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Noble and Rot, Early 2015 Edition
By Linda Murphy
Jan 6, 2015
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It’s “Noble and Rot” time, when good and not-so-good wine developments come to mind.  But as anyone who adores concentrated late-harvest wines produced from shriveled, Botrytis-infected grapes (noble rot) can attest, bad can become something wondrous.

Take, for example, the large number of U.S. wine pioneers who died in 2014.  While their deaths are to be mourned and their families and friends deeply saddened, their passing also reminds the rest of us of their importance, of how they contributed to producing great wines, vineyards and wine regions.

I was caught off-guard by the death of Eric Dunham of Walla Walla, Wash., founder and winemaker at Dunham Cellars.  Dunham, 44, died in October, reportedly from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  While I didn’t know him well, I met with him several times and was always impressed by his Syrahs, Merlots and Cabernet Sauvignons, his art work that became labels, and most importantly, his kindness, generosity and sense of humor.  He was a drum major who enthusiastically led Walla Walla’s march to winemaking success, and it’s difficult to comprehend that he is gone.

In Texas, Dr. Clinton “Doc” McPherson, a World War II veteran, co-founded Llano Estacado Winery in 1976 near Lubbock, the first permitted Texas winery after Prohibition.  Doc, who died at age 95 in 2014, not only jump-started the modern-day Texas wine industry, he raised sons Kim and Jon McPherson, who went on to have tremendous winemaking success at McPherson Cellars in Lubbock and South Coast Winery in Temecula, Calif., respectively. 

Closer to home, in Sonoma County, 2014 saw the passing of Arthur “Jay” Fritz, founder of Fritz Underground Winery in Geyserville in 1979; Leo Trentadue, a World War II veteran whose family established vineyards and Trentadue Winery in Geyserville in 1964; and Frank Woods, co-founder of Clos du Bois winery and a grower of wine grapes in the Alexander and Dry Creek valleys for 40 years.

Saralee McClelland Kunde, who died at age 66 in January 2014, supplied grapes to dozens of wineries from her 200-acre Saralee’s Vineyard in Russian River Valley.  She and her husband, Richard Kunde, were often the first to volunteer whatever was necessary to promote Sonoma County agriculture and Russian River Valley.  Their Richard’s Grove was for years the site of the Sonoma County Vintners’ annual auction bash and charity functions, and the couple sold their grapes not only to established wineries such as Arrowood and St. Francis, but also to small, up-and-coming producers (Two Shepherds and Eric Ross to name just two), knowing that new blood was necessary to keep the Sonoma wine industry pumping.  Saralee’s Vineyard was sold to Jackson Family Wines in 2012, yet Saralee Kunde will always be the memory face of the place.

In Sonoma Valley, Hanzell Vineyards is an icon for producing elegant, structured, ageworthy Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from soils and temperatures that seemingly are not suited for these cool-climate-loving varieties.  Yet Bob Sessions, who took over the winemaking reins at Hanzell from Brad Webb in 1973, made exceptional wines from the distinctive site high above the town of Sonoma, until he assumed a winemaker emeritus title in 2002.  Sessions, 82, died last year, yet his imprint will last for decades.

East of the Mayacamas in Napa County, Volker Eisele, the architect of the valley’s rigid agriculture protection regulations, died at age 77 in late 2014.  A German native, he  practiced organic farming in his vineyards and will be forever known for spearheading Measure J, passed by voters in 1990, which protects Napa County agricultural land from non-ag development.

Herb Lamb, a Howell Mountain grower whose grapes were sold to Colgin and other top Napa producers, also departed in 2014.  He and his wife, Jennifer, had their own label, HL Vineyards.

Last but certainly not least is John Parducci, who worked tirelessly to promote his family’s and Mendocino County’s wines until his 2014 death at age 96.  Parducci began his wine career at age 14, hopping trains carrying his family’s wine grapes to the Midwest and East Coast for home winemaking purposes during Prohibition.  He became chief winemaker for his father’s Parducci Cellars in 1944, and sold majority ownership of the Ukiah business in 1972 -- a move he later regretted.  In 1999, the crusty, outspoken Parducci founded McNab Ridge Winery with his grandson, Rich Parducci; until his death, John proclaimed that wines should be affordable, everyday drinks.

Noble:  Massachusetts, the No. 7 wine-consuming state in the U.S.  according to Impact Databank, opened to direct wine-shipping on Jan. 1.  Finally.

Rot:  New Yorkers still cannot purchase wine in grocery stores, nor beer in liquor stores.  The remnants of Prohibition and liquor wholesaler power continue to loom large in this most sophisticated of states.  Gov. Andrew Cuomo is said to be on the case, yet New York wine lovers aren’t holding their breaths. 

Rot: According to the current edition of The U.S. Wine Market:  Impact Databank Review and Forecast, the total U.S. wine market is estimated to have crept ahead a mere 0.3 percent in 2014.  Nothing to brag about during a so-called phase of economic recovery, but at least it’s on the positive side.

Noble:  The same report has the sparkling wine segment showing an estimated volume gain of 3 percent, accounting for a 5 percent share of the total wine market.  Pop those corks and crown caps!  This growth is largely attributed to imported sparkling wines, particularly inexpensive Proseccos and Moscatos, plus Freixenet’s Cordon Negro Brut Cava from Spain.  While I don’t purchase many of these wines -- I seek greater complexity and intrigue -- I applaud consumers who buy and enjoy them at prices they can afford.  Bubbles for everyone.

Rot:  Buyer beware.  Last week, I purchased a bottle of Washington state Gewurztraminer from a solid producer and from a reputable bottle shop.  The price was so attractive that I failed to look at the vintage before I put the wine into my cart.  I opened the bottle with great anticipation, only to discover that the Gewurztraminer was tired and flabby.  I looked at the vintage: 2010.  Some Gewurztraminers can improve for years, yet the maker of this one has no such track record.  My mistake for not scrutinizing the label. 

Noble:  There are so many delicious, well-made wines available in the U.S.  market that disappointments will be few, if any, for most wine buyers.  The Gewurztraminer that was so unimpressive to me could very well delight another palate.  And that is the beauty, the fascination, the intrigue of wine appreciation.  To each, her or his own.  Yet professional wine reviews should give a clear sense of what a wine is all about, where it came from, and put vintage and winemaking style into context.

Noble:  That the Wine Review Online crew always has this in mind.