California Grape Rush
BEYOND the leading edge of the United Mainliner’s glistening aluminum wing the Sacramento hills appear from a height of four or five thousand feet like a reduced topographical model in low relief over which a bolt or two of green billiard cloth has been thrown at random. Here and there on the discreetly suggested contours of this slow-motion panorama are darker patches reminiscent of carelessly sprinkled parsley. As the plane loses altitude the steady purr of the motors grows dimmer. The baize carpet beneath ends abruptly as we slide above the toy houses of Oakland and skim out over the quiet waters of San Francisco Bay. To the west a gossamer silhouette, the Golden Gate Bridge profiled against the afternoon sun, and in the middle distance, floating dubiously in the pink haze, the Rock of Alcatraz. A wide turn around the headland. Above the control-room door the illuminated sign ‘Fasten Safety Belts — No Smoking’ glows dully. As we dip sharply over the highway, miniature cars scuttle off from under the wings. The plane levels out, hangs suspended over the racing concrete runway, and gently scrunches to a pretty three-point landing.
Along with the usual cargo of salesmen, valetudinarians, ex-European travelers, and home-winging picture stars, each arriving air liner and Super-Chief has lately been in the habit of discharging upon the Pacific shores a new kind of quota — the Eastern wine importers. In fewer hours than it took the original Forty-niners weeks, or even months, the Eastern wine men, shorn by the misfortunes of war of a substantial part of their accustomed European wares, converge hopefully upon the vineyards of the West Coast. The California grape rush is on.
Unfortunately — or perhaps fortunately — the wine grape, so far as its higher manifestations are concerned, has invariably refused to be rushed, and to this fundamental verity the Sun-kissed State, though in many ways peculiarly blessed by nature, has proved no exception, as Easterners and Westerners alike are beginning to discover. Viticulturally speaking, California divides itself roughly into three principal regions: the Southern Counties, from San Diego to Los Angeles; the Central District, which includes the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys; and the Northern Coast Counties radiating from San Francisco Bay. Quantitatively the first two regions are by far the most important, accounting for the lion’s share of California’s total annual production, which last year ran over a hundred million gallons — more wine, that is, than is produced in the whole of Germany, more than four fifths of the total wine production of the United States, and more than thirty times as much as the combined wine importations from all other countries.
While nearly three quarters of the total produce of California’s five hundred odd wineries consists of so-called ‘dessert’ and ‘appetizer’ wines such as Sherry, Port, Muscatel, Angelica, and the like, to which brandy is added during fermentation, quantity production methods, which largely prevail in the Southern and Central districts, are also applied, often with considerable success, to the making of ‘table wanes’ — that is, wines which derive their alcohol entirely from their own fermentation and which are generally blended to standard types and sold, as in the case of the fortified wines, under European geographical designations such as Claret, Burgundy, Sauterncs, Chablis, Moselle, and so forth. Such unpretentious inexpensive table wines, so called because primarily intended for consumption during meals, form the greater portion of the commercial wines of the world. As the backbone of the natural wine trade they are not to be sniffed at, and if this sounds ambiguous let it be remembered that where there are no type wines at the base of the viticultural pyramid there are no Mouton-Rothschilds and Romanee-Contis at the top. Frenchmen consume fifty times as much anonymous vin ordinaire as they do the truly vins fins, and it is because they do, and have always done so, that there has come about the gradual evolution of those individual growths which after a long and arduous process of trial and error have brought to successful flowering the inherent qualities of some one informing variety of grape conditioned by specific environment. Such wines, the great wines of France, constitute less than 2 per cent of her annual vinous production, but without the other 98 per cent they could not conceivably have come into existence, nor, since everything is relative, would they be rightly appraised for what they are — rare works of art for rare and special occasions. Rendering therefore unto the commercial blends their just due, let us ascend the as yet uncompleted steps of the California pyramid.
