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ON WINE

Brotherly Love : One Man's Half-Century Practicing the Art of California Wine

February 09, 1986|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER

It was appropriate that the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco was chosen as the site of a dinner to honor Brother Timothy, cellar master of the Christian Brothers, for his 50 years in the California wine industry. The event, which took place in December, shared pride of place with an exhibition called "The Art of Wine in East Asia." Guests had the privilege of strolling through several rooms in which evidence of almost 4,000 years of wine-related art--bronzes, ceramics, paintings, lacquers and jades--was on display. In the catalogue, Chinese art expert Patricia Berger wrote: "There are vessels to contain, heat and serve wine for every setting--lofty or humble, public or private. . . . The colors of ceramic, lacquer and metal cups designed for casual drinking set off the beverages they contained and made wine an enjoyable exercise for all the senses."

In the 13th Century, when Marco Polo arrived in Hangzhou, capital of the Southern Sung Dynasty, rice wine had far outstripped grape wine in popularity, and there were handsome stoneware ewers from which to serve it and small porcelain cups from which to sip it. Most of the "wines" were technically beers, brewed from cereal mash mixed with yeast, rather than from grapes or fruit. Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, grape wines were supporting Catholic monasteries. In the year 1112, the Cistercian monk St. Bernard had received many gifts, including the land on which the order would build the wine cellars of the Clos de Vougeot.

In 1680, the Catholic order of the Christian Brothers was founded in Reims by St. Jean Baptiste de la Salle, a French nobleman, priest, writer and teacher. Today, the order of Brothers of the Christian Schools has 17,000 members teaching more than 760,000 students in approximately 1,600 schools in 80 countries.

Brother Timothy, born Anthony George Diener in Elizabeth, N.J., in 1910, entered the novitiate at Martinez, Calif., where the brothers had been producing wine since 1882. As he wryly recalls, "They began by crushing grapes with a baseball bat!" In 1932, he was on hand to help the brothers move to the Napa Valley, where the order had acquired a 200-acre vineyard high in the Mayacamas Mountains. Christening it Mount La Salle, they built a large winery, school buildings and a chapel. In 1935, Brother Timothy became the cellar master and wine maker.

On one of my visits, while I walked the vineyard rows with Brother Timothy, he said: "Our California vinifera are citizens of an old world. Before the French had them, the Romans did. And before the Romans, the Greeks. Before the Greeks, the Egyptians. And so we go back about 6,000 years. It's impossible to ascribe one nationality to a vine. We can read the glowing reports of our Napa Valley wines in Robert Louis Stevenson's 'Silverado Squatters,' in which he sings the praises of Golden Chasselas. Today, with more knowledge, we have dozens of finer grapes--Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Chenin blanc; even French Colombard outshines that Chasselas grape he found so good."

The dinner for Brother Timothy was accompanied by a parade of outstanding Christian Brothers Napa Valley wines: 1984 Fume Blanc, 1984 Chenin Blanc, 1980 Cabernet Sauvignon and a 1980 Napa Valley Zinfandel Port. The tributes to Brother Tim were laced with humor and affection. When the time came for me to introduce the honoree, it seemed appropriate--in the museum setting--to refer to him as "an articulate and living icon." Brother Timothy has helped bring wine technology into the 20th Century with distinction. One has only to visit the Christian Brothers facility in St. Helena, where 70 huge stainless-steel fermenters are arranged around a control console of Space Age complexity, to know the magnitude of his contribution.

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