1972 was the year Californian winemaking began in earnest. Thirty years on, PAUL FRANSON finds out why.
This year is the 30th anniversary of a remarkable year in California, the year when more important wineries were formed than during any other year in 300 years of winemaking. And though 30 years may seem trivial against Europe’s history, 1972 had a profound impact on California wine.Two wineries founded in that year, Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, changed the course of California winemaking in Steven Spurrier’s famous ‘Judgment of Paris’ tasting four years later, when they shocked the wine world by beating the best wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy. 1972 was the year that oilman Tom Jordan started Jordan winery, which would become a favourite of President Ronald Reagan. It also saw the birth of cult favourites Burgess Cellars, Diamond Creek and Silver Oak, as well as Carneros Creek, Clos du Val and Dry Creek Vineyards. All are still owned by their founders. Other important wineries established in that year include Franciscan and Mount Veeder; Edmeades, owned by Kendall-Jackson; and Stags’ Leap Winery, owned by Beringer Blass. The timing wasn’t just coincidence.
In 1966, Robert Mondavi created the first new winery in California since the end of Prohibition in 1933, and it was clear, six years later, that he was making fine wines. ‘Bob Mondavi must be the greatest salesman who ever lived,’ says Jim Barrett, founder of Chateau Montelena. ‘We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him.’ Likewise, the California-boosting Bank of America issued a glowing report about the future of the wine business, a report that inspired an influential article in The Wall Street Journal. Suddenly wine lovers realised that they might be able to live their love. ‘A lot of those wineries may have been due to the Bank of America,’ admits Dave Stare, owner of Dry Creek Vineyards. The Boston-born engineer was working in market research when he met eastern US winemaker Philip Wagner and soon planted 40 French-American hybrid grapes. He admits the wine he made was terrible, but it sparked his interest. He moved to Germany and learned more, then spent two weeks in Bordeaux and Burgundy, deciding to move to France and make wine. Then the article appeared in the Wall Street Journal, and he had an epiphany. Abandoning his aspirations in France, he moved west, attended the University of California at Davis and settled on Dry Creek Valley, with its 130 years of winemaking history and affordable land. Stare bought 28ha (hectares) of run-down prune orchards in 1970, cleared them to plant grapes and made his first wine in 1972.
Today the winery makes about 130,000 cases per year, with Sauvignon Blanc its signature wine, though its Zinfandel and Cabernet are growing. Tom Burgess also credits the Bank of America for his winery.’ The Bank’s report was the straw that broke the camel’s back,’ he says. ‘It convinced my Dad to become my silent partner and invest in a winery.’ Burgess’ interest began when he was an Air Force pilot flying from nearby Travis Air Base and taking trips to Napa Valley in off hours. ‘My visits moved from the tasting room to real estate offices and farm advisors.’ Burgess bought his hillside property in 1972 when then-occupant Souverain moved into what is now the Rutherford Hill Winery built by contractor Joseph Phelps. The property and its odd lot of vines was in terrible shape, but Burgess restored it over time, using the opportunity presented by severe drought and phylloxera to replant his vineyards to Cabernet.
Successful oilman Tom Jordan also acknowledges the Wall Street Journal article. In the late 1960s and 1970s, visits to France turned him into a Francophile. ‘I thought it would be fun to make French-style wine in California,’ he says. Applying his scientific background, he investigated climates and soils, deciding that the Napa and Alexander Valleys could make superior wines. He started buying land and planting grapes in 1972, with his first harvest in 1976 and first sales in 1980. In 1980, newly elected Reagan praised his wine, choosing it for highly visible dinners. ‘It all fell in my lap,’ says Jordan. ‘I couldn’t have orchestrated it if I had wanted to.’ The winery makes about 70,000 cases of Cabernet and Chardonnay yearly.