If the great interior valleys and southerly regions are well adapted to the making of standardized types, — and they are, — it is principally to the more temperate and variable climates and exposures of the Coast Counties around San Francisco Bay that, the seeker after individualized wanes will presumably direct his steps. Even before alighting from the transcontinental flight whereby in less time than it takes the earth to complete a single revolution one is wafted across a dozen states, countless cities and towns, rivers, deserts, and mountain ranges, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, one receives at least a hint as to some of the factors that go into making these Bay Counties the cradle of California’s quality wines. Really fine wines are generally produced from those less prolific or ‘shy-bearing’ grape species that give out their qualitative best in relatively infertile rocky soil in districts of moderate rainfall and temperature where the winters are not too severe and the summers not too hot. As has been indicated, these conditions in California are most nearly approximated in the counties abutting on San Francisco Bay — Sonoma and Napa to the north, to the southeast the Livermore Valley in Alameda County, and to the south the Santa Cruz Mountains and Santa Clara. Nestled between the coastal ranges that roughly parallel the ocean shore and afford protection from storm and fog, these districts are blessed with advantageous exposures and excellent air drainage from the temperate breezes entering the Bay to fan out in all directions in a manner made to order. Scattered about in propitious locations in the above-named counties there exist today a dozen or more wineries whose courage and foresight in deliberately sacrificing quantity to quality augur well for the future of fine wines on the West Coast.
The going, as I have elsewhere observed,1 has not been easy. It has been a long row to hoe, and the end is not yet. Its beginnings go back to the early sixteenth century, to the days of Cortez and the Franciscan Padres tending their Mexican vines. As the Missions crept northward, the wine grape naturally came along too, and such is the historical affinity between the Church and the vine that one is hardly surprised to learn that the first vineyard to be established in California proper was that of the Mission San Diego, founded in 1769. Others followed, and in time the chain extended well north of what is now San Francisco. If, however, the Church must properly and appropriately be credited with introducing the vine into California, — as into so many other lands, — its subsequent development is more largely due to the restless zeal and tireless efforts of those rugged individualists who in the ‘50s and ‘60s of the following century came to California on the heels of the gold rush and quite literally sowed the seeds of the West Coast wine industry as we now know it. To that amazing Hungarian, Count Haraszthy, whose whirlwind tour of the European vineyards, from which he returned to Sonoma County with 200,000 cuttings, endowed his adopted state with over three hundred grape varieties; to Burgundian Charles Lefranc, who introduced the plants nobles of his native Côte d’Or to the somewhat less golden slopes of Santa Clara; to Frank Stock, the German settler who is said to have brought the first Rieslings to Napa County; to Groezinger, quondam headwaiter at Delmonico’s; to George Beach, the Connecticut Yankee of Feather River — to these, and doubtless to many another of the eclectic and catholic pioneers who in a double sense brought the old world to the new, may justly be ascribed the definite orientation of California viticulture, that of adapting to its own soil and climate a wide variety of European grapes. Here and now their roots are in the ground, and their spirit pervades the land.
Our first day in the Napa Valley was spent by my wife and myself with our friend John Daniel, proprietor of the Inglenook Vineyard at Rutherford. In the picturesque ivy-covered winery we tasted his 1940’s and 1939’s — a halfdozen reds of each year and several whites. Of the latter the most attractive was a Pinot de la Loire made from a variety of the Pinot grape grown in Anjou and faintly reminiscent of some of the wines of the Côte de Layon near Saumur. But the forte, it seemed to me, of this particular vineyard was its red wines: the clean straightforward Zinfandel, from the grape whose exact origin is unknown but which has long been recognized as producing in favorable surroundings a sound respectable table wine; the Gamay, a grape despised by the swells of the Côte d’Or but which in the Beaujolais (e.g. Moulin-à-Vent) and in California can and does make a strikingly individual wine; the black Pinot, which in Napa hardly produces a Chambertin or Musigny but nevertheless has that roundness of flavor peculiar to its Burgundian prototype; and finally the Cabernet, which perhaps more closely resembles its original, the informing vine of the great châteaux of Bordeaux, than any other California red wine.
