Proprietor Jan Shrem
A wine from the days when Chardonnay was labelled
PINOT Chardonnay. A wine from the grape that
made the first wine in what is now the U.S.A.
A wine I had made from the grape that made
California's first wine. For my last tasting I
dusted off these and eight other conversation
pieces, and very gently pulled the old corks.
Here's how the panel ranked them.
11th - "America's oldest winery" is Brotherhood,
Washingtonville, N.Y. The wine was a semi-sweet
blush from the Catawba grape. The Catawba is an
American grape introduced in 1823 by Revolution
soldier Major John Adlum, who modestly claimed
that introducing the variety was a greater service
to the country than "paying off the National Debt."
10th - California's first wine was made from the
Mission grape about 1782. A decade ago there was
very little Mission wine around, so I hired the
Story Winery to make this l988 vintage for my
classes. Today, both Story and Malvadino make
a pleasing, rustic red from it.
9th - I found this old bottle in the cellar of a
wine shop in TEXAS. The label reads "Wente Bros.
1976 Vintage PINOT CHARDONNAY, California." Wente
produced the first American wine labelled "Chardonnay"
way back in 1936. Until fairly recently Burgundy's
Chardonnay was thought to be related to Burgundy's
Pinot Noir. Hence, this old bottle still
bears the PINOT word. A nice sip of history.
8th - The first wine made in what is now the U.S.A.
was produced by French Huguenots in Florida around
1565. They used the large Scuppernong grape.
Our bottle was a Mother Vineyard SCUPPERNONG,
Patrick, South Carolina. It is a bit sweet,
with the "grape-gum" flavor typical of native
7th - Paris was stunned. An unknown Pinot Noir
from OREGON missed first place by only 0.3 points
when tasted against Burgundy's best. The year
was 1979, and the winery was David Lett's Eyrie
Vineyards. David was the first to plant the state's
most successful grape, the Pinot. For the complete
story, see the Dec. 1,1997 WineDay, "The Left Legend". We tasted a 1988 vintage, originally $9
which I found long ago marked down to $3.89.
It probably peaked four or five years ago.
6th - This collector's bottle cost me $30 about 10
years ago. The label reads, "1974--Second Release,
CLOS DU BOIS 100% Pinot Noir, Sonoma County (Dry
Creek), Cellared and Bottled by Western Eleven
Vintners, Geyserville, California...It will
continue to improve until 1982." So we were a
bit late in opening it, but it still had a tad of
pizzaz. About the Western Eleven Vintners, Clos
du Bois did not own a winery in 1974. In fact,
they leased so many different winemaking facilities
that they became known as "The Vagabond Winery",
which is the title of our March 19, 1999 WineDay
story of their success.
5th - The Symphony varietal was created in 1940
at U.C.-Davis by crossing the Grenache with the
Muscat of Alexandria. Chateau De Baun's first
harvest was the 1984. I had a bottle of the third
vintage in my cellar, a 1987. Its Muscat heritage
was still alive and well in the nose and mouth.
4th - "By 1980 Fetzer was growing rapidly, selling
well-crafted, value-oriented wines including
Cabernet Sauvignon." (James Laube). We tasted
the '84 $8 Barrel Select Cab. It wasn't made to
be consumed 15 years after the vintage, but still
had enough to whip all but the three below.
3rd - "Very good, with special qualities" was
the Wine Spectator's appraisal of
Charles Ortman's 1989 Santa Barbara Meridian
Chardonnay. At age ten it had started downhill
but still won BEST WHITE OF THE TASTING.
2nd - "Spanish Rioja Reservas improve for at least
six years and some for 20 years."(Critic William
Massee). Sure enough, our second best wine was
a sixteen-year-old Reserva...1983 Cerro Anon Rioja
Reserva, Bodegas Olarra, Logrono, Spain,
Importer—William Grant, NYC, $5.99.
Winner— (pictured)—In my June 1,1991 tasting, a fine Chateau
Gloria Bordeaux claret lost by a large margin to a
Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon crafted by none other
than the greatest California winemaker of the 20th
century. The winemaker was Moscow-born André
Tchelistcheff, and the wine was the 1985 Clos Pegase, $20.
We opened another bottle for this tasting.
Conclusion...in 1991 it was EXCELLENT, and in 1999 it is
Comments for Beginners
About aging California's principal wines, here's
my advice, based on what pleases my students the
most. Drink the whites within a year after you
buy them. To be safe, do the same with the reds,
EXCEPT...if the reds are $20 plus, it's OK to
cellar your Pinot Noir and Syrah about three years.
Cabernets and red Meritages usually can benefit
from about five years. Longer aging of any
California table wines may improve them further,
but it is risky and I don't advise beginners to
try it. You have more to lose than to gain.