Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Haunting Look Back at Ghost Wineries

Autumn is a spirited season – in more ways than one. And in keeping with this time of year, a look at ghost wineries seems fitting.

Ghost Winery
You may have heard the term “ghost winery” before, but the meaning has nothing to do with unseen visitors, wine glasses that crash to the floor or things that go bump in the tasting room.

A ghost winery is similar to a ghost town – it is a winery that was built in Napa Valley during the beginning of California’s winemaking boom, from 1860 – 1900, but then abandoned. You might say, its a winery haunted by its past…

Rutherford Maps
There were hundreds of wineries that began during this period, but few managed to make it far into the next century unscathed due to a killing vine disease, the change of public attitudes concerning alcohol, and the unfortunate collision course the country was on. This became a trifecta of disasters for the Napa wine industry.

Phylloxera is a plant aphid that lives on and eats the grape vine roots. It was during the 1870s that these pests began destroying vines and grapes throughout California, to the point where many wineries had no vineyards left.  It took almost 10 years before a solution was discovered, but even today, phylloxera is still a threat.

Down the Drain
Then in January 1920, Prohibition went into effect. This was the result of the Volstead Act, a federal law that made it illegal to manufacture, transport or sell alcohol in the U.S. Most of the ghost wineries in Napa came about because of the impact of Prohibition, which ended 13 years later, in 1933.

By then the Great Depression had swept through the country. During this long period of economic hardship, few people had any money to spend on such luxuries as alcohol.

Put it all together and these elements forced many wineries to close. Some were simply abandoned by owners who could no longer pay to keep them, leaving buildings, equipment and vineyards to evolve into a state of deterioration.

It was not until the 1970s that the California wine industry, and Napa Valley, was able to get back on its feet.  Some of the old ghost wineries were taken over and the rich histories of the early wineries began to be preserved and enhanced.

V Marketplace
Inside V Marketplace
Today, some of those once forgotten wineries have been revitalized, turned into retail businesses including shops and restaurants. In Yountville, California V Marketplace is located on a 23-acre complex that was once the Groezinger Winery during California’s original heydays. With upscale specialty shops, galleries, restaurants and a wine tasting cellar, the building’s character of yesteryear continues to shine through.

Napa Ghost Winery Rental
Others have been converted into private homes and wine country rentals, complete with amazing cellars where winemaking equipment have been preserved.

And a lucky few are back in business as wineries, renovated and restaged into state-of-the-art winemaking facilities for a new century, and a different world.

A Few Famous Ghosts

Far Niente – Oakville, CA

Far Niente
Founded in 1885 by San Francisco entrepreneur John
Barrel Room

Benson, Far Niente (meaning “sweet to do nothing”) was one of Napa’s original stone wineries. The winery was prosperous until Prohibition. Benson disappeared in 1919 leaving the winery and buildings to the elements. In 1979, the winery was restored, and the first harvest in over 60 years was celebrated in 1982. Far Niente is now in the National Register of Historic Places.

Charles Krug, St Helena, CA

Charles Krug in 1874
Charles Krug
This is the oldest winery in Napa Valley, dating back to 1861. Founded by 27-year-old Charles Krug, a Prussian immigrant, who was willing to work hard and had the determination to succeed with what was the first winery in Napa. Krug died in 1892 and the winery slowly lost its footing. That is until Cesare and Rosa Mondavi purchased it in 1943. It would be their son Peter Mondavi, Sr. who would make a name for himself, and the wines, in the latter half of the 20th century.

Charles Krug Winery
Krug Vineyards
This is also one winery that may, indeed, have a few ghosts lingering on. The Charles Krug Winery is supposedly haunted by a lady in white who walks the upper floors of the Redwood Cellar. But how long will she continue to stay? Renovation began last year on the building and is scheduled to be completed this fall. It will be interesting to see if the ghost remains or is contented with the changes and moves on…

Chateau Montelena, Calistoga, CA

Jade Lake
Originally founded in 1882 by Alfred L. Tubbs, Chateau Montelena was a major wine producer during the late 19th and early 20th centuries – before Prohibition. In 1958, the Tubbs family sold the rundown winery and its overgrown grounds to Yort and Jeanie Frank, who excavated Jade Lake on the property.

