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"From a Stellar Cellar"

  by Fred McMillin

Jan Shrem

Clos Pegase
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 American grapes.

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 still GOOD.

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.


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