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ON WINE

Aging Gracefully : For William Hill Chardonnays, Time Is on Their Side

August 23, 1987|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER

OKLAHOMAN WILLIAM HILLis a thorough pragmatist with an MBA from Stanford, but he finds his role as an artist-wine maker in no conflict. He addresses all the options open to him in this latter occupation matter-of-factly, because his unswerving goal is to make world-class Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons. Frequent comparative tastings of his Napa Valley Cabernets have found his unquestionably fine clarets besting the best of Bordeaux, profoundly irritating the French. This only brings a smile to Hill's lips, though the trumpeting of his victories has annoyed more than one East Coast critic.

A week or so ago, at the new Four Seasons Hotel on the edge of Beverly Hills, Hill programmed a tasting of his Reserve Chardonnays 1982, 1983, 1984 and 1985 ($15) and the 1984 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($16), the latter to be released Oct. 1. He was the only scheduled speaker, delivering his message before the main event, a very special menu created by chef Lydia Shire to complement the vertical series. We sipped the 1985 Silver Label Chardonnay ($9) while Hill explained his shift in enological approach to producing white burgundy-style wines.

A little background may help to explain Hill's present relaxed self-confidence. He arrived in the Napa Valley, with world-class goals but little wherewithal, in the early 1970s, determined to join the groundswell of wine making. His determination brought in partners, and his first release--1976 Cabernet from the Diamond Mountain Ranch property that they'd planted--won instant recognition. In 1977, he sold that 300-acre property, with its 120 acres of vines, to Coca-Cola's Wine Spectrum for a very healthy profit, which he and his partners reinvested in other prime Napa Valley mountain properties in 1979, 1980 and 1981. All this time Hill's wines were being made in leased facilities.

In 1985, Hill sold 1,200 acres of his Atlas Peak property to the Whitbread combine of England, which included the Marchese Piero Antinori of the celebrated Florentine Chianti family and the Bizot family of Bollinger Champagne, for close to $14 million. Shortly after this, I asked him what kind of a car he was driving. "A Mercedes," he responded with a smile. "I arrived in the Napa Valley in a Volkswagen."

The dream of building his own winery is now a reality, and the facility should be ready for the 1987 vintage this September.

But back to those Chardonnays we were to taste at the Four Seasons.

"There's no problem with making Cabernet in the Napa Valley." Hill explained in his opening remarks. "It's well known for those fine wines. But Chardonnay is of slower development. The wines we are going to taste reflect a significant departure.

"Our first Chardonnays, in 1978, '79 and '80, from Mt. Veeder, were intensely flavored from those non-irrigated mountain sites. I was then finding that this was not the best nor the most elegant way to make Chardonnays, which led to a change with the 1981 wines--lighter and more compatible with foods. Grapes were harvested earlier, but still with a good level of ripeness. Our mountain vineyards are high in fruit quality. Our 1982 thus had a more crisp acidity, possibly hard in its youth, but with better aging potential. This began the Reserve program in 1982, then '83, '84 and '85. By 1985 I decided to phase out the Gold Label program, replacing it with the Reserves."

This shift, to more fruity, less oaky, lighter-styled Chardonnays, still crisp with acidity, is not unique to William Hill. Many California Chardonnay producers are convinced that this technique produces wines of greater age potential, though, alas, not as engaging on release. Hill's 1982 Reserve proved the point. It is no longer available in the market, but time has turned it into a lovely, rich, balanced wine. The 1983 was well along its way, no longer harsh nor hard. The '84 was in an unbalanced transition state, not ready to enjoy. The 1984 Cabernet Reserve? A very upscale, classy and refined wine of excellent potential and good drinkability even now. Hill's 1985 release shows its potential in a splendid varietal bouquet, accenting the Chardonnay fruit, with only a hint of oak. As this thesis reveals, it should be cellared for at least three or four years.

Hill's doctrine of patience goes against the trend of today's wine buyers, but it never hurts to show the better way.

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