My Life in Wine – Part 16 – California

Perhaps the best way to learn about wine and wine people is by taking customers around the vineyards, being a tour guide. I first did this when I worked in Bordeaux in ’69, occasionally hiring myself out as an English-speaking guide to the CIVB, who look after promoting Bordeaux wine. My first job was taking round a party of British journalists … a baptism by fire, it was a nightmare as you can imagine. The prodigious wine consumption had the result of me getting my first, and only, newspaper headline; “Ex-Eton tea-boy in the vineyards”. No, I didn’t go to Eton, but had worked on a building site in Eton.

Anyway, a lifetime later, there I was, this week, in Bordeaux, still standing – just – at the front of a bus with the microphone, showing round a load of Laithwaite’s people. It was a rather unusual tour that seemed to focus on building sites and new wine projects, but that helped to take my mind back to one of the most exciting customer trips ever and my first to California.

We advertised a wine trip there in Spring 1976, hoping to get a bus-load of people as normal. But I guess the price, the lack of familiarity with the wines, and the long distance, were a bit much, so we ended up with only sixteen of us.

Perhaps we were just a month early. In May, Steven Spurrier held the legendary France v. California wine tasting – now a major motion picture – known as ‘The Judgement of Paris’ where, for the first time France’s total dominance in Fine Wine received a knock from some American upstarts. The Top French Experts, tasting blind, rated the best Californian wines marginally higher than the finest of France. The upstart crow wines, previously dismissed as simple stuff were revealed to have all the finesse of a Mouton or Meursault.

But Californian wine in the ’70s was already news. You didn’t yet see Californian bottles anywhere on UK shop shelves, but people in the wine trade were talking about it a lot because it was in California where so much of the modernisation of wine happened. You could say the New Wine Age we live in began in the sixties in California. The research, the discovering of new ways to do things, the improvements; so much of that was done at Davis University in California. There was good research going on in all European wine countries, and in Australia, but it was quiet stuff. California was not quiet. Is it ever? It shouted loud and it challenged. News of The Judgement of Paris in Steven’s cute little wine shop (which I would visit any time my journeys took me through Paris) was considered a scandal in France and the result was hushed up, and ignored.

Not in California it wasn’t. By the time we flew PanAm to San Francisco in October 1976 the wine people there talked of little else.

carWhen we landed, instead of a bus, we hired two of those big old American station-wagons. Eight people in each and all the luggage roped on to the roof racks. We discovered the delights of a world first; an old fish dock turned into a major shopping and eating experience; Fisherman’s Wharfe. Then were shown round the brand new Wine Museum by its boss and afterwards got red carpet treatment at the Californian Wine Institute. It is amazing the doors that open, and the carpet that gets rolled out, just through having Hugh Johnson with you. No-one says “No” to Hugh if he asks if he can drop in with a few chums.

Then the convoy set off for the vineyards. We were a mixed bunch. There was a young lawyer, a young British couple from Holland, a retired Indian Army officer and his memsahib … very, very different people but all fascinating and all getting on amazingly well. And there was me, Hugh and Judy Johnson and the resourceful Bill Brenchley who organised the whole thing.

We went up to the Napa Valley. First place was the Mondavi winery with its iconic archway, where Bob Mondavi himself met us and showed us around. He gave us a tasting I remember very well indeed. He wanted a replay of the Paris thing and so opened a bottle of Château Latour for us to compare with his top cabernet. Some said it was the Californian climate, some reckoned it was his strength of personality, but anyway, everyone preferred the Mondavi wine.

We dropped in at the Christian Brothers’ winery and met the famous Brother Timothy for a heavenly tasting. We went to ‘Bolo’ or Beaulieu, which we would pronounce differently and the French would too, for a bit of a tasting and tour there. We went up north to stay in Calistoga and the following day we dropped in at Schramsberg; now the absolutely iconic sparkling wine of California but then just beginning to get going and not yet well known. We had a tasting and picnic under the trees with Jack Davis and his wife – it was all very California Dreamin’.

