OAKVILLE, Calif. — February here in the heart of the Napa Valley wine country is a time of preparation and expectation: Wild mustard carpets the vineyards in yellow while the still-sleeping vines await the first surge of renewed life.
The past few days have been a time of expectation, too, for the 18 wineries whose best offerings competed in intensive "blind" tastings in this village of 3,000. During the past three days, the vintners vied to have their products named to the list of wines that Hilton International recommends for its individual hotels.
For the victors, the rewards are sweet: Last year's winners sold about 100,000 cases, or about $15 million, of their finest wines through the New York-based chain of 90 foreign hotels.
Those sales came despite a generally strong dollar that inflated the overseas prices of U.S. goods, noted Gary Ramona, vice president for sales and marketing at the host Robert Mondavi Winery here.
He said the Hilton wine competition, which is in its fifth year, has been part of an effort by the wineries to familiarize foreign customers with their products.
The Hilton International Tasting grew out of a chance meeting at a St. Louis food fair between Robert Mondavi and Frederick A. Rufe, Hilton International's director of food and beverage planning and development. Rufe, in an interview, said conditions are ripe for California vintners to boost overseas sales further because of the declining dollar.
"We've done in five years what it took the French 200 years to do," he said, noting that the modern U.S. wine industry only began with Prohibition's repeal in 1933.
Ramona added, "We have been the youths, and we've had to work very hard to open doors," he said. "Now they--European wine makers--come here to learn how we did it."
On Monday, as the contestants awaited the results after lunch at the Robert Mondavi winery, you could have heard a pin drop. All 18 participating wineries knew that by virtue of being invited, they were assured of having at least one entry selected, but which?
The tension was heightened by the fact that they themselves had judged the wines, and judged them blind, not knowing whose bottle they were evaluating, theirs or a competitor's.
As it turned out, the winning wines were 12 Cabernet Sauvignons, four Sauvignon Blancs, 13 Chardonnays, five Pinot Noirs, four Merlots and four Johannisberg Rieslings. Rufe said the scoring was close, but did not release the wine rankings.
The participants mainly came from Napa Valley and the adjacent Sonoma County wine country. Only Washington State's Chauteau Ste. Michelle winery came from outside California, making the list with its 1985 Johannisberg Riesling.
Others in the competition were: Alexander Valley, Beringer, Buena Vista, Carneros Creek, Chappellet, Clos du Val, Conn Creek, Grgich Hills, Heitz, Lambert Bridge, Joseph Phelps, Rutherford Hill, Sebastiani, Stag's Leap, Sterling and Trefethen.
The competition's results are only recommendations to the individual hotels, all of which make their own purchases, Rufe said.
But, he added, the fact that the wine makers themselves chose the wines in blind tastings makes the selections influential, not just with Hilton International buyers, but also with competing hotel chains.
Prospects for increased sales for the competing wineries have been boosted by the acquisition of Hilton's by Allegis, formerly UAL, the parent of United Airlines and Westin Hotels worldwide. By year-end, nearly 200 Hilton International or Westin hotels will be given the list of recommended lines, Rufe said.
"This is a perfect opportunity for us," said Ramona of the Robert Mondavi winery, which landed five wines on the list, more than anyone else, with two Cabernet Sauvignons, two Chardonnays and a Pinot Noir.