Chateau Montelena
1973 Chardonnay
In the early 1970s James Barrett purchased the neglected estate and ended up changing the history of California wine. It was a 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that beat out the best French white wines in the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976. (See last week’s post for more info on this judging.)

There are many more living legends scattered around Napa Valley. If you’d like to learn more, author Irene W. Haynes wrote a book in 1980 called “Ghost Wineries of Napa Valley: A Photographic Tour of the Last Century”. The book is a pictorial history of more than 65 ghost wineries; some decrepit, or long gone, others rescued and revived.

These ghost wineries offer us a glimpse back at the first dynamic California wine industry of more than 100 years ago, and a chance to experience their rebirth as we link past and present together in order to keep that spirit alive.

~ Joy

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The (Second) Judgment of Paris – The Real Story in the Making

September brings with it the cool nights and warm days of harvest, the process of crushing and fermenting of grapes into wine, and this year, the beginnings of a story to “set the record straight.”

This month, the second movie about the legendary Judgment of Paris begins shooting. The first movie, based loosely around the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 was Bottle Shock, released in 2008. Made in the comedy-drama format, former Times reporter George Taber and British wine authority Steven Spurrier have said that the movie was not factual, and according to Spurrier, contained “many, many pure inventions.”

Judgement of Paris
After five long years, Spurrier and Taber will get to tell the real story of the blind wine tasting, held 37 years ago in Paris, that transformed the wine industry forever.

Steven Spurrier
In 1976, Spurrier was a British wine merchant in Paris who supported and promoted French wines. He organized the Paris Wine Tasting as a means to promote these wines around the world. The “best of the best” in the French wine world were invited for a gala tasting in May at the Inter-Continental Hotel in Paris.

Winemaker Mike Grgich
In Order of Prefrence

A total of nine judges from the French wine industry took part comparing four white Burgundies against six California Chardonnays and ranking them in order of preference. When the judging was completed and the scores tallied, the top ranking white wine was a 1973 Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena in California, crafted by winemaker, Mike Grgich.

Warren Winiarski
In Order of Preference

In the red wine category, four red Bordeaux’s were compared to six California Cabernets, again in a blind tasting. After the scores were collected, a 1973 Cabernet
Sauvignon from Stag’s Leap in California was found to be superior to the French wines. The wine was made by Stag’s Leap owner and winemaker, Warren Winiarski.

George Taber
French Judges
George Taber was a journalist for Time magazine in 1976 and the only reporter who attended and reported on the blind wine tasting and its astounding outcome - that U.S. wines had defeated France’s most renowned wines for both top positions!

The French refused to take the results seriously. They immediately began casting doubt on the competition, claiming that the French wines Spurrier had selected had been too young or of poor quality.

But when Taber’s story, Judgment of Paris, appeared in the June 7, 1976 edition of Time magazine, it was the turning point for California wines. This blind tasting showed that the French had acknowledged winemakers in America could make world-class wines. It was the end of the reign of French wines as superior to all others, and revolutionized the wine industry throughout the world.

1976 Judging
The Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 has been duplicated all over the world. All of the judging’s held since then have ended with similar results. 

Taber's Book
In 2005, Taber wrote a book, “Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine". It was published in 2006 by Scribner. Taber had  decided it was time to set the record straight.

Robert Kamen
Now, it looks like a movie, based on Taber’s account, will finally be made. Robert Kamen, a Hollywood screenwriter, wrote the screenplay. He’s also written Lethal Weapon 3, The Karate Kid 1, 2 and 3, and A Walk in the Clouds (another wine movie.) 

Tom Hiddlestone
Italian businessman Jonathan Rotella will produce the movie with backing from Steven
Spurrier, one of the original participants in the event.

Rumors abound that English-born Tom Hiddlestone may play Spurrier in the movie.

Warren Winiarski
The film will focus on Polish-born Warren Winiarski, the winemaker from Stag’s Leap, and his dream to craft award winning wines in California. When he and Steven Spurrier meet, Spurrier is striving to be a well-known Paris wine retailer. The two begin working together and both realize their dreams.

While I enjoyed the movie Bottle Shock (give me a romantic story about an underdog and wine, and I’ll toast it every time), it’s time for the full story about the competition to be told by those who were there.

