Tasting in Classic Circumstances
By Dan Clarke
Sometimes I have to work on the weekends. Sometimes this is not such a bad thing.
Editing a publication that covers both wines and cars, I couldn’t pass up Wine, Tunes & Classics. The wineries of Lake County had put together this event, which was to be held at the California Automobile Museum in Sacramento. The museum is open year-round and has a fine permanent collection of cars. They also feature rotating exhibits and on this day they were to be celebrating the opening of Elegance in Motion: Cars of the Golden Age. Lake County wineries would be pouring. There would be some food and a live band, too. I had not visited a vineyard or winery in Lake County in a couple of years and it had been even longer since I’d been to the museum. It was time.
Entering the museum I hear music coming from an adjacent room. The band isn’t playing the music of the age of elegance defined by the automobiles featured, but it s playing music I remember—tunes from the 50s and 60s. Happy music.
Winery pouring tables are arrayed against the walls of the main hall around the centerpiece exhibit, the roped-off display of these gorgeous cars that were joining the museum’s ongoing collection through October 13th. When I get to the rope I am nose-to-nose with a Cadillac. It is a blue four-door convertible, a 1939 model, I think. It seems as big as a float in the Rose Parade. Years earlier when I acquired a pre-owned Coupe de Ville with a 500-cubic inch V8 engine, I thought I was really styling. This blue beauty is a V16 and way cooler.
Inside the ropes there are other examples of this Golden Age of motoring, many whose names might be unfamiliar these days: Stutz, Deusenberg, Hispano-Suiza, Cord, Auburn, La Salle, Pierce Arrow, Packard—they might not be in motion, but they are undeniably elegant.
Driving down to this event I was thinking about Lake County. My first awareness of the wines was probably the Kendall Jackson Chardonnay that made such a spectacular debut 30 years ago. In those days the winery was in Lakeport. K-J has since become hugely successful, moved to Sonoma County and now sources grapes from all over the state. A few years later I was attending a dinner at the Buena Vista . Their Sauvignon Blanc was wonderful. Winemaker Jill Davis said that the grapes came not from the winery’s own estate in Sonoma, but from Lake County. The wine had a purer expression of fruit than I had ever experienced with this variety. So I began paying more attention to Lake County.
When compared to the wine experience in neighboring Napa and Sonoma, Lake County has always been sort of a stepchild. It doesn’t have the cachet of these regions, but important things are going on there. If those bent on making a lifestyle statements aren’t developing vineyards and wineries in Lake County, savvy professionals in the wine business are.
I thought of Lake County people I had met over the years. I knew that some, like the late Bob Romougiere, wouldn’t be in attendance. Orville and Karen McGoon had sold their Guenoc property a few years ago and presumably were living in happy retirement. The Holdenreids of Wildhurst Winery were among the first Lake County vintners I had met years ago. Might they be here? How about Jerry Brassfield and Kaj Ahlmann? They own neighboring properties (Brassfield Estates and Six Sigma) and Don Neal, another writer, and I had enjoyed an overhead tour of their vineyards in Jerry’s helicopter a few years ago. As it turns out, many of the people in my Lake County memories aren’t at this tasting. But most are still alive, at least, and still in the wine business. If I won’t be renewing old acquaintances, I’ll enjoy making new ones.
I see a name I recognize, if not a face. The sign says Rosa d’Oro Vineyards and I remember that they had sent wine samples for review a few years ago. The recollection is less than vivid, but I’m pretty sure that I liked their wines. I meet owner Nick Buttitta, who is pouring several of his wines, one of which is a Barbera, a variety that appeals to both of us. After some talk about farming and food-friendly wines, we realize that we’ll both be at the upcoming Barbera Festival in Amador County and decide to continue our conversation there.
Jed Steele is likely the longest-serving and best-known Lake County winemaker. One of the bottles on the table under the sign reading Steele Wines is a Zinfandel labeled “Writer’s Block.” Of course I want to know more, but Jed isn’t here and the women pouring, while very attractive, are considerably less knowledgeable than he is. The wine is tasty, but since it takes me two weeks to begin this article, a sip of Writer’s Block doesn’t appear to be an antidote for the condition.
At the Alienor table I meet owners Bonnie and David Weiss. David explains that they are involved primarily in the grape farming part of the operation. They are pouring a nice Sauvignon Blanc and their 2008 Grand Vin, an excellent proprietary blend, which seems very right bankish to me. Bonnie seems pleased that I have noticed and says that it is mostly Merlot and Cabernet Franc and that a St. Emilion style is the intention of the winemaker.
In the two to three hours available to me I try to hit every one of the 19 winery tables. This would be difficult enough to accomplish, even without the distractions of the band and all those beautiful cars. As I appear in front of one table, the pourer and I do double takes, both thinking something like, “Don’t I know you?” We share similar handles, his a first name and mine a surname. Clark Smith is a triple-threat performer in the wine game—a winemaker, an adjunct professor and an author (his Postmodern Winemaking is being published this summer) . We talk about the Diamond Ridge Vineyards Cabernet Franc and the composition of the 2008 “Aspects” he is pouring and the advantages of Lake County vineyards. He’s damned knowledgeable about the winemaking process and often looks at issues in ways that fascinate me, yet seem to be just slightly beyond my ability to fully understand. Sometimes I feel that if I have one more glass of wine, I’ll get it. On the other hand, maybe one less would clear the path to my enlightenment.
At another table I make the acquaintance of Bill Brunetti, and though he doesn’t seem to have any direct connection to the winery for which he is pouring, he really knows about vineyards and wineries in the area and knows most of the people I mention having met from earlier visits. Turns out he is a Member of the Board of the Lake County Wine Grape Commission.
Bullion Creek Vineyards is another operation unfamiliar to me, but at their table I meet proprietor Richard Brand. He and his wife Gail grow Cabernet Sauvignon grapes on the north side of Mount St. Helena in the Middletown area. He pours me a taste of their estate-bottled Cab and we spend some time discussing grape growing. Since his property is in the southern part of the county and not too far from Guenoc, I ask if he knew Orville and Karen, the former owners. He did and says to the best of his knowledge they are fully retired and living in Hawaii. Richard concurs when I say they were nice people. He tells me that in addition to their public involvement in ways civic and philanthropic, Orville contributed anonymously to many families in the area when they were in need.
Part of me thinks it would be just fine to stick around. The winery folks are convivial people and the tasters are becoming ever more so as the afternoon moves into evening. The band still sounds good. The finger food served to pair with some of the wines has been excellent and there may yet be some more of it. A few of the docents from the museum are here and could answer my questions about the cars. But timing an exit can be tricky business. I decide to leave on a high note and know that I’ll return to both the California Automobile Museum and to the wine country of Lake County.
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