Jordan started the winery as a new interest, but he emphasises that it was an economic undertaking. ‘It’s a business, and a very successful one,’ he adds. Financial interests also introduced Jim Barrett to the wine business, but he stayed for the wine, not just the business. In 1961 Barrett was a successful lawyer running a large law firm in Los Angeles, helping developers pave the landscape with shopping malls. ‘I had 26 lawyers and 100 other employees on staff, but I wasn’t having much fun,’ he admits. A weekend in wine country planted the bug, and Barrett soon owned the rundown Chateau Montalena, north of Calistoga. He also bought 40ha of adjacent rundown vineyards, planted with unsuitable grapes.’My friends said I was an incurable romantic,’ he says. ‘They also thought I was committing financial suicide.’
Barrett kept his day job, persuading seller Lee Passage to manage the property in exchange for part ownership. Barrett didn’t quit the law firm until 1976. For Montelena, of course, the turning point was the Paris Tasting, where a Chardonnay made by Croatian immigrant Mike Grgich beat top Burgundian wines. Ironically, though Chardonnay won that tasting, Barrett’s heart is in Cabernet. Now made by Jim’s son Bo, who’s married to wine angel Heidi Peterson, it is a balanced, food-oriented wine of elegance and power. The other winery to soar after the Paris Tasting was Warren Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. Unlike some of the others who founded wineries in 1972, Winiarski came to Napa primarily for the lifestyle. A Midwestern teacher, he arrived in 1964, working first at Souverain, then for Robert Mondavi, as he learned on the job. He bought the Hyde prune orchard in Stags Leap district in 1970, using the Bank of America report to convince investors.
Winiarski sought to make soft, opulent wines, not the tannic blockbusters then in style. ‘We sought richness without weight,’ he says, ‘like a rich Bordeaux.’ The Cabernet Sauvignon that won the Paris tasting was the first from his new winery, the second crop from the vineyard. The results made him an instant success, and inspired continuing improvement. ‘It gave us new horizons and aspirations,’ he says.
The french way
Bordelais Bernard Portet is perhaps unique among the class of 1972. From a long wine heritage, he was hired to scour the world for a suitable site for a winery, settling on Napa Valley. He co-founded Clos du Val in 1972, having earlier bought and planted land at the south end of Stags Leap district. It was then the most southerly – and the coolest – Cabernet Sauvignon planting. In the early years, there was a spirit Portet hadn’t seen in France. When his press broke down, Francis Mahoney of Carneros Creek, another 1972 pioneer, brought him a press. When a pump broke, Bob Mondavi lent him one. ‘There was tremendous goodwill and sharing. In France, no one would lend equipment to a competitor.’ Caymus Cellars was started by local farmer Charlie Wagner, whose father made wine before Prohibition. In 1941, he bought land in Rutherford that is now the site of the winery, with prunes, walnuts and the other crops that then filled the valley. He gradually replaced the orchards with 22ha of vines, selling the fruit while making homemade wine. In 1971, his son Chuck graduated from high school and persuaded his father to go into the wine business. They discovered Cabernet Sauvignon was among their 12 varieties. Chuck now runs the business, and the firm makes about 30,000 cases a year.
Other wineries from 1972 have good stories, too. Karl Doumani, a Los Angeles restaurant owner, seeking a weekend home, bought 162ha and a ruined hotel he dubbed Stags’ Leap Winery, to the confusion of wine drinkers and displeasure of Warren Winiarski. He sold out to Beringer in 1997. Francis Mahoney was an importer of Burgundian wines, and started Carneros Creek to make wines in that style. Another Irish-American, Jim Sullivan, founded his winery in Rutherford the same pivotal year.
Canadian investors created Franciscan to produce simple wines, selling to a team that included Chilean vintner Agustin Huneeus – Huneeus turned it into a quality producer. The winery later acquired Mount Veeder (also founded in 1972), then sold to giant Constellation Brands in 1998. Huneeus kept exquisite Quintessa Vineyards as his own. It is not surprising that so many people were attracted to the lifestyle of a Napa Valley vintner 30 years ago, but perhaps native Chuck Wagner best sums up their experience: ‘I never realised the wine business would be so wonderful.’
Paul Franson is based in California.
Written by PAUL FRANSON