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A Drink in the Clouds

Mayacamas, a low-tech, hands-off winery scarcely changed since the 1940s, makes some of California's longest-lived wines.

May 30, 1996|MATT KRAMER

Wines, like stocks, have insider opportunities. And, this once, you want a low yield rather than a high one. So what would you do if a friend sidled up, hissing, "Pssst, interested in a California Chardonnay that comes from 40-year-old vines with a painfully low yield of just one ton to the acre?" And then comes the kicker: "By the way, the current offering is trading at $18 a bottle."

The stock in question (in bottled form only) is Mayacamas Vineyards, which may be California's most spectacularly overlooked Chardonnay producer. Situated at the 2,000-foot elevation in Napa Valley's Mt. Veeder district, Mayacamas has an unrivaled record of making California's longest-lived Chardonnay.

So why isn't Mayacamas Vineyards the darling of the wine set? After all, it's been in business in the same lofty location since 1941, with the same dedicated working owners since 1968. You probably know the answer already: fashion and marketing.

Mayacamas is classic old shoe, although far from footsore. For Bob and Noni Travers it is a sort of personal Brigadoon, unchanging and uninterested in change. (Not for nothing was Mayacamas chosen as an evocative location for the 1940s era depicted in the movie "A Walk in the Clouds.")

Bob Travers has been making wines--Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, the odd late-harvest Zinfandel and a tiny amount of Pinot Noir--in the same supremely simple, unswerving fashion for almost three decades. Even the Mayacamas label is constant: It has not altered a jot since 1950.

The winery is almost laughably modest compared to the high-tech palaces that line the Napa Valley floor. Mayacamas still has--and occasionally used until quite recently--the same simple hand-turned basket press that was installed when the winery was revived in 1941.

Actually, the original stone winery--still used for winemaking--dates from 1889, when its German owner, John Fischer, a former sword engraver, established his combination sheep ranch-vineyard in a south-facing fold in the hills high above Napa Valley.

Bob Travers is an easygoing, understated guy, a former banker who chucked it all to pursue a modest but determined vision of enduring wine quality.

Usually, winegrowers as unwavering as he are as irascible as wolverines. Yet Travers is affability itself. "I don't know why the world hasn't paid more attention to us," Travers, a boyish fellow in his mid-50s, muses in his soft-spoken manner. "It's probably that our wines take a while to come around."

Now there's an understatement. Today, the 1975 and '76 Mayacamas Chardonnays are stunning wines with vibrant freshness that belies their two-decade sojourn in the bottle. They bury the tired old assertion about how California wines don't age.

Mayacamas Cabernet is even more long-lived. Longtime followers like to regale each other with stories of Cabernets from the 1950s that are still full-throttle. Such wines occasionally pop up at auction and fetch prime prices.

But Travers has a point: Mayacamas wines do take patience. And that, as much as anything, helps explain the lack of hoopla. Today's most touted Chardonnays are usually about immediate gratification and accessibility: toasty new French oak; an additional rush of flavor achieved by stirring the lees, or sediment, while the wine is still in barrel; a softness brought about by inducing malolactic fermentation, through which hard malic acid is transformed into gentler lactic acid.

All of these techniques can create superb Chardonnays. But the raw material has to be right. Not all Chardonnays lend themselves equally well to the same winemaking manipulations. Travers believes that his Chardonnay grapes best reveal their high-elevation, earthy Mt. Veeder essence when handled least.

He does buy new French oak barrels, but only a few at a time. You won't find "toasty oak" in a Mayacamas wine, because Travers believes an intrusive oak taste is an unnecessary cosmetic.

Travers prevents the Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc from going through malolactic fermentation (which occurs after the primary fermentation that turns juice into wine). He seeks to preserve a firm acidity, the better to help the wine age gracefully.

And he doesn't stir the lees (sediment from crushed grapes) while the wine ages in barrel, which is particularly Burgundian. "Muddies the taste," he says.

For the immediate gratification crowd, such austerity leaves them cold. "I understand that," offers Travers diplomatically. "Although I enjoy our wines even when they're young, I can see how others might find them too austere or closed. But I do think they're worth the wait."

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