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Born-Again Vineyard : New Champagne Release Marks Paul Masson Winery's Revival

September 04, 1988|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER

IT ALL BEGAN with an innocent phrase in a column listing wine discoveries I'd made in 1987. I referred to Wine Country magazine's classification of the "Best of the Best Wineries," which ranked 194 medal-winning wineries, with one Platinum Class (Buena Vista Winery), 10 Gold, 15 Silver, 25 Bronze and 40 Top Producers. Its 91 specific listings had some startling omissions, such as Robert Mondavi, Jordan, Far Niente, Wente, Martini, Raymond, Grgich Hills, Schramsberg, Chalone and Acacia, but did include what I described as "the nearly extinct Paul Masson."

That Dec. 27 column brought a prompt letter from Michael P. H. Cliff, master of wine, president of Vintners International Co., Inc., who wrote calmly to say that "the rumors of our demise are untrue." In the trade, it was fairly well known that the future of the famed Saratoga winery property, including Masson's "Vineyard in the Sky" landmark hilltop facility, was uncertain. (The setting is known to many as the site of annual summer concerts.) Only the modern Monterey County facilities, owned by Seagram, were still working. But Michael Cliff was determined to rescue the Paul Masson heritage. In May, 1987, he and partner Paul Schlem made a $240-million deal to revive this, one of the most famous of all names in the American world of wines. (Cliff and Schlem had previously worked together to help produce and market such popular wines as Taylor California Cellars and New York State Great Western and Gold Seal wines.)

When Orson Welles intoned that clarion call--"Paul Masson said it a long time ago: 'We will sell no wine before its time' "--the phrase crept into the language of jest. But Masson's passion for wine was genuine.

His desire to make champagne was born with his first visit to the regal courtyard carriage-entry of the Palace Hotel when it opened in San Francisco in 1880. Witnessing the champagne trade, he decided that he must make champagne! He knew the French Champagne province from his boyhood days. Arpad Haraszthy had been dispatched by his father, Agoston, to apprentice with leading houses in Reims and Epernay, even Bricout in Avize. A "Sparkling Sonoma" had won an honorable mention at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1867.

Masson knew that better grapes could be grown in California. In 1884, he booked passage to France to buy vine cuttings and basket presses. He put carpenters to work to build the bottling operation, aging racks for bottle fermentation, and turning. Later that year, with the equipment installed and a wonderful harvest, Paul Masson supervised the blending and bottling of the first cuvee-- 10,000 bottles. He doubled that amount in 1885, trebled it in 1886 and released the first wine, after excited sampling, in 1887. In 1900 came the grand prize, with international headlines: a Certificate of Award from the Paris Exposition of 1900.

In his letter, Michael Cliff announced that he was sending me a sample of his first new product, the Paul Masson Centennial Cuvee, in honor of that first champagne. Produced from 80% Monterey County Pinot Noir, with 20% Monterey County Pinot Blanc, this incredibly fine bubbly is a true Blanc de Noirs, as it is labeled, with a pegged selling price of $8.99, an astounding bargain. And it's being sold with proper aging time, including 18 months on-the-yeasts, en tirage .

Look also for the handsomely packaged and labeled vintage-dated Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon ($7.99) and most extraordinary Cabernet Blanc 1987 ($5.99). I've tasted them all, and with my apology to Cliff for the hint of his winery's demise, I confess it was a most happy slip, bringing the good news from historic Masson Vineyards of California.

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