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INVENTING TRADITION : It's been almost 50 years since the revolution that made the wine country. Today the pioneers are still producing some of the country's most distinctive wines.

August 13, 1992|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

ST. HELENA, Calif. — Once upon a time, this was country. The tourists who would one day clog these narrow roads and foul the pristine air had never heard of Napa and Sonoma. There weren't many restaurants around--and none with anything you really wanted to eat--so people dined at each other's homes. The pace was unhurried. But up in the hills, out of sight, a silent revolution was going on. It was a revolution of quality, the vision of a few people who believed world-class wine could be made here in the thin, harsh soils of the hillsides of Napa and Sonoma. These days, a new collection of high-image boutique wineries seems to rise up every year here, but the grand old pioneers--wineries such as Stony Hill, Mayacamas and Hanzell--quietly continue to make fine wine and market it the same way they always have, without fanfare.

This is wine made in tiny amounts from hand-tended vines that reflect unique vineyard sites. The wine making is gentle, and the wines are appreciated by wine lovers who spend years waiting to get an opportunity to buy the wine. "A lot of our old-time customers have passed down their spots on our mailing list to their kids," says Mike Chelini, the winemaker at Stony Hill Vineyards for two decades. "And then they come up here, testing their auto suspension on the rutted dirt roads, to pick up their purchases."

"We'd drive up to Mayacamas, over that awful road, once a year to pick up our Chardonnay," recalls Barney Rhodes, a longtime Napa Valley resident and owner of the legendary Bella Oaks Vineyard. "A lot of the wine that was made in the Valley back then was made only because the owner liked it, and he was making it for himself and his friends."

Visiting these places is like stepping back in time. The ancient wooden sign by the side of the dirt road halfway up the hill to Stony Hill still reads "F. H. McCrea," nothing else. The crusher used at Mayacamas bears the 1948 date of its assembly by a now-defunct foundry in San Francisco.

"My friends tell me this isn't a winery," says Mayacamas Vineyards' current owner-winemaker, Bob Travers, opening a creaky wooden door. "They say it's a museum where we make wine." The winery hasn't changed in decades, and he says the wine remains pretty much the same from year to year--in part because the techniques and the equipment haven't changed and also because the grape source is the same.

Much the same can be said of Hanzell Vineyards, where the old pneumatic basket press, designed by former winemaker Brad Webb and built for the winery, still crushes just one ton of grapes at a time. "When this place was built in 1957, it was considered the most modern in the business," says Bob Sessions, winemaker at Hanzell for nearly 20 years.

No more. Science has moved on, offering all sorts of new gadgets to automate winemaking. "But the faster you make wine and the more equipment you have," says Sessions, "the more you are separated from the product. I have resisted a lot of things like that."

The late Sonoma County vintner Joe Swan felt much the same way--he even refused to buy a forklift. "Joe said he didn't want a forklift around because it would allow him to make too much wine," says his son-in-law, Rod Berglund, who now makes the wines at Joseph Swan Vineyards. Swan moved his barrels and cases by hand.

The revolution in Napa began in 1943 when a trucking executive named Lee Stewart bought a parcel of land on the eastern flank of the Valley. It had a stone winery left over from the 1880s that he renamed Souverain. Stewart was looking for a retreat, but he grew into wine on the property and before long was making some of the best in the Valley.

Then, in 1947, Fred McCrea, a San Francisco ad man, and British-born oil industry executive Jack Taylor almost simultaneously bought property on the western slopes of the Valley. Both were looking for vacation homes; neither intended to move there permanently. And neither had any ideas about making great wine . . . at first.

Old-time residents say both McCrea and Taylor planted grapes because little else would grow in the thin, arid soils. In the late 1940s, the rock-strewn western slopes had as many prune and walnut orchards as vines. The McCrea parcel was called Goat Hill by the locals because of its steep, rocky terrain. Of the 160 acres, only 50 are planted in vines. The rest are just too steep or stony.

The wine revolution began modestly. Taylor and McCrea made homemade wine for a few years until tiny commercial lots were released--Mayacamas from the 1951 vintage, Stony Hill from 1953. But the real drive to challenge the French and make world-class wine came in 1955, when James D. Zellerbach, former U. S. Ambassador to Italy and a man fascinated by the great wines of Europe, bought a 200-acre hillside block north of the town of Sonoma and began planting grapes.

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