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ON WINE

Chimney Rock Joins the Club : Wine From a Converted Golf Course Hits the Green the First Time Around

March 22, 1987|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER

Traditions of grandeur in California winery estates began as early as the 1880s in the Napa Valley, at the Inglenook Vineyard. Charles Krug had established his vineyards and winery north of St. Helena in 1861, and Jacob Schram had begun excavating his hillside caves west of Calistoga by 1862. The stone facade of Far Niente rose on the Mayacamas benchlands in 1885, long after Jacob and Frederick Beringer built their impressive Rhine House in 1876. But it was the eye-dazzling, cut-stone, three-story Inglenook winery that drew the most breathless awe from local observers when it was completed in 1887. Writer Frona Eunice Wait said in 1889, "The perfection of detail and elegant finish has no equal in America." And when San Francisco wine merchant Tiburcio Parrot built his mansion on Spring Mountain Road, little did he dream that decades later the world would know the place as Falcon Crest.

These reflections on the history of our wine country arise from a visit to one of the newest jewels in the Napa Valley diadem. With a founding date of 1980, and first vintage releases in 1986, the debut of Chimney Rock has coincided with various industry problems. The weaker dollar has raised the price of imports, particularly the already expensive French wines. But the hoped-for move toward fine-quality California wines has been hampered by the current emphasis on physical fitness and lighter diets and by concerns about the problem of drunk driving.

Predictions made during the wine boom of the '70s that we were on our way at last to becoming more of a wine-drinking nation have not come true. That, however, has not deterred Japanese, German and French investors in the California wine scene, and a British conglomerate has bought Heublein, owners of Beaulieu, Inglenook and Almaden. So there is cause for optimism, bolstered in part by the steady growth in sales of premium wines in the $7-a-bottle-and-up category. (On the other hand, Seagram has opted to sell Paul Masson and Taylor California Wine Cellars.)

Chimney Rock's founder, Hack Wilson, has reason for pride. Not since those early days when Capt. Niebaum spent a fortune building Inglenook and the De Latours next door created a courtliness at Rutherford has a finer estate been created in the California wine country.

Hack Wilson and his wife, Stella, spent many years in South Africa, where she was born and where her father owned a chain of department stores. Hack, a native New Yorker, established 23 Pepsi Cola plants in 13 African countries. He was also involved in the brewing industry in South Africa and joined Rheingold after the couple returned to the States.

Stella Wilson finds the Dutch Cape architecture of their hilltop home overlooking the Napa Valley appropriately nostalgic. The raised vegetable and herb gardens reflect her love of fine cooking. French Charentais melons ripen in a sunny nook, wild Alpine strawberries flourish alongside African gem squash, and nasturtiums garnish the dishes she creates--to feature their wines, of course.

When Hack Wilson first entertained the idea of entering the world of viniculture, he consulted Alexis Lichine. "Look at all of California's wine-growing areas," Lichine advised, "but when you buy, buy in the Napa Valley; Napa is to California what Bordeaux is to France."

The site Wilson finally settled on had not only the renowned Stags Leap climate and soil but it also catered to his pet avocation: golf. In 1980, he acquired the Chimney Rock golf course on the Silverado Trail--and the mountain behind it--which was ideal for three classic varietals: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. To accommodate the vineyards, and also to add some Merlot and Cabernet Franc, Wilson had to uproot nine holes of turf; but by resculpting and beautifying the remaining nine, he improved the course while making room for 75 acres of vines. On the knoll would be the Wilson Manor.

In Peter Nissen, formerly the ranch manager at Charles Krug, Wilson had the man to plant the vines. In Philip Togni, he had a wine maker who shared his enthusiasm for the style of wines that Chimney Rock should produce. Both loved the gentle, lyric Chardonnays of Meursault style and the Sauvignon Blancs made by Baron Patrick de Ladoucette in the Loire--silken and rich, with no touch of wood or grassiness. Until a winery could be built, they would custom-crush and make the wines at well-known nearby wineries. Ultimate production goal: 20,000 cases.

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