Vintners Hall of Fame 2013: A Vote Of Thanks… But Sorry Guys, That’s All I Got

Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.  Hate me because I refuse to vote.

For anything, ever.  Not for Prom Queen in twelfth grade, not for City Sewer Commissioner even though I personally covet the title, not for the American Idol fap-off and no—since you ask—I have never registered to vote in any presidential election since I turned 18.

Sorry, all you flag-waving ‘it’s-your-duty’ and ‘well, then you have no right to complain’ patriots:  It isn’t and I do so.

My duty is to love my family, that’s it—and if I complain because the mail carrier is four minutes late, I sure the hell am going to bitch if a war in the Middle East escalates despite the ineffable immorality of waging it in the first place.

And anyway, I don’t find politicians to be credible leaders—under any circumstances.  As for voting for ‘the lesser of two evils’?  That still counts as casting a conscious vote for evil, right?  I mean, how hungry would you have to be to eat the ‘less rotten of two batches of putrefying hamburger’?  And frankly, when it comes to the bullshit spewed by both Presidential candidates, I’m pretty full.

Vintners Hall of Fame

So, that’s why I was surprised to learn that I am an unwitting member of the Vintners Hall of Fame Electoral College,eligible to vote in the upcoming election to determine who gets inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame next February.  I received a ballot and instructions from my man and former neighbor Michael Wangbickler of Balzac Communications, who obviously takes his communication gig seriously since he continues to communicate with me even though I am constantly making jokes about the name ‘Balzac’.

Michael, dear boy, the truth of the matter is that I am no more qualified to cast a valid vote in this contest than I am electing someone to the Ice Sledge Hockey Hall of Fame.  I know who most of the candidates are, but as to who made the greatest contributions to the California wine industry in any area of achievement?  Your guess is as good as mine.  Strike that—it’s better than mine.  That is, if I voted in the first place.  Which I don’t.

Therefore, I suppose I do the Wide World of Wine Wankery a better service if instead of pulling an eeny meenie miney mekka lekka hi mekka hiney ho on the ballot, I instead offered up brief biographies of who is in the running and why they drew a spot on what I assume is a coveted and perhaps ego-balming list:

Cesar Chavez

Cesar Chavez, 1927 – 1993:  If you were going to render unto Cesar what is Cesar’s, topping the list would be the gratitude of thousands of members of United Farm Workers in California; his advocacy was instrumental in the creation and passing of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which extended collective bargaining rights to farm workers.

The wrong Peter Marshall

I like this guy if for no other reason that a lot of Christian evangelists hate him: Peter Marshall (the Texas minister, not the Hollywood Squares host) said: “Chavez is hardly the kind of role model that ought to be held up to our children as someone worthy of emulation…”

Not worthy of emulation, Pete?

Let’s see: A man who advocated for the poor, believed in the worth of the individual, undertook a number of spiritual fasts… oh, hang on.  That was Jesus.

Narsai David:  The renaissance man of all things culinary, David founded his gastronomic empire in 1972 with the Potluck Restaurant, moving  on to the Kensington hotspot Narsai’s.  Having been on the front lines of an all-California wine list, featuring such small estates as Stony Hill in Napa Valley and verticals from the mainstays like Beaulieu Vineyard, Schramsberg and Louis Martini, it followed that he’d ultimately want to open his own winery.  And sure enough, he bottles Napa wines under the Narsai David Estates label while growing for a number of other (unnamed) producers.

In addition, he’s a popular radio personality, where, on KCBS Radio in San Francisco he shares his years of wit, wine and wisdom.

Big ol’ Gary

Gary Eberle:  Calling Eberle ‘The Father of Paso Robles Appellation’ would not be in total left field; he was instrumental in creating and assembling the required documentation to satisfy the AVA autocrats.  Among the first vintner to open shop in Paso Robles, Eberle has developed not only a huge and loyal following, but also an enviable reputation as a mentor to the more than two hundred wineries that now call the appellation home.

Eberle gets bonus points for the single most convoluted path to winemaking I’ve yet heard:  A star defensive end for Papa Joe at Penn State (a good candidate, in case some empty PSU monument space happens to become available), he was pursuing a doctorate in Zoology at LSU when the wine bug bit him.  He wound up graduating from U.C. Davis’s winemaking doctoral program, thus making him the only person in the United States who can legitimately wear the title ‘Dr. Party Animal’.