Which makes you wonder - what if George Taber had not been present at the judging that day in May? How long would it have taken for the wine world to evolve to where it is today?

June 7, 1976 Cover
After all, it was this four-paragraph article in the Modern Living section of Time magazine that has helped to usher in changes, and assist in advancing the wine industry to where it is today.

No release date has been set for the movie Judgment of Paris, but if you want to celebrate with a bottle of one of the winners, when the film comes out, be prepared.

One of the few remaining bottles of Chateau Montelena Chardonnay sold at auction in 2010 for $11,325. A bottle of Stag’s Leap 1973 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon now brings over $10,000, if you can find it.

But it would be money well spent because, not only are these bottles of historical significance; apparently, they cellar well…

~ Joy

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Autumnal Wines for These Early Evenings

With autumn fast approaching, it’s time to discover wines that blend with the season, wines that offer comfort and contentment.   

Just as we dress seasonally, we tend to drink seasonally. At this time of year, comfort foods become more sought after in the early darkness and comfort wines offer a respite from summer’s light and fruity flavors.

An autumn wine, to me, should be complex yet elegant, something to sip as you delve into a murder mystery, or settle down to watch a scary movie. Just as our clothing gets heavier to ward off the autumn chill, our wines become more substantial offering more weight and body.

Oak is a great component of autumnal wines; we tend to identify with those woody, smoky flavors that we associate with bon-fires and chilly evenings.

Autumnal Reds

When I think of autumn red wines, I always think of something dark and brooding, with a medium to heavy body and the aromas of wood, tobacco and pepper. Good, hearty wines to pair with the hearty foods we now crave.

Zinfandel Grapes
This is the perfect season to try a robust Zinfandel with notes of spice and tobacco, ending with tannins that lingers on your tongue. If you're looking for a great accompaniment for a meal with pheasant or venison, a big, bold Zin is the answer!

Malbec Grapes
Another fall favorite is Malbec with hints of pepper and spice that blend well with any breezy autumn evening. An entertaining Saturday night might include lamb or duck served with an Argentinian Malbec to chase the chill away.

Merlot and its oaky, smoky tobacco essence is always a go-to for me in the autumn. It’s like pulling out that favorite sweater that I shoved to the back of the closet during the hot weather months, and rediscovering it again - glorious.

Autumnal Whites

While spring and summer whites are light, fruity, happy wines, fall whites are somewhat melancholy. The oak is more forward, the wines more crisp, and the aromas are of apples and citrus.

Chardonnay Grapes
An oaked Chardonnay is a nice autumn wine. Give me one with a goldeyellow hue, herbal notes and some tangy mineral flavors that is well balanced wine, and I’m in heaven.

Riesling Grapes
A rich Riesling can’t be beat for autumn. Look for one that has some nice green apple notes wrapped around those nutty nuances of fall. Stir up a meal with Italian sausage, pasta and pine nuts, then pour a glass of Riesling and enjoy.

Pinot Grigio
Look for a golden hued Pinot Grigio with an aroma of honey and the subtle flavor of toasted almonds for a true autumn standout. Pull out the grill one more time for grilled chicken topped with a hearty Marinara sauce and a welcomed glass of Pinot Gris.

Autumn Sparkles

A sparking wine can shine in autumn! Even better is one that has crisp, apple flavors with a hint of mineral.

Moscato sparkles can offer traces of herbs and minerals in a bright, bubbly package. Chill well and let it “speak to you” as the darkness gathers…

Autumn Desserts

Glass of Port
Fall is definitely the season for Ports and Sherries. Pour one of these dessert wines, cup the glass in your hand, stand around a blazing bonfire with flames licking the night sky, and see if this does not produce a feeling of contentment…

Cabernet Franc
And as the weather gets colder, don’t be afraid to go bolder. Cabernet Franc and Shiraz are the harbingers of winter, so pull them out to enjoy around Thanksgiving.

Keep in mind, wine is not the only exceptional autumn beverage – don’t miss out on ciders, apple jack, or those autumnal inspired harvest brews at this time of the year; just another way to celebrate the darker season with a comfort drink – or two.

~ Joy