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California's Lost Pyramids

September 09, 1993|DAN BERGER

At one time in California, Sherry was king. Before Prohibition, Americans consumed more fortified wines, mostly Sherry and Port, than they did table wines, and the solera , a series of barrels placed one atop another, often in a pyramid, became an integral part of every major winery.

The bottom solera barrels contain the oldest wine; in the upper barrels is the youngest wine. For a classic solera -style Sherry, small amounts of the wine in the lowest barrels are blended together and wine from the next tier up replaces it. New wine enters only the top tier of the barrels.

One of the finest soleras in California history was erected in 1933 (at the end of Prohibition) by the late Louis M. Martini at his Napa Valley winery, with his son, Louis P. Martini, who blended what some feel was the state's best Sherry.

Slow sales of all Sherries caused Martini to remove the solera a decade ago, but the winery still makes exceptional Sherries by using a technique called "fractional blending."

The winery has 200 chestnut puncheons of varying ages filled with different lots of Sherry. Louis P. Martini no longer makes any of the winery's table wines (his son Michael is now winemaker), but continues to be solely responsible for the Sherries, taking wine from three or four levels of barrels each year.

The resulting wines always include a small amount of a master blend that dates back to the 1930s. The wines from Louis' pet project, called Dry Sherry and Cream Sherry, sell for about $7 a bottle and both are excellent. A Martini wine designated "Golden Anniversary Sherry," produced a few years back, may still be on some store shelves. At $10 it was an exceptional buy.

Many other California soleras were eliminated about a decade ago, including fine soleras at Almaden, Sebastiani, Sierra Wine Co., the Christian Bros., Richert and other locations. The solera at Richert in the Hecker Pass area near Gilroy was one of the best, and Richert once made a great Sherry. In the mid-1980s, the solera was demolished and all the stock of the winery was sold to Chateau Julian in the Carmel Valley, where it eventually all sold.

I know of only three soleras remaining in California. All yield good Sherries but not a Fino in the style of Spain.

* Weibel Vineyards: Using traditional grapes and careful blending, winemaker Rick Casqueiro continues to make the fine Weibel Dry Bin Sherry (like a dry Oloroso ) and Cream Sherry (each $9). The Weibel solera also was used to make the exceptional Sherries of Llords & Elwood, but that brand was sold a decade ago to Monticello Cellars in the Napa Valley and about two years ago, Monticello's owner Jay Corley discontinued the Sherry project. The final bottles of Llords & Elwood Dry Wit (an off-dry wine) and Judge's Secret Cream Sherry may still be found in some stores.

* Twin Hills Winery: A wine called James J's Private Reserve California Dry Sherry is made by this small producer in Paso Robles. The wine, made from the Spanish Palomino grape, is as close as California Sherry comes to Fino . It is light and crisp and extremely well made. The wine, which sells for $10 a bottle, is available largely at the winery, 2025 Lake Nacimiento Drive, (805) 238-9148.

* Rancho de Philo: A solera established in 1964 by Philo Biane, former owner of Brookside Winery in San Bernardino County, continues to produce 250 cases of wine per year. Called Rancho de Philo Triple Cream Sherry, it sells only at the winery, 10050 Wilson, Alta Loma, (909) 987-4208 ($10.50). The winemaker is 84-year-old Biane, who uses the Mission grape, which makes a heavier wine than does Palomino. Biane sold Brookside Winery in 1972 to Beatrice Foods. It since has closed.

Others still make stylish Sherries but do so without a solera.

* Buena Vista Winery uses a fractional blending system similar to Martini's, but without as old a master blend, to make Buena Vista Cream Sherry and Buena Vista Dry Sherry (just for the tasting room). They sell for $12 each.

* San Antonio Winery in downtown Los Angeles discontinued its solera as impractical two years ago. Today San Antonio makes a substantial amount of Sherry that is baked. A large amount of Sherry (along with Madeira and Marsala) is used in commercial food preparation. Said winery president Steve Riboli: "We double-bake it and we do not add coloring, so we get a deeper color and more flavor. Restaurants use it in their reduction sauces. And it tastes great sipped from a glass too."

* E & J Gallo Wine Co. The world's largest producer of wine got into the Sherry business in a major way some 20 years ago when it improved production techniques. Today Gallo calls its Sherries by the name Sheffield; they are good values.

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