nothing, now.
The second little thing that I like about Chandon is that on their website you can find several pages of cocktail recipes that their bubbly wines make the centerpieces of. I have no idea if any of them are any good as I, personally, hate champagne cocktails. I love that they’re there, though. It shows such levity on the part of this winery, such a lack of the pious severity that is, well, not unknown in their counterparts. It reminds me of what I liked so much about visiting their winery. I was in one of the more beautiful, elegant places I’ve been in my life, and yet I felt relaxed and unselfconscious.
It’s all about Chandon this month. Sit in our bar and sip their wine after work all week, and then take off on the weekend and visit the mother ship. It’ll be a great week.
The Freemark Abbey Winery has such an austere name. It feels ancient. It conjures ideas of monks brewing beer in the Middle Ages. It makes us think of the grand simplicity of the old world. Why hadn’t I heard of monks who were making wine, I wondered. And I had never known about anything of the sort happening in California’s wine country. These are the things that I expected to be learning about when I went to look into the Freemark Abbey Winery.
Instead I discovered that when this winery was re-opened after prohibition, its owners were Charles Freeman, Markquand Foster and Abbey Ahem, who put their names together and found that it sounded good. In answer to this they say, today, that, “many consider (their) library wines a religious experience.” I love this. This is the spirit of the new world, American upstart-ism at its finest. Less than 40 years later the Freemark Abbey Winery was the only California winery selected to send both a red and a white wine to compete in the infamous Judgment of Paris tasting of 1976. In which, of course, there was not a single French victor.
My patriotism now in a rare state of arousal, I think I’ll celebrate with a glass of their famous Cabernet Sauvignon. Will you join me?