ST. HELENA, Calif. — A hot sun blazed down from a flawless blue sky as we drove along California 29 where vineyards climb up the steep hills on both sides of the Napa Valley.
A sign welcomed visitors to the Hanns Kornell Champagne Cellars.
We decided to stop for several reasons: the cellar would be cool, we'd never been to a champagne-producing winery, and the thought of a glass of sparkling wine sounded tempting.
Turning off at lyrical Larkmead Lane, four miles north of the unhurried and charming little town of St. Helena, we drove along a narrow road that was rimmed by long, straight rows of vineyards. They stretched to the lush, verdant hills surrounding the valley floor.
Only a few cars were in front of the two-story, tree-shaded stone building that houses Kornell's Cellars. While waiting for a few more visitors to join our group, we learned quite a bit about Hanns Kornell, a survivor of Hitler's concentration camps and one of Napa Valley's most respected Champagne Masters.
The genial, gray-haired, 75-year-old vintner acquired the winery in 1958. He and his wife Marilouise started his small business on a shoestring. At the outset they produced 5,000 bottles of champagne in a year. Today, 2.5 million bottles are aging in the cellar, a tribute to his wine-making skills, his tireless effort and his commitment to perfection.
At this unpretentious winery, considerably smaller than the giants of the valley, Kornell began producing champagnes that have won many medals in competition with the most entrenched champagnes of Europe.
"We start early in the morning and work late into the night," he says. "Ninety-nine percent of our time is devoted to quality control and improvement of our champagne.
"You have to love what you're doing in this business. If you don't, you can't survive. Many times I get ideas in the middle of the night and get up and take notes or go back to work."
As a boy, Hanns Kornell was trained in his family's champagne cellars in his native Rhine Valley of Germany. He learned the wine business from the ground up from his father, grandfather and uncle, all of whom were renowned in Europe for their Schoenberger Cabinet. But as the dark clouds of war descended over Europe, he and his family were imprisoned in concentration camps in 1938.
Both his parents died in the holocaust. Hanns Kornell, however, survived his ordeal at Dachau. When he was released he fled, making his way to England where he took odd jobs until he saved enough to leave for the United States.
Arriving penniless at Ellis Island, he worked as a dishwasher, biding his time until he could fulfill his dream of pushing westward to the Napa Valley. He hitchhiked across America and arrived in the wine country with $2.
"Those were pretty lean years," he recalls, "but I was determined to get back to the wine business."
By 1952 Kornell had saved enough to rent an old winery near Sonoma. He created his first American champagne by night and sold it in San Francisco by day from a battered truck.
A Landmark Year
The breakthrough came in 1958 when he had become successful enough to buy Larkmead Cellars, an old stone winery built in the late 1800s. That same year he married Marilouise Rossini, granddaughter of one of the original wine-making pioneers in the Napa Valley. Together they have worked to make their champagne a premium sparkling wine.
Kornell, his daughter, Paula, and son, Peter, often conduct tours to explain the complicated process of making champagne. His winery produces the methode champenoise by which true champagne is created, aged, clarified and shipped in the same bottle.
The tasting room is in a small frame office building at the rear of the winery. One can sample Sehr Trochen, Brut, Extra Dry, Demi-Sac, Rose, Champagne Rouge and Sparkling Muscat Alexandria. We tried a glass of Brut and found it delightful.
"Visitors from France and Germany come to the valley and ask me why the wine is so good," Kornell says. "They are amazed at the beautiful green grapes and the warm, sunny climate and fertile soil we have. I tell them that 10 to 15 years from now, advancement in the industry will improve the quality even more."
I asked him to pinpoint the secret of his success in international competition.
"We have the right blend of wine," he says. "You can't learn it in a book. You have to work at it all the time. We've built up our champagne grape by grape. One bottle sells another."
During our visit to the wine country we stayed at The Chateau, a lovely French country-style hotel done in the spirit of a European inn. On the northern edge of Napa on California 39, the 115-room hotel not only provides guests with the features offered in a B&B but has large, modern rooms, a good-size pool and Jacuzzi as well.