None of these wines are great wines, but I am quite prepared to make the prediction that with two or three years of maturing in oaken cooperage of reasonably small size (as against the all-tooprevalent custom of allowing California wines to remain in large redwood vats for indefinite periods), followed by a year or two of bottle-age, these sturdy young specimens, labeled — as I am glad to say they will be — under their place and grape name, will prove something of a revelation to those connoisseurs of imported wines who still labor under the impression that only nondescript and overstandardized wines come out of the West.
As we were leaving, my wife asked Daniel if he went in for the distillation of brandy.
‘No,’ he said; 4my great-uncle closed down the still in the early nineties some time before he died.’
This great-uncle, Captain Gustave Nybom, skipper out of Helsingfors, Alaskan fur trader, linguist and bibliophile, was, it seems, a decided character and one who retained to the end something of the non-appeasement attitude of his native Finland. When a federal excise agent put in a routine appearance to check the output of his still, the Captain turned the key in the lock, threw it into the river, and abandoned distilling for good and all.
‘Too much government interference,’ he said.
And that was in the comparatively gay nineties.
Before taking to the high road for San Francisco we stopped for a moment at the adjoining property to call on our friend the Marquis de Pins, son-in-law of Mrs. Georges de Latour, the affable and energetic lady who, with the assistance of her gendre recently returned from France, continues to carry on the high traditions of the Beaulieu Vineyard founded in the early '80s by her late husband. With Pins was a visiting colleague from Beaune, and amidst the naturalized vines of old Bourgogne we spent a nostalgic half hour discussing the predicament of mutual friends on the Côte d’Or whose bitter cup it was to witness the carting off by the invading hordes of each and every cherished cobwebbed bottle.
Our next expedition was to the southeast and Alameda County. Here in the famous Livermore Valley the soil and climate are especially favorable to the growing of white wine grapes of the Sauternes type; and since from the lips of the Marquis de Lur Saluces, on his return from the West Coast last year, we had it that no wines in California more nearly resembled those of his own property, the Château d’Yquem, than the Semillons and Sauvignons of the Messrs. Wente Brothers, we lost no time in hying ourselves to their establishment in Livermore. A pleasurable and instructive morning was spent tasting the young wines, a morning in which we shared the astonishment that Lur Saluces had himself evinced: first, that through a chain of fortuitous circumstances involving a gift of vine cuttings bestowed by his grandmother, the Marquise de Lur Saluccs, upon Mr. Charles A. Wetmore during one of the latter’s visits to Bordeaux — who on returning to California presented them to his friend, the nonagenarian Mr. Louis Mel, who in turn planted them in what is today the Wente vineyard — Yquem had in fact been brought to Livermore; and secondly that the Semillon and Sauvignon grapes, which in the French Sauternais are almost always blended to produce the incomparable wines of his own and the other great châteaux, should, in California, each and separately give forth such interesting and complete wines.
And here just a word on the subject of blending. The justification for blending several varieties of grapes in the making of a given wine lies in achieving a whole that is greater than the sum of all its parts. It can be done. It is done, and with signal success, in Sherry, in Champagne, on the hill of Hermitage, and even in Bordeaux, where — as Mr. Harold Price, Honorary Secretary of the San Francisco Wine and Food Society, has justly observed — most of the great Claret châteaux soften the asperities of the Cabernet Sauvignon with a judicious touch of Malbec or Merlot, or both. With Mr. Price’s perhaps justifiable skepticism in regard to what may appear to him as the almost puritanical insistence of certain Eastern importers on unblended wines from a single grape variety I hesitate to take issue — particularly in view of his generosity in sharing with my wife and myself a bottle of his surprising 1892 California Claret and a still youthful 1907 Sauternes of serene charm. Both of these remarkable wines were undoubtedly blends, and both presented a strong case for the blender’s art. Nevertheless the fact remains that the prevalent California custom of blending numerous varieties of high-yield grapes with the avowed and fully justifiable purpose of producing standardized type wines has, while performing a necessary and useful function, tended to create the impression among drinkers of imported vintages that, all California wines are just staple commodities.
