I taught high school English in my early adult years, and during that time, I fell in love with wine. I read books and articles on wine, and attended wine courses. I knew I would devote the rest of my professional career to wine after I stopped teaching. I visited many of the leading wine regions in the world, where I was fortunate to receive first-hand information from countless winemakers. Here, I have chosen 12 winemakers and producers with whom I have been most impressed, and from whom I have learned much over the years. I tried to make it an even 10, but there’s always one or two more. A few have passed away and quite a few others have now retired, but some are still active.
From Bordeaux: I start with Bordeaux because I learned about Bordeaux first: It was clearly the most prominent fine wine in the world in the 1960s and ‘70s. I was extraordinarily fortunate because my first teacher was the legendary Bernie Fradin, owner of Quality House Wines in New York. Bernie loved wines, especially Bordeaux. He was a walking textbook on Bordeaux; every time I walked into his shop, I learned much about wines from this great man (who retired many years ago).
Bordeaux wine people have an unwarranted reputation for being formal and a bit stodgy. I have not found that to be true. In fact, one of the nicest people that I have ever met was the winemaker of Châteaux Margaux, the late Paul Pontallier. Paul joined Châteaux Margaux in 1983 as Technical Director. In 1990 the owner, Corinne Mentzelopoulos, made Pontallier Wine Director, a position he held until his untimely passing in 2016 at age 59.
Châteaux Margaux was going through a difficult period in the 1970s. This majestic wine, one of the five great First Growths of Bordeaux, was seriously under-performing. In 1977, the Mentzelopoulos family purchased Châteaux Margaux, and spent the money needed to restore this amazing estate. That purchase plus the brilliance of Pontallier brought Châteaux Margaux back to its rightful position as one of the great red wines of the world.
I loved to talk to Pontallier because he never stopped talking about Margaux, the wine he loved. I learned from Paul the three great elements of Châteaux Margaux: Perfume, elegance, and balance. Pontallier had a great sense of humor and always kept me laughing. I’ll never forget that great smile on his face. I still miss him.
From Champagne: I have always loved Champagne, and have made about 30 visits to the Champagne region over the years; and so, it was no surprise to me that five of the twelve wine people I have chosen come from Champagne. When I wrote Champagne For Dummies, my obvious choice for writing the foreword was Richard Geoffroy. Trained as a medical doctor, Geoffroy decided to make Champagne his life’s work instead. In 1990, he joined Moët & Chandon as the chef de cave of Moët’s famous prestige cuvée, Dom Pérignon. Geoffroy has been Dom Pérignon’s winemaker for 28 years. He is retiring at the end of this year.
Geoffroy introduced an important concept to Dom Pérignon, which he calls “plénitude.” Geoffroy holds back a number of bottles of Dom Pérignons from each of its vintages, and then disgorges and releases the better vintages at later dates, as the second plénitude, and another batch later still, as the third plénitude. In other words, Moët ages future Dom Pérignons for you, and releases them when they are in peak condition, ready to drink.
I have always looked forward to visiting Richard Geoffroy; he is so bright and so well-spoken. And like Paul Pontallier, he has a great sense of humor and loves to laugh. The amazing thing about the Dom, as it’s often called, is that it is always so good, even though four million bottles or more (just a guess) are produced in vintage years. How do you make a premium Champagne when you are producing so many bottles? I always try to get the information about Dom’s production out of Richard in sly ways, but he just laughs at me. At least he is retiring after making one of Dom’s greatest vintages, its 2008.
Champagne Louis Roederer has always been one of my favorite Champagne houses, especially for its prestige cuvée, Cristal. But the entire line of Louis Roederer’s Champagnes is excellent. In addition to the fact that Champagne Roederer owns about 70 percent of the vineyards whose grapes it uses (very unusual among Champagne houses), two men are mainly responsible for its excellence: Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, regarded by many critics as the finest chef de cave in Champagne, and the house’s owner, Frédéric Rouzard, a descendent of the Louis Roederer family. Jean-Baptiste is a hard-working winemaker completely devoted to producing great Champagne. For him, Cristal is in another league, emphasizing finesse and purity. I agree with him. And Cristal Rosé is the finest Rosé Champagne made, in my opinion. To spend an hour with Jean-Baptiste is to get swept up with his enthusiasm for his work. He loves what he does.
