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Vintner's talents have grown, aged

Richard Peterson has helped California's industry boom, crafting winners for wineries such as Gallo and BV.

August 26, 2007|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

For a generation, Richard Peterson has helped shape California's wine industry.

He is the guy who taught the Gallos how to make sparkling wine. Peterson helped engineer E.&J. Gallo Winery's transition from its reliance on ports, sherries and other sweet dessert wines to dry table wines. Later, he made some of the state's classic vintages at the historic Beaulieu Vineyard in Napa Valley, put Monterey County on the winemaking map and developed Seagram's first wine cooler.

But Peterson's biggest contribution extends far beyond taste. He designed the steel barrel pallet in 1975, which enables wineries to safely stack barrels up to the rafters, saving space, time and labor.

The system, which enables workers to move full barrels with a forklift, is now used by most of America's wineries and by many others around the world, and Peterson doesn't get a dime for it. He gave the design away.

"This sounds stupid because everybody is supposed to be grabbing all the money they could get," Peterson said. "I just didn't patent it. I figured it was the way to pay back an industry that has been very good to me."

But now Peterson, 76, has a little time to tend to Wrotham Pinot, his own boutique Napa Valley sparkling wine under the Richard Grant (his middle name) label, and to worry about the future of California wine.

He believes that too many California winemakers chase after the palates of the critics from magazines and newsletters such as Wine Spectator and the Wine Advocate.

Too often, he says, vintners want to get the prized 90-point ratings on 100-point scales that drive wine sales and in the process "follow each other to see who can make the biggest and most muscly wines."

The problem is that the types of wines that score big tend to have a combination of high alcohol and low acidity. That's what breaks through the palate fatigue that results when critics sample hundreds of wines in one sitting. These vintages are rarely well-crafted and balanced wines that age well and enhance a fine meal, Peterson said.

"Cabernet Sauvignon should not taste like raisins, prunes and jam," said Peterson, who has worked for some of the states' largest wineries.

Peterson speaks with credentials acquired from six decades of winemaking.

He has contributed to some of California's greatest wines, including Beaulieu Vineyard's 1968 Cabernet vintage, said Darrell Corti, a veteran wine judge and co-owner of the Corti Brothers gourmet foods store in Sacramento. Peterson also has had his share of misses, such as Beaulieu's disastrous 1969 Gamay Beaujolais, Corti said.

Peterson's first venture as a winemaker came in 1948. Then 17, he checked out a book on winemaking from the Des Moines public library and experimented with Concord grapes grown on his family's small farm.

"I crushed them by hand and fermented in a ceramic pickle tub," Peterson said. "I got a barrel from a friend . . . we aged the wine for probably three months before bottling."

What Peterson didn't know was that the wine wasn't fully fermented.

"It kept on fermenting in the bottles and became fizzy, but one bottle blew up in the back seat of his 1937 Ford, leaving glass and wine stains all over," Peterson said.

Peterson's entry into winemaking encouraged him to pursue food chemistry. The former Marine received a doctorate in agricultural chemistry from UC Berkeley after he found himself in San Francisco at the end of the Korean War.

In 1958, Peterson became one of the first chemists hired by E.&J. Gallo Winery in Modesto. At the time, Gallo's dessert wines such as ports and sherrys were the big sellers.

"Hearty Burgundy was the best quality table wine that we had at the time," Peterson said.

These jug table wines, including Pink Chablis, were the basis of Gallo's growth. However, an early market test on Pink Chablis was "disappointing," said Robert Gallo, Gallo's co-chairman.

Ernest Gallo, the winery's co-founder, put Peterson on the job. The winemaker figured that a touch of carbonation and a hint of sugar would make the wine stand out.

"Pink Chablis with carbonation exploded in sales and became one of our biggest winners at the time," Robert Gallo said.

Peterson figures they had created the wine "pizza consumers were looking for."

Robert Gallo credits Peterson with improving the winemaking at the state's largest vintner, developing new products, updating the company's technical knowledge and making quality improvements at its glass bottle plant.

Peterson left Gallo in 1968 for what looked like one of the best jobs in California's rapidly developing wine industry. He replaced Andre Tchelistcheff, an early industry dean, as the winemaker at Beaulieu, the winery founded by French immigrant Georges de Latour in 1900.

Shortly after Peterson joined the winery, the decedents of De Latour sold the landmark to Heublein Corp. Peterson stayed five years before moving to Monterey Vineyards, the first large winery project in Monterey County.

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