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Hanns Kornell Severs Attachment to Riesling


CALISTOGA, Calif. — New labels have begun appearing on the sparkling wines of the Hanns Kornell Winery here, and for those who know Hanns, the move must have been traumatic.

Yet behind the new labels are even more changes that took nearly a decade to get Hanns to agree to, and represent a change in philosophy.

As I sipped a Kornell sparkling wine called Blanc de Noirs, I told vice president Paula Kornell that the wine was a change of pace for the winery her father founded in 1952, bottling sparkling wine in a rented cellar.

"Thank God I can sit here and say that it's Pinot Noir and not Riesling," said Kornell, her face beaming. "It took us nine years to make this change, and being a family business, it was a hard task to get everyone to agree on this."

"Everyone," in this case, was Hanns himself, more than anyone. Marylouise, Paula's mother and president of the winery, wasn't as hard to persuade. Doing the arguing were Paula and Peter Kornell, once the little kid who liked opening the bottles with a pop, now the wine maker.

The Kornell story is one of tragedy and success. It goes back to the 1930s when Hanns was an aspiring wine maker in Germany's Rhine Valley. He had trained in France and Italy and was the third generation of wine makers producing Sekt --sparkling Riesling.

However, growing up Jewish in Germany was harrowing. In 1938, Hanns and his parents were arrested and sent to the infamous Dachau concentration camp. Fortunately a cellmate who was a political prisoner was released and he worked for eight months to get Hanns a pardon.

Inexplicably, in 1939 Hanns was released, but with a stipulation that he leave Germany within 48 hours. Hanns left, never to see his parents again.

"It was truly a miracle that he got out," said Paula.

Hanns emigrated to England, where he worked as a bottler for a year, saving his money. In 1940 he booked passage for the United States--but the ship he was on was torpedoed by a German U-Boat. Rescued, Hanns landed in New York and, without a cent, hitch-hiked to California where he worked at odd jobs, first as a dishwasher and later as champagne maker for a number of wineries.

But nobody here was then using the classic methode champenoise for making sparkling wine. It is the method in which still (non-sparkling) wine is placed into a bottle with additional yeast and sugar and capped. A second fermentation gives the wine its bubbles.

Kornell introduced that technique to California and his wines were considered excellent. Starting with a tiny, hand-made amount made in the rented cellar, Kornell eventually saved enough to buy the old Larkmead Winery in 1958. Production reached 80,000 cases at its peak in 1981.

The wines were made from Riesling, in the tradition of his native Germany, and Hanns didn't grow the grapes himself--or even press them. He bought Riesling juice on the open market, which meant less than complete control over the final product.

By the 1980s, with competition from Schramsberg and Domaine Chandon and other houses who were making sparkling wines more like the French model, it was clear that Hanns Kornell needed an infusion of new blood.

Paula Kornell, who had worked early for the company in sales, was the first to realize this.

"I had been on the road selling for nine years and I got a lot of feedback from consumers," she said. "And they were telling me we needed to switch from Riesling to the more traditional grape varieties, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir."

By 1985, Peter Kornell, with an academic background in enology from Fresno State and work experience at Seppelt in Australia, assumed more and more responsibilities for the wine making. And he and Paula pressured their father to make the changes that would bring Kornell into the modern era of California sparkling wine making.

But Hanns was stubborn, said Paula.

"What he was doing was not wrong, not bad," she said. "But making sparkling wine from Riesling was for an earlier era, when he was the only one making methode champenoise here and when the consumer didn't demand as much.

"My brother and I pleaded with Dad to drop Riesling. I have black and blue marks to show for it."

At last, in 1985, Hanns relented. A grape press was brought in, grapes were purchased and Kornell made its first wines from grapes.

The best of the new wines is the 1987 Blanc de Noirs ($14.75), from Sonoma County grapes, a fairly rich and complex wine, quite dry and full-bodied. The 1985 Blanc de Blancs ($14.75) isn't as complex, though the aroma of Chardonnay is quite apparent.

The non-vintage Brut ($10.75) underwent the greatest change, and it's an excellent wine for the price, complex and toasty. Subsequent releases will be even fresher than the current wines, said Kornell.

One old favorite of the Kornell line, called Sehr Trocken (German for "very dry") will continue to be made, satisfying those who liked the Riesling aroma and taste in a true Sekt type of wine.

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