Frédéric Rouzard is the son of Jean-Claude Rouzard, a great oenologist who ran Louis Roederer for over 20 years, and the man most responsible for making Champagne Louis Roederer the elite Champagne it is today. What I like about Frédéric Rouzard is that he is a true hands-on owner. Rouzard takes part in the annual selection of wines going into Louis Roederer Champagnes; also, he convinced his chef de cave, Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, to lower the dosage of all Louis Roederer Champagnes, a decision I entirely agree with. The wines are now better than ever. Rouzard is one of the wealthiest men in France (his family owns many other wineries: in Bordeaux, the Rhône Valley, Provence, and California). Rouzard works hand and hand with Jean-Baptiste, and gives his winemaker complete freedom to make decisions. An ideal boss, you might say.
To know Christian Pol-Roger is to love him. A kinder man would be difficult to find. One of the owners of Champagne Pol-Roger, he used to travel to the U.S. frequently, and I got to know him really well; I have also been his guest in Champagne. Although Christian recently retired, I met him just last year in Epernay (Champagne). Champagne Pol-Roger’s finest wine is its prestige cuvée, “Sir Winston Churchill” -- named in honor of the great man, whose favorite Champagne was Pol-Roger. Christian would think nothing about opening some of Pol-Roger’s oldest Champagnes from his personal cellar; thanks to him, I enjoyed the 1921, 1914, and 1900 Pol-Roger Champagnes…all excellent vintages, all still showing well.
Fabrice Rosset, Chairman and CEO of Champagne Deutz, is another one of my favorite producers. He worked at Champagne Louis Roederer for 22 years and rose to Vice-President, under Jean-Claude Rouzard. Louis Roederer purchased Deutz in 1993, and in 1996 Rouzard made Fabrice Rosset its CEO. Rosset took Deutz, then a floundering house producing only 600,000 bottles a year (rather low for a renowned Champagne house) and tripled its production. Deutz is one of those quality Champagne houses running under the radar. It has always produced an excellent Brut non-vintage--with 40% reserve wines!--and a great Blanc de Blancs. Rosset was so impressed with its Blanc de Blancs, which I have always loved, that he took part of Deutz’s Chardonnay vineyards and made a prestige cuvée, Amour de Deutz. Champagne Deutz is now renowned for having three prestige cuvées: Cuvée William Deutz (strong Pinot Noir influence), Amour de Deutz Blanc de Blancs, and Amour de Deutz Rosé. Fabrice Rosset has done a great job with Champagne Deutz.
From Piedmont, Italy: France and Italy have always been my top-of-the-list wine countries; and Piedmont in northwest Italy is my favorite red wine region in the world. I love the Nebbiolo grape variety--especially in its full bloom in Barolo wines. Two Barolo winemaker/ producers stand out in my mind, both now deceased, Alfredo Currado and Giovanni Conterno.
Alfredo Currado married Luciana Vietti and took over as winemaker of Vietti wines in 1960. He and Luciana made many trips to the U.S., promoting their wines and their Langhe region (of Barolo and Barbaresco). We became dear friends of the family. Alfredo was the first to make a single-vineyard Barolo, with his incredible 1961 Barolo Le Rocche--one of the best Barolos I have ever tasted. Currado also re-discovered the forgotten Arneis white variety in 1967. He was a humble man, a visionary, and a great winemaker. Alfredo died in 2010 at 78, after a long bout with Parkinson’s disease. Of all the great wine people I have known, Alfredo remains the closest to me. I loved him, and will always remember him. Vietti wines are now in the capable hands of his son, Luca Currado.
Giovanni Conterno was the winemaker and owner of arguably Barolo’s greatest wines, Giacomo Conterno Barolos. Giovanni took over the family winery as winemaker in 1961; his younger brother, Aldo, later founded his own winery (Aldo Conterno). Giovanni is regarded as the king of traditionally made Barolo (the type which still rules today)-- along with Bartolo Mascarello, Giuseppe Rinaldi, and a few others. Giacomo Conterno’s best Barolo, Monfortino Riserva, is highly sought after, and is by far the most expensive Barolo made today ($1500 for the 2010). Giovanni passed away in 2004 at the age of 75. Like Alfredo Currado, Giovanni was a very humble, generous man, never taking credit for his great wines. If he were alive today, he would be shocked at the prices of his wines. Giacomo Conterno is now run by Giovanni’s son, Roberto Conterno. Their Barolos are still great, but expensive (Giacomo Conterno’s standard Barolo, 2012 Cascina Francia, is over $200).