Meredith ‘Merry’ Edwards:  Talk about an enfant terrible—Merry Edward’s UC Davis thesis on the dangers of using lead in wine capsules had such an impact on the industry that the practice was discontinued.  At graduation, she became vocal enough about the university’s male-centered job placement program for graduating enologists that they changed it. Then, apprenticing with Dick Graff at Mount Eden Vineyards, she began research into pinot noir clones, and wound up with one of the first Davis clones (#37) named after her.

From there, she helped found Matanzas Creek Winery, then moved on to Pellegrini Family Vineyards and Liparita Cellars, ultimately  starting her own eponymous, pinot noir-focused label in 1997, adding a highly acclaimed, barrel-fermented sauvignon blanc in 2001.

L.: André Tchelistcheff. R.: Not André Tchelistcheff

Mary Ann Graf:  As dominant a female figure as Merry Edwards has been on the California wine scene, she really plays second fiddle to Mary Ann Graf, the first woman to earn a UC Davis enology degree, the the first woman on the board of directors of the American Society for Enology and Viticulture—in fact, she’s been referred to as ‘the first woman winemaker of the modern era in California’.

And yet, in many ways, her career is one of contradictions.  Mentored by the legendary  André Tchelistcheff, arguably America’s greatest winemaker, she also walked the alleys on other other side of the tracks—she was instrumental in the creation of Annie Green Springs wine, which was pretty much a poor man’s Ripple.  Predictably, she named it after a woman.

L.: Jerry Lohr. R.: Not Jerry Lohr.

Jerry Lohr:  For a North Dakota farm boy with a degree in civil engineering, Jerry Lohr—who manages seven wineries including his own J. Lohr—hasn’t done too badly in climbing the ladder of the California wine hierarchy.

It’s likely because he’s always been looking toward the stars—prior to becoming involved in wine, he was a scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center in the San Francisco Bay Area.  And as if tending 1,300 acres of wine grapes in Monterey County, 2,300 acres in Paso Robles, and 35 acres in Napa Valley isn’t enough, last year, he bought a 1,280-ranch at San Miguel where he plans to plant additional vineyards next year.

Here’s a guy who does more before 9 AM than the Marines do all day.

Bob and Steve Miller:  If there’s a common denominator in all these profiles, it’s an unshakeable conviction as to the potential of various California wine growing regions—frequently formed before vines were even planted.

Bob and Steve Miller are perfect examples of this confidence.

In 1969, when they bought the land that became Bien Nacido Vineyard the few vineyards in Santa Barbara County—nearly all of those south of the Santa Cruz Mountains, in fact—were farmed for volume, not quality.  Farmers first and winemakers second, the brothers set out to plant the best available clones, and were among the first to realize that pinot noir and chardonnay would do well in Santa Barbara’s cool climate.  Syrah, planted in 1980, was another purple-colored feather in their cap.

But perhaps most commendable of all was the Miller’s encouragement of custom farming on their land, and the construction of a pair of fully equipped wineries, allowing start-up winemakers the ability to create estate wines.  Today, three of the top names in the area— Au Bon Climat, Qupé and Tantara—make use of them.

Robert Parker Jr.:  Who (even wine writers that get paid by the word) could say something about RPJ that hasn’t been said a dozen times before?

Not me.  So, I distill my thoughts about the man, his tastes and ‘Parkerization’ into a single sentence:

Robert Parker Jr. did more than anyone alive to make wine criticism a legitimate profession instead of another ratchet in the toolbox of distributors, so he gets a lifetime pass from me for anything else he might do.

Vince Petrucci:  I may not be hot for teacher, but this is one hot teacher; during his 45 years at CSU-Fresno, Professor Petrucci essentially built the enology and viticulture program from the ground up.

As his just reward for his service, upon retiring his professorship in 1994, Petrucci became an emeritus scholar at the university, and in 2009, received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the California State Fair.

Among a roster of heartwarming quotes attributed to the eighty-something mentor, one of the heartwarmingest involves his original appointment at what was then Fresno State College:

“Why was I chosen over a number of better-qualified applicants?  I was the only one who could drive a tractor.”

Belle (1920-2007) and Barney (1920-2008) Rhodes:  Belle and Barney were legends; to Napa what the Kennedys are to Massachusetts, only without the scandals.  To mention that they were the proprietors of Bella Oaks Vineyard, one of the Valley’s top cabernet sauvignon vineyards, scarcely scratches the surface.  Equally, they were world-renowned wine collectors, but more to the point, extremely generous philanthropists.

