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New World Pinot Noir : Trefethen Showed It Could Be Done Here After All, and With Distinction

May 22, 1988|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER

THE COVER STORY of the International Wine Review for March/ April, 1988--illustrated with a color photo of the Trefethen Vineyards winery in the lee of a gigantic and towering oak tree--has a caption no less arresting: "Home of America's best Pinot Noir." And the text details Craig Goldwyn's American Wine Competition, in which 20 well-qualified judges were dazzled by the emerging nobility of wines from the Burgundian vinifera, Pinot Noir--for decades deemed to be next to impossible for such vinification in its New World vineyards.

That is yesterday's story. Sporadic victories, such as that of Andre Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyards in 1946 and again in 1968, had implied that this genetically unstable vine was a troublesome child. But when I tasted that memorable '46 in 1973, it was one of the most noble red wines of my tasting experience, showing no signs of age. Its translucent color, while brick-edged, had jewel-brilliance; the bouquet evoked memories of the incomparable Romanee-Conti 1929.

In the decades since, there have been other significant successes with the grape. Among them was the platinum medal for Trefethen Vineyards' 1984 Napa Valley Pinot Noir ($9.25 and a bargain at twice the price), awarded 98 points and Best Buy status as well.

With palate primed, and camera at the ready, I flew up to Trefethen recently to investigate John and Janet Trefethen's tremendous Pinot Noir victory and to congratulate wine master David Whitehouse, Jr. At the same competition, the Trefethen 1986 White Riesling ($7) won a gold medal, making his editions of this varietal a gold-medal winner seven years in a row. It was the first wine we tasted at our session, which would lead up to that stellar Pinot Noir. It's dry, fragrant, charming--not to be missed.

It was the Trefethen's third edition of Chardonnay, made by Whitehouse in 1976, that stunned the wine world in 1979 by being judged The Best in the World by the Gault & Millau Olympiades du Vin, staged in Paris in June, 1979. Robert Drouhin, in Beaune, a world-recognized Burgundian producer, challenged the victory, and restaged the competition, with his own jury of French tasters. The jury, alas, once more chose the Trefethen 1976 Napa Valley Chardonnay as The Best in the World over the biggest and best producers of the Cote d'Or.

President Ronald Reagan chose a Trefethen Chardonnay to serve to Queen Elizabeth on her 1983 West Coast visit. The current release, the 1985 Chardonnay, with two gold medals already to its credit, from one of the all-time best vintages in the Napa Valley and at $15.25 per bottle, also should be on shopping lists for those consumers who are seeking "special-occasion wines." But ah, those Pinot Noirs! The 1984 is sold out at the winery, though some is still in the marketplace. But hear this: The 1985, just released, is even better on the palate than the '84. As its fruit diminishes with aging, the generic bouquet will develop that noble Pinot Noir character.

Just two miles north of the city of Napa on the east side of Highway 29, the Trefethen Vineyards winery--a pumpkin-orange and pink, three-story wooden building, built in 1886--is the first winery tourists behold when driving north into the Napa Valley wine country. The entry is off Oak Knoll Avenue, and that's before you can see the winery, so turn back and enter this domain for a tasting. It's open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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