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High-Flying Winery : Cuvaison Offerings Post High Scores at Tastings and in the Marketplace


IN JUNE, 1987,in Zurich, Switzerland, a Chardonnay wine from Cuvaison was entered in competition with 24 famous wines of that grape, including such French names as Corton-Charlemagne, Meursault, Beaune Clos des Mouches and some equally stellar California titles. The Cuvaison Napa Valley 1985 Chardonnay was awarded first place. And at a recent San Francisco blind tasting, Cuvaison 1984 Merlot earned a higher score than the panel gave to a 1983 Petrus.

So Cuvaison is flying high--figuratively and literally, since it is being served in first-class cabins aboard Lufthansa and United Airlines.

Cuvaison has experienced a 72% increase in sales for 1987, and for good reason. The wines are delectable. In the marketplace, the word is that Cuvaison is indeed on a roll.

I recently flew to the Napa Valley to visit Cuvaison and to meet Manfred Esser, partner-president of the winery. I also hoped to get a glimpse into the future being planned by wine maker John Thatcher, creator of the aforementioned winners. I had already tasted the 1986 Chardonnay and was curious to compare it with the 1985, which had scored so high with Swiss tasters in Zurich.

Cuvaison is a small yet impressively handsome winery, just off the Silverado Trail, a few miles south of Calistoga. It was born during the wine boom of the early '70s and was named after the French word for the fermentation of red wines on the skins: cuvaison . Respected wine maker Philip Togni was engaged.

Late in 1979, after a modest beginning, the winery was purchased by Swiss industrialists, members of the Schmidheiny family. Board chairman Alexander Schmidheiny's first move was to acquire 400 acres of grazing land in the Carneros region, directly across the highway from the famed Winery Lake Vineyards, and that acreage became the Cuvaison estate planting. In 1986, Manfred Esser was brought in as president and partner; Thatcher, Togni's apprentice and assistant wine maker, moved in as wine master, and the firm's current rise to international prominence began.

Our tasting visit, hosted by Thatcher, started with the drawing of Chardonnay samples of the 1987--four different lots from different barrels. The ultimate 1987 edition will be composed of 20 different lots, embracing some barrel fermentation in new French oak, then in stainless steel, some with Montrachet yeast. What will result is a wine with exotic, fruity overtones such as those of guava and passion fruit. Each of the tasted samples evidenced an exciting, winning bouquet.

We concluded our tasting from the barrel with samples of the 1986 Merlot, balanced with 21% Cabernet Sauvignon, which is scheduled to be bottled this month. The 1986 Cabernet Sauvignon, with 5% Merlot, aging in "chateau" barrels from France, is already smooth and rich, with equally splendid promise.

Presented at lunch were the 1985 Chardonnay of Zurich renown and the 1986 release. The Swiss palate is accustomed to gentle wines, not "blockbusters," and that's what we found here. Thatcher is making wines of layered complexity, with lots of oak and lots of fruit. The 1986, about $12.50, is a good value, likely to please, and bound to get richer after several years of cellaring. By all means invest in the 1985 Merlot ($18) already on allocation to wine merchants. And expect to pay heavily for the magnum of Merlot going to the Napa Valley Auction in June. It has a label custom-designed for Cuvaison by Andy Warhol shortly before his death. It's truly a collector's item, as is the wine.

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