A former dermatologist, Barney Rhodes did a rake-hell career turn in 1959 when he purchased an old prune orchard west of Oakville, ripped out the trees and planted twelve acres of cabernet sauvignon.  They then sold those acres to Tom and Martha May, who christened it Martha’s Vineyard… a name which drips with Napa cab quality.

Buying another prune orchard, the Rhodes’s launched their flagship wine, Bella Oaks; and in the meantime, gained a reputation for this support—both moral and financial—of a number of start-up ventures.

Angelo Sangiacomo: The Sangiacomo family is a California landmark; they’ve been raising fruit in the loamy Sonoma soil for nearly a century.  In the late 1960’s wine pioneer Angelo began to plant wine grapes, and by the 1980’s, virtually all the fruit trees had been replaced.

A strong proponent of sustainability, the entire Sangiacomo family has made a commitment to raising produce with the least impact on the environment; this involves, in the main, reducing inputs so that the vines ripen with as little manipulation as possible.  And where some human involvement is necessary, it is—as often as it can be—just that: Grapes are hand-harvested and the soil tilled with devotion borne of four generations of Sangiacomo.

Frank Schoonmaker, 1905 – 1976:  The grandfather of all modern-day wine writers, Schoonmaker’s influence over American tastes was, for decades, unparalleled.  Teaming up with fellow writer Alex Lichine, he was influential in leading Burgundy lovers away from négociant offerings and toward estate-bottled wine; likewise, he may be credited (without exaggeration) with having come up with the idea that California wines could be marketed under the name of a varietal rather than the then-pervasive tradition of using semi-generic European names like ‘Hearty Burgundy’ and ‘Rhine’.

His books, including Complete Wine Book (1934) and  Frank Schoonmaker’s Encyclopedia of Wine (1964) are considered classics, although the former may be seen in a somewhat humorous light, considering that he (rightly) tears the wines of California a new you-know-what; a scenario he was later instrumental in changing.

L.: Jed Steele. R.: Not Jed Steele

Jed Steele: The Man of Steele, impervious to early criticism that his favored wine regions Mendocino and Lake County were unknown and unproven and that his reputation-forming varietal, zinfandel, was not a noble one, has gone on to not only prove the nay-sayers wrong, but to win nearly all of them over to the sunny side of the street.

Despite his love for zinfandel, Steele may be best remembered for putting chardonnay on the map as America’s top selling white.  As winemaker for Kendall-Jackson, he vinified with a bit of residual sugar, tapping into the country’s sweet tooth.

A textbook wine pioneer, rather than resting on his KJ laurels, Steele left after a decade to pursue his own label, Steele Wines, which of late has been producing the remarkable Shooting Star Lake County Sauvignon Blanc using unique yeast strains and resulting in one of the best California sauvignon blancs of all time.

Bob Thompson:  As a wine writer, I am soul-level gratified to see the number of my colleagues—betters—nominated to the Hall of Fame.  Thompson’s The California Wine Book (1976), written in conjunction with Hugh Johnson, likely sits on the shelf of every serious student of New World wine in the country.

Having entered the vocation in 1961 as an editor at Sunset Books, where he wrote about wine, food and gardening, he went on to become one of the world’s most elegant scribes on all things varietal, with a particular poetic bent toward pinot noir.

Brad Webb, (1922-1977): A great name to round out the list.  Whereas the other HoF candidates are known for pioneering derring-do, creative writing or child prodigy inventiveness, Webb’s contribution to California’s wine world may be seen from the technical side.  One of the first winemakers to embrace the theoretical advances at UC Davis during the fifties and sixties, as winemaker at Hanzell Winery in Sonoma, he was able through the auspices of owner J.D. Zellerbach to employ such then-revolutionary techniques as jacketed stainless steel fermentation and storage tanks, redesigned crushers in stainless steel, novel uses of inert gases and selected yeast strains for diverse varietal grapes.

A founding partner of Freemark Abbey Winery in 1967, he continued to consult with a number of other New Wave including Lee Stewart’s original Souverain and later Souverain Rutherford.

One Response to Vintners Hall of Fame 2013: A Vote Of Thanks… But Sorry Guys, That’s All I Got

  1. Thanks for the article, Chris.I won’t harp on you too badly for not voting, since you wrote some of the best bios for these folks I’ve seen. They all deserve respect and recognition for their accomplishments. I think you may be more qualified than you give yourself credit for, but respect your right NOT to vote. Cheers!

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