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ON WINE

Reunion at Inglenook : Winery Again Issues Prestige Cabernet

August 02, 1987|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER

IN MORE THAN two centuries of wine making in California, there has been no more controversial figure than the late Martin Ray of Saratoga. But the wines that Ray made in the historic Paul Masson La Cresta Vineyard and, later, higher up in those same Santa Cruz Mountain vineyards at Mt. Eden, confirmed his often-declared truth that "fine wines exist" in certain soils. There, in Ray's own vineyard, was a chaine d'or , or golden chain, of earth sites in which truly fine wines would be born.

Slowly but surely, the existence of California's other places where "fine wines exist" has become almost common knowledge, even beyond the ever increasing numbers of American wine lovers. The focus of the Napa Valley and its "Rutherford Bench" (benchland slopes away from hills) has assumed more intensive value just as we are discovering the proven potentials of the Los Carneros area for Burgundian vines, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Amador in the Sierra foothills ranks high among fans of Zinfandel; the Alexander Valley in Sonoma County is the home of the famous Jordan Cabernets and Rod Strong's equally revered Alexander's Crown Cabernet. Chalk Hill is a place for fine Chardonnays in Sonoma. From Temecula in the San Diego region to Mendocino and Lake counties in the north, we are finding those special places, just as surely as earlier centuries marked those places in European vineyards: the famous "first growths" of Bordeaux and the great estates of Burgundy; the steep, sun-favored sites along the Rhine and Mosel rivers, and, of course, the chalky, limited acreage of La Champagne. There is no reason to question the value of certain sites for the production of superior wines.

Inglenook has been synonymous with California's finest wines--the quintessential Napa Valley Cabernets. Fifty years ago, Inglenook was the first Napa Valley winery I visited, the guest of its owner, the late John Daniel Jr., grandnephew of the founder. At that meeting, he told me, as we walked the aisles of cask-aging Cabernets, "Wines, you know, are like children. Each one develops differently." It was he who initiated "cask bottling" to preserve the integrity of those subtle differences.

In 1964, Daniel sold the winery to Heublein and later sold the mansion to film director Francis Coppola. He kept the home vineyard in front of the winery and some acreage to the south, in Yountville-- actually the southern boundary of the Rutherford Bench called Napanook-- inherited by his two daughters, from which, with Christian Moueix of Chateau Petrus, the wine called Dominus will emerge in early 1988. Only weeks ago, with Robin Lail, Daniel's daughter, and Moueix, I tasted all four initial vintages of Dominus--1983, 1984, 1985 and 1986--a tasting that gave further evidence that "fine wines exist" in certain places.

After years of almost ignoring the splendid heritage of Inglenook vineyards, emphasizing instead the wines of neighboring Beaulieu, Heublein has turned to Inglenook's potential for prestige wines. In another low-key introductory tasting for the media and the trade, a most significant Inglenook wine was presented, kept under wraps until June of this year when it made its debut at the Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Beach, with wine maker John Richburg the soft-spoken guide to this stellar bottling. It brought together, in almost equal proportions, grapes from the Inglenook Ranch, the Niebaum-Coppola vineyard and Napanook in a wine that is 95% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Merlot. Inglenook has produced 1,500 cases of the splendid 1983 vintage. It is called Reunion, because it marks the first vintage in 20 years to reunite the three Inglenook Cabernet vineyards in a reserve cask wine ($30). Here is very rich, classic elegance, a wine of superb aging potential and finesse.

Reunion firmly re-establishes the proud heritage of Inglenook, where "fine wines exist." Vintages of 1984 have just been bottled, and '85 and '86 are aging in oak casks. Inglenook Reunion is just beginning what will certainly become one of California's most treasured bottlings for wine lovers across the land.

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