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Town Has Grapeness Thrust Upon It : Inglewood Wine Makers Ply Trade in the Shadow of LAX

November 21, 1986|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

Burgundy. It is a region, a passion and the suggestion of soft summers in patient search of gentle wines. So it is with Champagne and Bordeaux. Moselle and Lombardy. Napa and Sonoma. It's all in the names, then our minds.

As Benjamin Franklin put it, "Wine is proof that God loves us and likes to see us happy."

And now, mes amis du vin , Inglewood.

Where the kerosene mist rolls in from Los Angeles International Airport, there are three commercial wineries. For the nippy cellars and chateaux of upper La Chapelle, read windowless, cinder-block warehouses on lower La Cienega. The gentle slopes of this wine country lead not to San Adrian but the San Diego Freeway.

'Napa Valley South'

"We call ourselves Napa Valley South," Cecil and Marcy McLester say. They are husband and wife, cellarmaster and mistress of McLester Winery at 10670 La Cienega Blvd. They hold no pretenses about its location. In commemoration of vinification 323 feet beneath jetliners on constant and shrieking final approaches to LAX, they market curiosity wines labeled Runway Red and Runway White.

"Every time a 747 goes over it shakes the barrels enough that we get a year of aging," said Hank Donatoni, founder-owner-president-crusher-racker-bottler-head-taster of nearby Donatoni Winery at 10604 La Cienega. He's kidding, of course. "Obviously, I'm not going out to join the noise abatement people."

Obviously. Donatoni's other job is as a 727 captain for United Airlines.

Then there's Herb Harris. He heads Palos Verdes Winery ("I didn't think Harris Winery had much of a ring to it") at 10620 La Cienega. It's next door to an auto parts store that sells only well-battered bits for Chevrolet Corvairs.

Harris is similarly ambitious. To fool the grape juice known as must that still manages to ferment amid Inglewood's industrial clatter and asphalt, he has built an adjustable cold box to duplicate the environment of Northern France.

A Stranger to France

Incidentally, Harris has never visited France. There just isn't time for vacations in faraway places; not with the winery and marriage and children and a primary job as marketing manager for BHP Trading, a busy subsidiary of a massive Australian steel company.

Harris has indeed heard the one about the wine critic who attributed a good Inglewood Zinfandel to "berry flavors, open top fermentation, light fining and on-time arrivals of TWA's Flight 761 from London-Heathrow."

But flippancy aside, there's much serious wine making in Inglewood. Donatoni, the McLesters and Harris have collected a goodly share of medals and ribbons from the better festivals; the Los Angeles and Orange County fairs, Cal Expo and the San Francisco International Wine Fair.

Their wines retail from McLester's $2.75 Runway Red (that its vintner describes as "not exactly a loss leader, but close") to a Chardonnay ("from McGregor grapes, and I think it will go a long way," enthuses Harris) from Palos Verdes at $10.95.

Each winery is precisely that, an establishment where wine is made. Grapes are trucked from elsewhere, primarily from the Central Coast, from Santa Barbara, Amador and San Luis Obispo counties. But the wine certainly is made, fermented, aged and bottled in Inglewood. Such divided production, the producers agreed, means a winery would be well situated downtown at 7th and Figueroa.

Location Is 'Academic'

"Location is really quite academic," Donatoni explained. "It is (important) where the grapes are grown. You can't make wine any better than the grapes. You can easily screw it up but it's very difficult to make it any better.

"Of course, it would be very nice to have a chateau alongside your own vineyards . . . but it's what is in the bottle that counts," he continued. "It's like labels. A pretty label is nice and it helps. But it's not everything."

Donatoni sells about 1,400 cases or 16,800 bottles a year through liquor stores, smaller markets, restaurants and clubs. McLester sells 3,000 cases and his wine is available through Trader Joe's and Liquor Barn. Palos Verdes markets 1,000 cases to restaurants and smaller wine shops.

Donatoni is the gentleman vintner. His ancestors produced Muscat from vinelands near Verona, Italy, and he lives the industry's oldest saw: It is easy to make a small fortune from wine making if you're prepared to invest a large fortune. So Donatoni listens to soft, all-jazz radio as his Cabernet matures, hosts wine and food society dinners at the plant and makes sure there's always time in his life to sniff the grape.

The McLesters are marketeers. They sell wine by the bottle, magnum and jeroboam. Also glasses, bar gadgets and jewelry. Runway Red isn't their only novelty. There's Suite 13 (a sweet 13% sugar and 13% alcohol) and Marci Beaucoup (after Marcy McLester and merci beaucoup ) and plans for Pizza Pink in the belief that there's a palate and a dish for every wine and more occasions for sauterne than Thanksgiving.

A Climate Wizard

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