WineLine No. 25
Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
Dec. 15, 2002


Dear Friends:

Compared to France, Italy, Spain and Germany, the U.S. wine industry is a young pup. But we're gaining some maturity. (Someone had to plant all those "old vines," after all.) This year, five notable wineries celebrated milestone anniversaries, so it's time to lift a glass and toast these people who have been enriching our lives with the fruit of the vine.

Proceeding from youngest to oldest ...

Kendall-Jackson turned 20. It seems like it's been around forever. K-J, of course, provided much of the muscle behind the Chardonnay boom of the 1980s and 1990s with its "Vintner's Reserve" bottling. Attractively priced and, critics charged, attractively sweet, this wine made the name "Chardonnay" synonymous with white wine and drew thousands of casual drinkers away from ersatz American "Chablis" that used to come out of the soda hose at bars. Say what you may, K-J taught American wine drinkers that wine comes in bottles, not jugs, and that specific grapes produce specific styles of wine.

The K-J model has been to start low on the price scale and establish the brand, then work up. There are expensive Kendall-Jackson wines, most of them following the pattern of blending from different areas. Two years ago, they introduced the "Great Estates" line of single-vineyard bottlings, but these do not seem to have penetrated far into the market or the collective subconscious of wine drinkers despite some excellent quality.

In September, K-J released a 20th Harvest Chardonnay, a limited bottling priced at about $16 and made from grapes grown in Santa Barbara and Monterey. Expect another full-barrel Chardonnay, so to speak, in the K-J style. And here's a toast to founder Jess Jackson and winemaker Randy Ullom for their achievements over the past two decades.

Dan and Margaret Duckhorn followed the opposite model to K-J. Now celebrating their 25th harvest at Duckhorn Vineyards, they started out seeking to emulate the Merlot-dominated wines of Pomerol and St. Emilion. It would not be a stretch to argue that Duckhorn has set the standard for Merlot in the Napa Valley since their early bottlings from the Three Palms Vineyard. They've also followed the Bordeaux model with their lone white, an excellent Sauvignon Blanc blended with about 25% Semillon and barrel aged to add toast and complexity. Think of it as a traditional counterweight to the current fad for grassy New Zealand style Sauvignon Blanc.

More recently, the winery has gradually moved toward estate bottled wines, giving it fuller control over the grape growing and picking. They've focused on mountain sites, so look for tightly structured wines with abundant tannins. And keeping with the Bordeaux model, the Duckhorn label Merlots and Cabernet Sauvignons are always blended, usually with a smidgen of Cabernet Franc or Petit Verdot.

These are lush, lavishly oaked wines that command your attention almost before the cork is pulled. Bucking the current trend toward "fruit forward" wines for drinking tonight, the Duckhorn Vineyard reds almost seem to punish you with lost promise for opening them instead of letting them age for several years. (Exceptions to this are the Napa Valley 2000 Merlot and the Decoy Migration Red 2000, but these still benefit from a few hours' advance decanting.)

Next time you hear an oenogeek proclaiming Merlot passé, ask him about Duckhorn and the standard they've been setting for the past 25 years.

Two of my long-time favorite wineries turned 30 in 2002, and despite the old 1960s adage, it's safe to trust them to continue making good wines in years, if not decades, to come. Bernard Portet, a sixth-generation French winemaker, was one of the first to recognize the potential of Napa Valley's Stags Leap district when he founded Clos du Val in 1972 with John Goelet, a descendent of the Guestier winemaking empire.

Portet's Cabernets, featured in Steven Spurrier's "Paris Tasting" of 1976 (and winner of the repeat tasting a decade later), have always featured a Bordeaux sensibility, with elegance featured over brawn, draped around the strong, minerally backbone that Stags Leap provides. In recent years, Clos du Val has left the 'hood, offering a lush Cabernet from Vineyard Georges III in Rutherford and a blockbuster from the Palisades Vineyard near Calistoga. There is also quite decent Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Carneros, though I am particularly smitten by the "Ariadne," a Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend that marries sprightly fruit with creamy oak in an ageworthy (my estimate would be 3-5 years for the current 2000 release) white.

Despite his three decades in California, it is difficult to mistake Portet for anything but French if you meet him (and I mean that in a favorable way, as a dedicated Francophile). In recent years, he has returned home in a sense, creating Domaine de Nizas in the Coteaux du Languedoc, not far from where he studied enology at Montpellier. The wine is a blend of Syrah and Grenache, typical southern French, but with a clarity of fruit that betrays some California dreamin'. Postively delish.

Our other 30-year-old is Dry Creek Vineyards in Sonoma. This winery, the first established in the Dry Creek Valley after Prohibition, helped make the words "Dry Creek" - as in the winery and the appellation - synonymous with Zinfandel. Year in and year out, Dry Creek produces delicious Zins that have resisted the trend toward higher alcohol and higher prices that have drawn attention to flashier labels.

Founder David Stare and his daughter, Kim Stare Wallace, deserve kudos on two other counts. They have resisted the economic imperative to yank out Chenin Blanc in favor of more profitable grapes. (They buy their Chenin from the Clarksburg area near Sacramento.) Dry Creek's Chenin is consistently dry, crisp and full-bodied, an ideal accompaniment to seafood, cheese, or Asian dishes.

Second, Dry Creek's Zins are rivaled in reputation only by its Sauvignon Blanc. Their Sonoma County Fume Blanc is typically juicy, grassy and minerally - think Sancerre with an American accent. The Reserve Fume adds the cream and spice of oak, while the unoaked "DCV3" single-vineyard bottling, from the oldest Sauvignon Blanc vineyard in the county, thrills with intense passion fruit flavors backed by a firm mineral structure. Great juice!

While Dry Creek Vineyards may have been the first in the valley after Prohibition, when the Stares arrived they found the Pedroncelli family had been there nearly half a century. John Pedroncelli Sr. bought an existing Zinfandel vineyard during Prohibition (in 1927) in an area that had become a favorite of Italian-Americans, according to Dick Rosano, in Wine Heritage: The Story of Italian-American Vintners. The J. Pedroncelli Winery initially sold grapes to home winemakers, but following repeal it established a reputation for producing good quality wines at extremely fair prices. With wine prices skyrocketing in recent years, John Jr. and Jim Pedroncelli have kept the faith; their wines are enjoying a bit of a renaissance, popping up on restaurant wine lists in the Washington D.C. area, where their prices make them attractive by-the-glass offerings.

And their wines put the lie to the notion that we must pay extra for ageworthiness. I know this because among the stores I frequent here in D.C. is Bell Wine & Liquors, which took a big stake in Pedroncelli wines in the late '70s when the Cabs sold for a nickel or so. Okay, probably a few bucks, but the bygone price seems to get cheaper each time someone tells these stories. These are wine lovers "of a certain age," for whom the unexpected gem from the cellar is proof their forethought and patience trumps your age and beauty. I recently tasted a J. Pedroncelli 1980 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve that had been brought into Bell's the day before by a long-time customer like a proud parent parading his Harvard grad daughter before the obstetrician who delivered her. It was vibrant with blackcurrant fruit, spiced with cedar and bramble notes that emerged with age. If only the more expensive wines from the '90s cooking in my basement tasted so good.

So here's a glass raised in salute to these five wineries and their winemakers who celebrated anniversaries in 2002. And another to all WineLine readers, with thanks for your support and best wishes for a Happy New Year and a wonderful 2003.

Dave McIntyre

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