Wine Needs Science, Art, and a Few Heroes

When I was a young man, I got a book on sports heroes of the twentieth century. It allowed me to learn about men and women who had left a lasting mark of achievement, professionalism, and triumph on their chosen sports. People like Ben Hogan in golf, Babe Didrikson in track and field (and golf), Jackie Robinson in baseball, Jim Thorpe in track and field, and Y.A. Tittle in football. These athletes defined their point in history and made lasting contributions to their sports that live on today.

If you’ve read any of the posts contained within this blog, you’ve no doubt taken note that the humanities play a critical role in both winemaking and the enjoyment of drinking wine. There’s the history of the terroir, the poetry of the tasting notes, the music of the wind whistling through the vineyard. Wine is also about the science of tending to the root stock, pruning the vines, selecting, crushing and cellaring the grapes (perhaps using a robot in the future), producing the right blend, and so on.

As you’ve read on these pages, what you buy to drink or to give away as a hostess gift is often a by-product of a savvy wine merchant, or good winery marketing copy. But, it is rarely about the heroes, of which there are many, who have learned their craft, struggled to make their mark and who have ultimately achieved the perfect blend of grape and production method as well as humanities and sciences. I believe there are at least as many wine heroes as there are sports heroes. 

I must admit to be being inspired to think along these hero lines by a book written by Michael Chiarello titled Napa Stories. If you like big, fancy wine books I recommend this one. I read it in a single session when I received it for Christmas five or six years ago. The heroes Chiarello writes about are his arbitrary list. There are many more and heroes don’t all come from the Napa Valley. But, I think California is as good a place to start as any if you’re in search of staunch individualists who want to produce a product that is special in every way.

Welcome to Napa ValleyPicturesque Napa Valley

 My first hero is Agustin Huneeus, Sr. the founder of Quintessa and Chairman of Franciscan Estates among several other places. Agustin spent his foundational years in Chile working in vineyards and then as a managing director of South America for Seagram’s, ultimately heading worldwide operations. In 1989, he and his wife Valeria founded Quintessa on land in the Rutherford sub-appellation that Valeria discovered while studying for her Ph.D. at UC Davis. This venerable university plays a role in the foundational and scientific education of many a wine making hero. Huneeus believes the most important aspect of a wine is its “place” and he places more emphasis on this aspect of winemaking (the location) than he does on the grapes grown there. Quintessa is known for practices such as picking grapes only at night during the harvest, seeding the ground with organic material taken from animals that roam the property, and for making red wine in the Bordeaux style. The family now owns or operates differing properties, making many different varietals on several continents, proving that good winemaking knows no geographic boundaries and can come from many different types of grape varietals.

Agustin also provides a good example of sticking with what you know and love, as he has been in the winemaking business for over 50 years. I have visited Quintessa many times and I never tire of its beauty, or its attention to detail. The winery even uses  a gravity crush technique, dumping its grapes from the pickers into shafts built into the Quintessa parking lot. This is cost effective and quality producing simultaneously. 

My second hero is Heidi Peterson Barrett. Many could attempt to lay claim to the title of cult wine maker, but she is unique in being named by Robert Parker as the “first lady of wine”. Also a UC Davis grad and daughter of Napa Valley scientist and wine pioneer, Richard Peterson, Heidi is arguably best known for being the first wine maker at Screaming Eagle Winery and Vineyards. I have had Screaming Eagle twice in my life, once at my dining room table and once at a five star restaurant. Both times the experience was supported by the awareness that I was drinking wine that had an extravagant price that was happily backed up by superior taste, smell, and color. A 6-liter bottle of Screaming Eagle 1992 set the world record ever paid for a single bottle of wine ($500,000) at the Napa Valley Wine auction.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Huneeus was Chairman of this auction in 1996. Further, as a Chairman of Franciscan Wineries, he is no doubt familiar with Ms. Barrett, who went to work for Franciscan upon graduating from UC Davis in 1980 where she was in charge of the crush.

Another wine Heidi makes is called Vin Perdu. It currently occupies five slots in my cellar. This wine is refined with a dark ruby color and will last a long time, but it also has a label with a multi-faceted hologram that changes as you move the bottle. Art and science in your face. It may have helped that Ms. Barrett grew up with a scientist-father and artist-mother, but the balance between the two has led to some amazing wines.

If all of these connections are not enough to make her a wine hero, then consider her marriage to Bo Barrett, son of Jim Barrett and winemaker at Chateau Montelena, immortalized in my favorite film about winemaking, Bottle Shock, an homage to the 1976 Judgment at Paris. A little known fact is that Mike Grigch was the winemaker at Montelena at the time, and went on to make some interesting Chardonnay under his own name after that. Barrett is a solid professional, woman, and iconic producer of great wine all rolled into one. 

Last but least in my trio of heroes is Gil Nickel, proprietor of Far Niente and rescuer of the buildings and grounds of a historic Oakville Winery dating to 1885. Heroes have a sense of history, and Gil brought to this special place his scientific knowledge as a guided missile analyst for the U.S. Navy. Gil knew rockets and he also knew horticulture. Along the way, he raced vintage automobiles, built the second largest, family-owned wholesale nursery in the United States, and restored Far Niente to greatness after 60 years of dormancy.

Never content with the status quo, in 1981, Mr. Nickel led the development of the first new wine caves in North America during the twentieth century. In other heroic firsts, his winery was the first to hand sort grapes for quality and in 1983 his “piano case” was created as a special custom package that revolutionized wine auctions at the Napa Valley Wine auction.

There’s a pattern here folks, including the fact that Mr. Nickel studied enology at – you guessed it – UC Davis. In 1992, the winery packaged a single vineyard late harvest wine, Dolce. Gil’s interest in single vineyard production expanded with the creation of Nickel & Nickel in 1997, which released its first single vineyard Cabernet in 2000. Again, this hero was not only content with producing award-winning wine, he also restored the 1880’s Queen Anne style John C. Sullenger House. This farmhouse is worth a visit. When I was there, it was easy to see how Gil was named Preservationist of the Year by Napa County Landmarks in 2003.

My three heroes have more in common than a valley, a University and a love of wine. They have a spirit about them. They like being first and are known by many as pioneers. They support philanthropy, are good stewards of the lands they farm, and are unassuming should you run into them. This latter attribute is unfortunately no longer possible for Mr. Nickel, who died of cancer in 2003. They are/were comfortable in jeans, prefer family and friends to pundits, and they want people of all walks of life to enjoy their wines. Each has produced wine vintages so expensive and rare that they can be tasted by only a special few, but have all also ensured their projects have included wine produced for anybody to enjoy.

These are special people, who have created special things for all of us to imbibe. So, the next time you sit down to read about the science of winemaking, or read about the wonderful characteristics of a wine on its label or in a restaurant’s wine list, take a moment to consider the heroes that have put their minds and hearts, their souls and their personal wealth, into the products fueling your enjoyment. And then tip your glass to them.

The Author and His Heroes

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Michael is a new contributor to Making Abeille. He started out drinking $10 wine (mostly red) from a predecessor of Costco called Fedco in Southern California. Then he graduated to $20 wine from Trader Joes and never looked back. These days, the wine is a lot more than $20, but not necessarily any more enjoyable. Read more about Michael here.

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