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'Glorious Curiosity' : Bold Architectural Design, Mythological References and Fine Wine Distinguish : Clos Pegase in Calistoga

November 08, 1987|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER

One of the newest and perhaps most controversial wineries in the Napa Valley is Clos Pegase, a stunning neoclassical design by Michael Graves, described by Vogue magazine's Diana Ketcham as a "glorious curiosity" with "solidity and opulence." It is a 50-acre estate, the mid-life dream realization of 53-year-old Jan Shrem.

I saw the project when it was under construction and remember my Napa Valley companion's remarks: Clos Pegase was a "monstrous and audacious new winery by a nouveau-riche newcomer who has the Valley up in arms." My next informant, Robert Mondavi, was more tolerant and judicious; he was a member of the panel that awarded the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's Clos Pegase Design Competition prize commission to artist-architectural designer Michael Graves. Museum Director Henry Hopkins had offered to have the museum sponsor the competition the moment Shrem told him, in 1984, that he had bought a vineyard in the Napa Valley and wanted to find a suitable architect to design a winery that would marry the arts of mythology and wine making.

Of Lebanese descent, Shrem was born in Colombia, raised in Jerusalem and educated in the United States--first in Utah, then at UCLA. He went to Japan in 1955, where he met and married his wife, Mitsuko, a talented potter, and entered the technical-publishing world, building an impressive fortune. In 1970, they moved to Paris, assembling an outstanding collection of surrealist art, including works by Picasso, Calder, Ernst, Miro and Dali. Through his studies of mythology, Shrem acquired an Odilon Redon painting of the winged horse, Pegasus, which would become a part of the new winery's label design.

One week after the winery's official opening last June, I stopped by Clos Pegase moments before its closing and met the wine maker. It was Bill Pease, formerly of the Konocti Winery in Lake County, whose wines I'd greatly admired. Together we quickly toured the stunning facilities--its handsome courtyard, stainless-steel fermentation rooms and fine French-oak aging halls--arriving at an art-filled salon to taste the wines, a first-release Clos Pegase 1985 Napa Valley Fume Blanc ($9) and 1985 Alexander Valley Chardonnay ($12).

Pease, consultant to Clos Pegase from the beginning of the endeavor, is himself of uncommon background in wine making, being first an English major at Antioch College in Ohio before journeying to California. His philosophical scope of aesthetics in wine making was quickly apparent at this first tasting of the often controversial grape, Sauvignon Blanc.

"The name of this grape," Pease told me, "Sauvignon Blanc, derives from the French word for savage: sauvage . Very often, the young wines are indeed 'wild' in their varietal character. I suppose we are all prisoners of our palates in our prejudices.

"This wine is from our own grapes," Pease continued, "planted 12 to 14 years ago. The wine tends to be in Loire style, 100% Sauvignon Blanc rather than the Graves style, with Semillon additions."

With a minimal exposure to oak, the silken wine had an immediate appeal. The 1986, which I would taste later with Shrem and his wife at a luncheon in their hilltop home, was equally impressive. The Chardonnay, like the Fume Blanc, was styled with delicate grace. A 1985 estate-grown Cabernet Sauvignon with 20% Merlot, to be released in the spring of 1988, will be a certain winner, and a barrel sample of the 1986 Napa Valley Merlot was, according to my notes, "Fantastic, fabulous, superb!" Truly something to watch for in the spring of 1989.

Obviously, the Napa Valley has a new and stellar winery to add to its already rich heritage. The dusty terra-cotta temple to the mystery of wine will soften as the trees and surrounding vines add the dimension of age to the boldness of the architecture. For wine lovers, it is already a place to make a pilgrimage.

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