Any discussion of Piedmont’s wines is incomplete without a passing tribute to Angelo Gaja and the late Bruno Giacosa, the two great producers who put Barbaresco wines on the world wine map.
From the United States: I end with four American producers whom I admire greatly, two from California and two from Oregon. Paul Draper is probably on everyone’s list as one of the top producers of California wines. Paul is now 82; he officially retired just two years ago. Draper is the winemaker responsible for producing one of California’s great Cabernet Sauvignons (arguably, the greatest), Ridge Monte Bello. Ridge’s Monte Bello is renowned worldwide; it needs no further words from me. Draper also produced Geyserville, a Zinfandel blend that brought the Zinfandel variety to new heights. Paul Draper is bright, thoughtful, and philosophical (his major at Stanford University). Paul is equally at home talking about world events, other wines (including Champagne) and his own wines. I always look forward to our meetings and conversations.
Joel Peterson, founder of Ravenswood Winery in 1976, probably has done more to promote great red Zinfandel wine (along with Paul Draper) than anyone else. His Ravenswood single-vineyard Zinfandels are state-of-the art. Peterson went on to eventually sell Ravenswood to Constellation Brands, the country’s largest winery, and he is now an Executive Vice-President with Constellation. But you can find Joel Peterson everywhere, at all sorts of wine events in different countries. I recently came across Joel tasting wine in Spain, advising me which wines to try. That’s Joel; usually dressed in Hawaiian shirts and cowboy boots, he’s not your typical corporate executive. He just turned 70, but he’s the same Joel I first met in his early days at Ravenswood, about 35 years ago. Joel is outgoing, effusive, down-to-earth friendly. He has been gifted with a great palate and taste memory, and knows how to make damn good wines.
Before leaving California, I must pay tribute to the Father of California wines, Robert Mondavi, one-of-kind, for sure, and to Joe Swan, the ex-airline pilot who proved to all the doubters that great Pinot Noir could be made in California.
David Lett, of The Eyrie Vineyard, was the pioneer of Pinot Noir in Oregon. He was the first to grow commercially available Pinot Noirs in 1970, and he followed that up with Pinot Gris wines. I loved (and still love) his wines. Eyrie Pinot Noirs are elegant and graceful, with lots of finesse. They tend to be lighter-colored, resembling Burgundies more than American Pinot Noirs. His Pinot Gris wines are serious expressions of this underrated variety, among the best I have tasted--from any wine region. And by the way, Eyrie wines, both of the Pinots, age beautifully. I had the pleasure of tasting through many of Lett’s older vintages at his winery in Dundee, Oregon, and I was thrilled with the wines. Many years ago, a major wine critic panned Eyrie’s wines because “they were too light.” I disagree completely. Eyrie’s wines are elegant, and have true varietal character. David passed away in 2008 at the age of 69. His son, Jason Lett, is now The Eyrie Vineyard’s winemaker.
Dick Ponzi is the other great pioneer of Oregon wines. He and his wife, Nancy, moved to the Willamette Valley in the 1960s, thinking that it would be an ideal site for Pinot Noir. Time has proven them right. They opened their winery in 1970 and made their first Pinot Noir in 1974. Ponzi Vineyards really achieved recognition with an 1985 tasting in New York of their exceptional 1983 Pinot Noir. Ponzi’s style of Pinot Noir? Ponzi Pinots are vibrant, fruity, and dry; they are powerful wines but also have a restrained elegance. Ponzi’s Reserve Pinot Noirs are usually standouts. The Ponzis are a friendly family, with Dick, always smiling and gregarious, and ebullient Nancy, his wife, with two lovely daughters and a son. Now 84, Dick Ponzi has turned over the running of the Ponzi Winery to his two daughters, Anna Maria, the President, in charge of Marketing, and younger daughter Luisa, the winemaker.
David Lett and Dick Ponzi put Oregon wines on the map--especially its Pinot Noirs.
I have omitted many great winemakers and producers, but these are the twelve that have most impressed me, not only with their wines, but also with their humanity, kindness, and genuine warmth.