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150 Years of the Vine : The Napa Valley Stages Its Annual Auction--With a Taste of the Future

July 17, 1988|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER

THE MID-JUNE Napa Valley Wine Auction, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the planting of wine grapes in the valley, drew a record number of wine enthusiasts. Visitors from all parts the world filled the 250 wooded acres of Meadowood, the event's central rendezvous point since it became an annual event in 1981. The daylong auction raised $467,000 to benefit the valley's three primary hospitals. But of equal note, everywhere in the Valley were separate tasting events, luncheons and barrel-tastings.

None of these was more impressive than that in the second-floor barrel-aging gallery of The Christian Brothers Greystone Cellars, which played host to 42 wineries presenting significant varietals drawn from the wood. It took no expertise to know that what was tasted there would be tomorrow's medal harvest for competitions across the land, from vintages 1986 and 1987.

I began my own tasting at The Christian Brothers barrels: first, the 1987 Napa Valley Barrel-Fermented Chardonnay, already aged golden in Allier and Vosge oak barrels with--something new--toasted heads. It was from two lots--Oak Knoll and St. Helena vineyards--and was stunning wine, already in pleasing balance.

Next, the 1987 Napa Valley Auction Selection Cabernet Sauvignon, from the Honeylove Vineyard: velvety balance, flawless, certain to bring gold medals to The Christian Brothers upon its release to competitions.

This is a new era for The Christian Brothers, under president Richard Maher. Mid-June brought news of "Project Jackal," Maher's fresh idea of making an "assemblage" of Napa Valley Cabernet with a Bordeaux blending of Haut Medoc claret combining Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Bordeaux's Peter Sichel, of Chateau Palmer fame, was working in France towards this marriage of wines, to be released in the fall under the name of Montage. I tasted it at Chateau Palmer with Sichel last February under vows of silence. (More about Montage in September, when the bottled, labeled wine appears on the market.)

Bouchaine Vineyards, with director Eugenia Kegan dipping the "wine thief" into the barrel of 1987 Reserve Pinot Noir, proved again the closeness of Carneros Pinot Noirs to the aristocratic elegance of fine Burgundies from the Cote d'Or. Watch for it.

From Beringer's Home Vineyard, up on the hills behind the famed Rhine House, comes a 1986 Cabernet Sauvignon, already accessible, certain to excite tomorrow's collectors.

The Conn Creek 1986 Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon--80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc--will be a gentle, almost feminine early-maturing claret.

The Groth Vineyard 1986 Cabernet Sauvignon by Nils Venge is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, velvet-smooth and rich, rich, rich. The final blend, I'm told, will contain 10% Merlot for added grace.

And it was no surprise that the Saintsbury 1987 Pinot Noir, from the Carneros region, was awesome in its regal stature, giving California credence to the winery's name, borrowed from yesterday's English wine lore.

The Sunny St. Helena Winery, in the full glory of a splendid renaissance, was the winery where Peter and Robert Mondavi began their careers when it was acquired by their father, Cesare Mondavi, shortly after the repeal of Prohibition. By the mid-'40s, they were making more than a million gallons of wine in this functional facility.

Sold by the Mondavi clan in 1946, it went through a number of owners until May, 1986, when it was acquired by a dynamic quartet of Valley entrepreneurs: Bill Harlan, of Meadowood; Robin Lail, daughter of the late John Daniel, Jr. of Inglenook, presently a partner of Christian Moueix of Chateau Petrus with the already legendary wine called Dominus; John Montgomery, CEO of Wells Fargo Mortgage Co., and Peter Stocker, marketing director of Pacific Union Co.

Robert Levy and Don Weaver are producing the Sunny St. Helena wines, aiming at being great values at moderate prices. There's already a 1985 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($9.50) and an engaging, off-dry 1986 Chenin Blanc ($5.25). Don't miss a visit to Sunny St. Helena on your next Valley visit. The great hall of oak ovals is nothing short of baronial.

The Napa Valley Vintners Assn. began as a meeting of wine-maker friends in 1943, at a luncheon in the Monte Rosso Vineyard of the late Louis M. Martini. When Bob Travers, of Mayacamas joined them in 1969, he was the 10th member. Today's, the roster includes 108 Napa Valley wineries and is still growing. From the first vines planted in 1838, an industry was born to glories still unfolding.

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