This is simply not so. California is more than a wine region — it is a wine country, potentially capable of producing as many variet ies and degrees of wine as France itself. To those who may, and probably will, doubt this statement I would urge a visit to the University of California at Davis, near Sacramento. If Professor Winkler and Dr. Amerine, guiding spirits of the invaluable Department of Œnology, are in the mood, — and they apparently always are, — you can in their agreeable company learn more in one morning about wine in general and about California wine in particular than in weeks of commercial sampling. They will lead you among the University’s vineyards in which hundreds of different varieties of the vine are being diligently studied. Here the California vintner of sufficient foresight, intelligence, and humility may learn from the vast experience of these knowledgeable savants what variety of vine is best adapted to his particular soil, exposure, and local climatic conditions.
In the cellar beneath the somewhat austere classroom in which the youth of California receive instruction in Bacchic wisdom lie scores of small oaken casks together with neatly ticketed stacks of bottles containing the hundred and fifty or so experimental vintages that each year engage the meticulous attention of these men of science. Should it seem expedient to illustrate some fine point of sugar content, total acidity, or smallcontainer vinification, Professor Winkler steps to a scholastic-looking cupboard. On the zinc-covered classroom table a triple row of glasses flash becomingly in the sunlight. Dr. Amerine’s practised hand extracts the corks of a number of flagons, and the thirster after knowledge can determine for himself what the Cabernet, the Pinot, the Semilion, and even the humbler Camay and Zinfandel can do in California under favorable conditions.
In the discovery and providing of favorable conditions for the nurturing of the great European grape varieties, I believe that the more enlightened California vintners, with the guidance of such conscientious and painstaking œnologists as make up the staff of the University of California, are well on the road to distinguished achievement in fine wine making. The West Coast Lafites, Richebourgs, Yquems, and Montrachets are still in the offing, but it would be rash to preclude their materialization. I will go further than that. I believe that the more forward-looking Californians are today possessed of the knowledge, the capability, the grapes, and the climatic conditions necessary to the making of fine wines, and that today such wines are in the process of emerging, wines of which Americans can and will be proud.
Our last day in Northern California was spent with a man and his wife whose pattern of existence seemed peculiarly enviable. In the lee of the Santa Cruz Mountains, on the upper eastern slopes of a hill that rises some two thousand feet above the lovely Santa Clara Valley, there is a vineyard. It was planted some time ago — 1852, to be exact — by the previously mentioned Monsieur Charles Lefranc. Somewhat later a Monsieur Paul Masson of the Department du Côte d’Or arrived on the West Coast. Attracted, no doubt, by what must have seemed to him the singularly familiar and salubrious atmosphere of this upland vignoble, Monsieur Masson hired out his services to the owner. Time passed on, and so did Monsieur Lefranc. Monsieur Masson, having previously had the discrimination and good sense to marry the boss’s daughter, acquired the property and became quite a figure in the community. He knew his stuff, and his wines were a good deal better than average, especially his Champagne, which was acknowledged to be the best in California.
