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A proper noir mystery

Did this Paso Robles Pinot actually beat out a legendary Burgundy? It takes some sleuthing to find out.

May 04, 2005|David Shaw | Times Staff Writer

It was a most intriguing e-mail.

Joe Gargiulo, a publicist based in Sonoma County, was alerting me to what he called the "coming-out, 2002 vintage" of Adelaida Cellars' Hoffman Mountain Ranch Pinot Noir, the first from new winemaker Terry Culton, made in the Adelaida district of Paso Robles.

But it was the history of Hoffman Mountain Ranch that intrigued me -- and that Gargiulo thought would engage my interest in the new wine.

"Most of the wine world is aware of the 1976 Paris tasting where a Napa Valley Cabernet and Chardonnay upset their French counterparts," he wrote, "but few have heard of a subsequent competition that selected a Paso Robles Pinot Noir over the highest rated red Burgundy."

That Pinot, Gargiulo said, was from Hoffman Mountain Ranch, and the Burgundy it bested was from "the revered Domaine de la Romanee Conti." The tasting took place in 1976 or '77, he said, and he quoted Dr. Stanley Hoffman, who owned the property at the time, as saying, "The French cried 'Foul!' so the blind test was repeated in New York City with the same results."

Wow! Like most wine lovers, I was, of course, familiar with the celebrated '76 Paris tasting in which a 1973 Stag's Leap Cabernet and a '73 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay stunned the wine world by beating their French counterparts in a blind tasting. That event put California on the global wine map. But I'd never heard of a Pinot-Burgundy tasting with a similar outcome.

I immediately asked researchers in The Times library to see what they could find in our archives or the archives of other major publications. I also asked Gargiulo to see if he or Hoffman, who sold the property 20 years ago, could provide any contemporaneous reports or other documentation on these two tastings. And over the next few months, I asked about the tastings virtually every time I spoke with anyone in the wine world who I thought might know of them -- collectors, merchants, journalists, winemakers, anyone and everyone.

The only information turned up in these inquiries was a 1979 New York Times column by Terry Robards that briefly mentioned a 1975 Hoffman Mountain Ranch Pinot finishing third in a tasting in a Paris suburb sponsored by Le Nouveau Guide of GaultMillau, then a relatively new French magazine and restaurant guide that was challenging the "Guide Michelin."

But Robards' column made no mention of any DRC wines or a second tasting.

Then, purely by chance, there landed on my desk a new book: "North American Pinot Noir" by John Winthrop Haeger. Surely this 443-page encyclopedic tome would have some mention of an international triumph by a North American Pinot Noir.

I flipped to the index. Nothing. No mention of Hoffman Mountain Ranch. I decided to track Haeger down through his publisher, the University of California Press. He responded almost instantly to my e-mail.

Yes, he said, he knew about the Paris Pinot tasting. It was called "Les Olympiades GaultMillau du Vin," and it was conducted in Paris in 1979.

The Hoffman Mountain Ranch Pinot Noir?

"I don't know exactly how high it placed," he wrote, "but I know it was one of the six top non-French Pinots ... because only the top 6 were invited to Beaune for the 'rematch.' "

So there was a second tasting -- but in Beaune, not New York.

Did Hoffman Mountain Ranch really beat a DRC wine in Paris? Haeger didn't know.

"I don't have the full list of the 586 wines in the Paris tasting," he said. "I don't know if any DRC wines were among them."

He offered to get the full results of the Paris tasting from friends at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, and I told him I'd greatly appreciate that. In the meantime, he said, he could send me some information on the Beaune tasting, which took place at Maison Joseph Drouhin and pitted six Drouhin red Burgundies against the top six non-French Pinots from the Paris tasting.


The evidence

A week or so later, Haeger's package of articles from the French press arrived at my office. I went immediately to the tasting results. Uh-oh. It was clearly not a shining moment for Hoffman Mountain Ranch, no matter what Hoffman and Gargiulo now say.

Their Pinot finished ninth out of 12 contenders, losing to all six Drouhin wines and beating out only two Swiss Pinots and a Greek Pinot. (A Greek Pinot?)

Gargiulo subsequently sent me copies of the GaultMillau magazine covering the Olympiades tasting. It showed Hoffman Mountain Ranch in third place, behind an Australian Pinot and a French Burgundy. But it listed only what appeared to be the first 11 finishers, and there was nothing from DRC -- nor from any other high-quality Burgundy producer -- on the list.

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