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Everything's Up to Date in St. Helena : Christian Brothers Winery Reopens Greystone

July 19, 1987|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER

On a glorious summery day in June, one of California's most handsome monuments to wine making, Greystone Wine Cellars on California 29 in St. Helena, was reopened to the public after an extensive three-year renovation period. Built of hand-hewn local volcanic rock in 1888, the great three-story structure was closed in 1984 after it was deemed seismically unsafe. It should be noted that it survived the 1906 earthquake, but now, these millions of dollars later, it is the proud, earthquake-proof landmark of the Christian Brothers' wine-making endeavors.

The renaissance of Greystone is but one of the dramatic changes affecting the operation of the Christian Brothers as one of the leading wineries in the Napa Valley. In December of 1986, the Christian Brothers' purchase of Fromm & Sichel, the marketing organization for Mont La Salle Vineyards (owned by the Christian Brothers) and the Christian Brothers wines and brandies since 1937, was finalized with Seagram. The administrative heart of the parent company is now wholly in St. Helena, where also may be found one of the most up-to-the-minute, state-of-the-art wineries, only minutes away from some of the state's most splendid vineyards. Brother David Brennan, FSC, chairman of the board of Mont La Salle Vineyards, had a happy twinkle in his eyes at Greystone's rededication luncheon as he said, "The brothers are in control."

Richard Maher, the new president of the Christian Brothers Sales Company, added, "It's like a whole new company, with the advantage of 100 years of history. Now, with new ideas, new management, new products, how can we not succeed?"

With an MBA from Stanford, significant years with Gallo, and responsible for the dramatic growth of Beringer, Maher left the Seagram wine operation, of which he was president, to head up the Christian Brothers wine-making saga in the Napa Valley. Everything about the reopening of Greystone was upbeat. A small group of wine writers from all across the country had been invited to preview the restored facilities, and then, in the garden area to one side, sit down to a luncheon with the new wines. I particularly enjoyed a few quiet moments with my longtime friend, Brother Timothy, looking over his collection of more than 1,700 corkscrews gathered from all over the world, one of the principal exhibits in the visitors center.

There were two excellent Chardonnays made by wine master Tom Eddy, the 1984 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($7.99) and his 1985 Barrel-Fermented Chardonnay ($9.99). Picking up his glass of 1984 Christian Brothers Estate Bottled Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($6.75), a beautiful deep ruby wine redolent of varietal fragrance, with toasty French oak hints to the bouquet, Eddy remarked: "I think you may notice the stylistic differences here. When I arrived we had only 200 new French oak barrels; today, we have 2,000. We expect to be a winery with 4,000 French oak barrels for rotating the wines for a more elegant style." Then we tasted, from the wood, barrel samples of the 1985 Cabernet, as yet unreleased, but a proud wine of certain splendid promise.

We concluded our luncheon with the Christian Brothers Napa Valley Zinfandel Port 1980 ($12), a languidly rich port originally released on July 1, 1985 in celebration of Brother Timothy's 50 years in the Napa Valley as cellar master at Mont La Salle.

Greystone will be open seven days a week from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., with tours every 15 to 20 minutes, concluding in the tasting room. Needless to say, you can purchase a full selection of the Christian Brothers Napa Valley varietal wines, brandies and dessert wines here.

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