Now somewhere along the early part of the glittering twenties a young Californian named Martin Ray took to passing by of a sunny afternoon. The place attracted him. It attracted him so much that — without, of course, any personal prejudice to Monsieur Masson — he made a mental note to remind himself that some day when he had made his pile he would ‘buy that old Frenchman out.’ Time again marched on. In San Francisco’s Wall Street, young Ray did pretty well for himself in the stock and bond business. But he kept thinking about that vineyard. Perhaps it was just spring fever, but in the early part of ‘29 he somehow didn’t quite like the feel of things. He took his profits and put them in the bank. And then along in the ‘30s he walked up to the hilltop and bought out the old Frenchman, lock, stock, and barrels. Since then the legend persists that he has remained uninterruptedly in the fastness of his mountain vineyard, where from dawn until dark, year in and year out, he labors at his vines and casks. I can’t vouch for all the details, but what I can vouch for is that his Cabernet-Sauvignon, his Pinot, both black and white varieties, his Gamay and his Champagne, are the best I tasted while in California. Over a year ago Julian Street was writing to his friends that out on the Pacific Coast a fellow called Martin Ray was doing interesting things with varietal wines. As usual, Julian, you are quite right — he certainly is.
And Ray is by no means the only one. Whether it be the Daniels and the Wentes, the Martinis and the de Latours, the Korbels and the Salminas, not to mention the MacBoyles and the Concannons and many other small houses individually striving for quality, or the great wineries like Italian-Swiss, Roma, Petri, and Fruit Industries, each of which produces over a million gallons a year — they all appear to be imbued with a common aim, that of improving their product. And not the least impressive aspect of the West Coast scene to one accustomed to the parochial and rampant individualism of some of the European wine regions is the relative harmony and spirit of coöperation prevailing in this highly competitive industry — a happy state of affairs for which, incidentally, great credit is due such constructive and conciliatory organizations as the Wine Institute, the Wine Advisory Board, and its able manager, Mr. H. A. Caddow. Like those of the pioneers of the gold-rush days, the names of California’s wine men smack of the old world, but their quite evident individual and collective determination to forge ahead together up the long hard road to high achievement provides, I think, a not uninspiring object lesson in applied Americanism.
To those who are convinced that fine wines can and will be realized in our own country the progress already made since the repeal of Prohibition is heartening indeed. There are, of course, pitfalls for the unwary, and for the conscientious no short cuts. Many problems remain to be ironed out. Take, for example, the thorny question of nomenclature. California, as distinct from the Eastern wine regions of the United States, is particularly well adapted to vinifera or European grape varieties, and of these it grows a wide assortment, ranging from the exalted Cabernet, Pinot, and other aristocrats to humble high-yield bearers such as abroad produce South of France railway-station pinard, or the hot and heady brews of Northern Africa.
While the labeling of California blended wines under European regional designations such as Claret, Burgundy, and so forth, seems not only justifiable but convenient and even appropriate, the growing tendency on the part of some of the smaller quality wineries to adopt for their better wines grape-varietal names is, I believe, an important and constructive step. However, the procedure does not in itself necessarily guarantee a superior wine. In the first place, there still exists a certain amount of quite honest confusion as regards the classification of California grape varieties, a situation, be it said, which the splendid work of the University of California is rapidly ameliorating; and secondly, present-day regulations, in many other respects admirable, require only that a wine be 51 per cent derived from a particular grape in order to carry the varietal name — and 49 per cent of some inferior grape or grapes would hardly be productive of a superlative wine. In the last analysis, then, the quality of a given wine will be determined by the knowledge and conscience of the vintner rather than (or perhaps I should say as well as) the printed matter on the label. The point is, the knowledge and the ability to make good wines are evident in California today, and, as we have seen, the soil, the climate, and the grape varieties are there.
Furthermore, public interest in our American wines is turning over in its sleep, rubbing its eyes, opening its mouth — and not in a yawn. For the enterprising and conscientious vintner, opportunity is knocking at the door. The grape rush is on, but the really good vintner, who is necessarily an agriculturist, a scientist, and an artist, knows full well that the grape cannot be rushed. It must be courted with infinite diligence, patience, and perseverance. An exigent and exacting mistress is Vitis vinifera. Doubtless her Latin blood has something to do with it.
- ‘Wine from Our Grapes,’ in theAtlantic for February 1941.↩