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Noble, or Not?
By Linda Murphy
Aug 16, 2011
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I was thinking recently about colleague Gerald Boyd’s April 19 column on Aline Baly and her family’s Chateau Coutet wine from Barsac, in the Sauternes appellation of Bordeaux.  Coutet is fabulously sweet and with electrifying acidity that, as Baly enthusiastically shows to those who sit down for a meal with her and her wines, pairs wonderfully with savory courses as well as desserts and a cheese course. 
Noble rot, Botrytis cinera, makes this style of wine possible.  When the rot develops in healthy grapes, it dehydrates them, intensifying their sugars and flavors so that the wines are lip-smackingly sweet and honeyed, yet with brisk acidity to cleanse the palate.  Yet not all rot is noble, and the nasty ones destroy the clusters, rendering them worthless for winemaking.

Thus, here is an infrequent installment of my Noble or Not raves and rants.  May the positives outweigh the negatives!

Noble: The 2010 Illumination Sauvignon Blanc Napa-Sonoma from Agustin Huneeus’ crew at Quintessa in Rutherford, Napa Valley.  It will set buyers back $40 (or less, depending on the store), yet it’s a fabulous Sauvignon, with great mouth-feel and structure, an inviting floral aroma (from the Sauvignon Blanc Musque clone and partial aging in barrels made of acacia wood) and racy mineral and lime notes.  Bravo to winemaker Charles Thomas for using 34 percent Sonoma County grapes, from Bennett Valley and the Sonoma Coast, to shape this fascinating wine into more than it would have been with only Napa Valley fruit.  Often, blending is better.

Rot: While I generally don’t drink the wines that critic Robert M.  Parker Jr. has scored highly over the years, his impact on the wine industry is undeniable.  His newsletter, The Wine Advocate, has long promoted California wines and made superstars of those who might otherwise have gone unnoticed.  He has as many foes as friends, the former usually those a) whose wines he doesn’t rate highly; b) who are jealous of his power and perks; c) abhor the 100-point rating scale he created and that has been adopted by other U.S. critics; and d) the ethical gaffes made by two of Parker’s contributors.

Love him or not, Parker’s accomplishments and impact are the stuff of wine legend, yet he is not in the Culinary Institute of America’s Vintners Hall of Fame, whose election process is overseen by WRO’s W. Blake Gray.  Parker failed to receive enough votes in previous Hall of Fame elections for induction, and did not make the ballot for 2011 (a 12-person nominating committee determines that).  Ty Cobb was near-unanimously voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, despite being a nasty guy; his achievements over-rode the animosity others had for him and they gave him their votes.  Those who think Parker doesn’t deserve to be in wine’s hall of fame will reconsider their stance, I hope, in due time.  

Noble, for Now: In 2011, Parker assigned reviews of California wines to Antonio Galloni, an expert taster who has written about Italian wine for The Wine Advocate since 2006.  As of this writing, Galloni’s initial critiques of California wines had yet to be published but were expected soon.  The eyes of Cali are upon him, though it’s to be seen if Galloni has the same power with his reviews that Parker had with his.  Also worth watching:  If Galloni’s palate is similar to or different than Parker’s.  He likely wants to be his own man while not showing up the boss -- a difficult position. 

Noble: A fantastic dry Riesling from Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley?  You betcha.  Gustafson Family Vineyards took advantage of a very cool vintage to produce its scintillating 2010 Heritage Tree Riesling, from a region best known for its warmth and old-vine Zinfandels and Petite Sirahs.  The Gustafson Riesling sells for $20 and is worth the price, for those who appreciate nuanced dry Riesling.

Noble: That Boisset Family Estates, the California extension of Burgundy’s Boisset firm, has spiffed up Raymond Vineyards in Napa Valley after purchasing the historical winery in 2009, and intends to do the same with Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma County, which it picked up earlier this year.

Raymond, established in the early 1970s by the Raymond family, had become a staid place to visit.  Jean-Charles Boisset, president of Boisset Family Estates, has energized the property, creating several themed rooms for wine tasting, a lounge for wine club members, hospitality areas and an outdoor “Theatre of Nature,” where guests take self-guided tours offering displays that detail Raymond’s “actors” -- the ecosystem of the property and its biodydnamic and organic farming practices.
Buena Vista, established by Agoston Haraszthy in 1857 as California’s first commercial winery, was purchased by Boisset in April -- the brand and original stone winery and tasting room in the town of Sonoma, though not the large production winery and vineyards in Carneros.  Boisset will contract for the grapes and production facility for Buena Vista wines, and Jean-Charles plans to reenergize the stone winery while keeping the historical integrity intact.

Rot: When companies purchase wineries and wipe clean any traces of the previous owners and/or achievements.  A recent kerfuffle over the founding of Landmark Vineyards in Sonoma County is just one example of how history can get altered when new owners take over.

Landmark was founded in Windsor in 1974 by Bill Mabry and his family, and Damaris Deere Ford (of the tractor family).  Mabry sold his interest in 1993, and Deere Ford’s son, Michael Colhoun, and his wife, Mary, gained full ownership of the winery, now located in Kenwood.  On Aug. 3, the Colhouns sold Landmark to Fiji Water, and the resulting press release made no mention of the Mabrys as founders.  (It seems that Fiji wasn’t aware of that fact).  Feelings were hurt, PR statements explaining the omission had to be issued, and apparently old Landmark wounds have been reopened.

Yet revisionist history is common in the wine industry.  The reasons are many, none of them good:  The new owners want to put their own spin on the place, implying that they’re the original owners (until they’re called out on it); the original winery might have had a shady past the new proprietor thinks will tarnish his/her image; flowery marketing copy that attempts to sell wine, the scenery and the visitor experience replaces facts, figures and dates.  Some websites are wiped so clean of personality and a sense of history that it’s impossible to know who owns the winery.

Come on, folks, just tell the truth, and give some credit to those who went before you.  
Noble: That two Europeans have embraced wine varietals largely abandoned by others in Sonoma County. 

Denmark native Leo Hansen, winemaker at Stuhlmuller Vineyards in Alexander Valley, also makes a full-flavored and crisp Chenin Blanc for his own label, Leo Steen (Steen is his middle name, and also the South African name for the Chenin Blanc grape), from the Saini Vineyard in Dry Creek Valley.  It’s serious stuff.

Frenchman and barrel salesman Yannick Rousseau found a 35-year-old French Colombard vineyard in Russian River Valley and produces from it a crisp, citrusy wine under the Y. Rousseau label which leaves behind the notion that Colombard is only a blending grape for cheap generic wines.  Indeed, it is blended in such a way, yet Rousseau, who made French Colombard in his native Gascony, extracts a super-premium wine from unfashionable Colombard.  I find this, well, quite fashionable.