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ON WINE

Decade of Gold : Ventana's Award-Winning Wines From Monterey County

January 24, 1988|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER

DOUGLAS MEADOR,a vigorously vital 48, is a self-styled former "apple knocker" from Washington state, a one-time "jet jockey" in the Vietnam War and, since the boom time of grape growing in the mid-'70s, a vineyardist in Monterey County.

When Meador was a fighter pilot, "the rewards and penalties of the job depended upon instantaneous reaction," he says. Meador observes that in viticulture, the rewards and penalties are measured in years, even decades. It takes three to five years to check the qualitative production of a vine species in its microclimate and soil environment and another three years to test the wine made from the vine's yield.

When the American Wine Competition in New York awarded Meador's Ventana 1986 Gold Stripe Chardonnay a Gold Medal, it extended his string of Chardonnay gold-medal wins to a record 10th year. From its first commercial harvest, this vineyard has received those coveted medals from every vintage. It's also appropriate to mention that the 1986 Gold Stripe's $9 price tag, as on the currently available 1985, makes it one of the best wine buys, a category not overlooked by the 1987 "Best Buy" listings in the Finnegan Wine Letter, the Wine Spectator and Connoisseur's Guide. This consistent record becomes all the more remarkable when one realizes that the Chardonnay category has expanded from the late '70s, when there were perhaps 60 or 70 American Chardonnays to judge, to the present field of about 1,000. This year Orange County Fair judges evaluated nearly 500. Two years ago, when I was assigned Chardonnays to judge at the Los Angeles County Fair, it took two long days to judge the hundreds of entries. With Ventana's amazing record of wins, no wonder Meador calls the region "magnificent Monterey."

It would take a whole book to recount the viticultural problems of growing wine grapes in the coldest region for such fruit in the United States. For Chardonnay, it was not such a problem, but for Sauvignon Blanc, a variety imported in the last century, the genetic tracery became an obsession with Meador. In Monterey's cold ripening weather, not helped by the daily afternoon "Monterey mistral" blowing in from the bay, he could produce fair yields from a Wente clone vine--named after a vine introduced by Wente Bros.--but the wine suggested asparagus juice.

The patient, researching Meador began looking for another clone, because even the most revolutionary farming techniques with the Wente clone produced unacceptable Sauvignon Blancs. Then, one happy vintage year, Meador found that better clone, grafted it, and from 25 vines in 1978 made the first Sauvignon Blanc wine from them. I remember tasting it. It was charming and gentle, with no grassiness and with an almost haunting silky finesse. Two more rows of vines were grafted over. In cold years, warm years, wet years and dry, those vines produced wonderful clusters of fabulous grapes. The old clone, planted nearby, still produced "asparagus juice." Local farmers now call the better one the Ventana clone, and it's on its way. The 1985 Ventana Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc won gold medals at every major competition in the United States in 1986, and in New York's worldwide judging of Sauvignon Blanc in June, 1987, it won another gold medal. Two weeks ago, I tasted the 1986 Ventana Monterey Sauvignon Blanc ($8) and found it well worthy of its growing fame. Unlike most wine makers, who will blend in Semillon for taming the savage Sauvignon Blanc, Meador adds, instead, 10% Chardonnay. Creative artistry.

In Meador's words, it's "a wine that wants (food) companions. It's the Tabernacle Choir to Chardonnay's prima donna, prizing harmony over individuality. It's a dining wine, happiest when enhancing a total cuisine experience, least happy when forced to solo." It's as good with delicate shellfish as it is in revitalizing taste buds assaulted with Sichuan peppers or Cajun spices.

The bottom line, obviously, is that patience and intelligence win out. There's another whole story about Meador's adventures in the world of bubbly; he was perhaps the first in the United States to tame the cuvees with 100% malolactic fermentation before blending, as universally practiced in the Champagne country of France. If you happen upon the Ventana 1981 Cuvee JDM Monterey Sparkling Wine ($25), you'll find it one more amazing success story to pour and enjoy.

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