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King of the Hill : Wine Master Togni of Chimney Rock Also Runs Own Vineyard, Winery

June 26, 1988|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER

HIGH ATOP THE summit of Spring Mountain, on the Mayacamas divide between the Napa and Sonoma valleys, Philip Togni wears two hats--and perhaps both of them ought to be crowns. On weekdays he's still the highly respected wine maker at the Chimney Rock winery, but he's also--especially on weekends--the proprietor of his own vineyard and wine-making business. With his ophthalmologist wife, Birgita, Togni makes his home next to a 10-acre vineyard and winery that the couple themselves designed and built.

Born in London of Swiss and British parentage and educated at the Imperial College of Science, Togni happened upon the wine world while he was attending a geological conference in Spain. There he met Prof. Maynard Amerine of UC Davis, who was in Madrid on sabbatical leave. Amerine suggested that Togni take a shot at California wine country when he completed his studies at Montpellier and Bordeaux.

Togni's odyssey among the California vines began at Mayacamas with founders Mary Catherine and Jack Taylor in the mid-1950s. Then followed assignments at Chappellet and at Cuvaison, where he recharted the winery policy to stellar heights. Finally, he arrived at the Chimney Rock winery, where to this day he serves as wine master.

Today, as producer of the outstanding Fume Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon of Chimney Rock, Togni has had many successes. The 1985 edition of the Pouilly Fume Baron de L of Patrick de Ladoucette inspired Master of Wine Mark Savage of England to write: "Not only is it the best Sauvignon Blanc I have ever tasted from (the United States) but, I suspect, from France also." The 1986 is equally distinctive and is available at Spago in West Hollywood, at Michael's in Santa Monica and at Campton Place in San Francisco.

Superb vintages for the connoisseur collector come from the Philip Togni Vineyard & Winery, 2,000 feet high, in the woods on Spring Mountain. From vines planted in 1981 came Togni's first 100% Napa Valley Estate-Grown Cabernet Sauvignon ($20). Deeply, richly intensive of the noble varietal, it is, put quite simply, one of the finest red wines I've had in years. Atypical of California Cabernets, it has its own niche, which is also leagues beyond most Bordeaux clarets in bouquet, taste and character.

This wine may not be easy to acquire (the telephone number of the winery--(707) 963-3731--is on the label). But you should consider yourself privileged if you come to own any of the 190 cases that were produced.

On a recent visit to Togni, the two of us topped off a lunch by sipping a wine from a rare varietal, planted atop this mountain, the progenitors of which have a history which includes the world's oldest and largest living grapevine. It was one planted at Hampton Court palace during the reign of George III, well known even a century before in South Africa's Cape Town Constantia vineyard, and cited by Michael Broadbent as a notable variety of Muscat with legends of longevity in wine, known as "Black Hamburgh." From it is made a red, sweet dessert elixir (of natural 15% alcohol) with a sweetish bouquet that suggests the fragrance of rose petals.

Half-bottles are wrapped in lavender tissue, imprinted with the grape's fascinating story. Togni calls it "Ca' Togni," the proprietary name of his paternal ancestors' hamlet in Italian Switzerland. Only 600 half-bottles of the 1985 were made, which, if you can find some, you might be able to share with good friends, on rare occasions, for but $12.50 per bottle.

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