And then came a real eye opener; to a winery looking like a Spanish monastery, all white, that had just opened perched on top of a hill. You went up to it via cable cars, it was called Sterling Vineyard. The guy who showed us around, the winemaker, is now a very famous winemaker but I can’t remember his name. I’ll have to ask Hugh. It was amazing to me to think that someone could be so bold as to stick a gorgeous new winery on the top of a steep hill and put in gondolas. Certainly something you were never going to see in Europe, where wineries were always old … if they were new they were ugly sheds.

California was just so inspiring, so mind-liberating back then. If they could do stuff like this there, we should try it, too. People should experiment, try new things. It was just wonderful to think you could do these wild things, no-one stopped you, and … they worked!

That evening we went round to Heitz after hours and met the renowned Joe Heitz, a slightly tetchy gravel-voiced old fella, who I found so terrifying that I didn’t dare say a thing. He’d already established his Martha’s Vineyard label and it had triumphed in Paris. But he didn’t suffer fools. So this fool kept quiet.

That evening we had dinner at Beringer which was rather special. They laid on a picnic for us in the warm night air. The following day we went a bit further afield and went down the Russian River Valley to Simi and had a tasting with this young woman winemaker – first time I had seen one! We had lunch at Souverain, then went to Korbel and then, I think, we then on down to the coast.

The next day we switched regions. We drove south of San Francisco to the Paul Mason winery which was a massive place. We had a tour there and they gave us a massive lunch. In the afternoon we did Mirassou and toured Carmel which was, as I remember, very pretty all in multicoloured pastel clapboard. A very different area to Napa.

The following day we went just up the road to the Monterey vineyard to see Dick Peterson who was a great friend of Hugh’s. I remember those were the range of wines that impressed me most on the whole tour, and that I arranged to buy.  We climbed up in the hills to a half-built Chalone – another winner in Paris with, amazingly, one of the first wines they ever made – where the semi-naked, whippet-thin, ultra-fit owner, Dick Graff, impressed us all, especially the ladies.

The really big coup of the whole trip I suppose was the following day going to Central Valley to Livingstone and to Gallo to watch the harvest and the crush coming in and then to have lunch on his lawn with the great Ernest Gallo himself. That was quite something. I sat next to him and chatted nervously. I remember babbling “youre the biggest wine producer in the whole world. I suppose you did it by taking over other wine companies and clever deals and stuff like that”. Because I was a naive Brit, I thought, like we all did, that serious business growth was all linked to stuff that went on in The City; companies taking over other companies, merging, de-merging, all that impenetrable Financial Times stuff; I thought that was how big companies grew in those days. And this big, laconic American chewed long on his steak and eventually slowly replied “No son, we just started a long time ago and every year, we just grew a bit”. I am sure it never was that simple but that came as revelation for me, and an inspiration. It’s what our business has done ever since; we started (long ago now); and we grow a bit every year, mostly.

I was astonished by what I saw at Gallo. They were a company that didn’t do tours in those days. We were privileged. It was the sheer numbers that were just staggering. They had a million gallon tank. Biggest in the world. They also had a massive warehouse for the finished cartons of bottled wine, so big we toured it by bus. Their wine, then, mostly got shipped out by train. I think they told us they could run an entire train into this warehouse and then, with lifting trucks that had arms, (not forklifts as they didn’t waste space with pallets) they could stuff the cartons into the wagons, fill the entire train and send it off in just 20 minutes!

We went to see the grapes arriving. I’ve seen plenty of wineries over the years but I have never seen one like this. Great rows of trucks lined up as if in military formations. At the grape arrival deck they had monster machines that just grabbed each grape lorry – the whole lorry! Turned it upside down, shook it a bit so all the grapes came out into the receiving bins. I remember thinking those truck drivers had best be getting out of their lorries a bit sharpish or risk joining their grapes in the crusher.

Then we saw where the wines were made. These were the days before Gallo started or were about to start making their varietal wines. Back then they basically made a wine called Hearty Burgundy which was a massive hit. And a shablee – Chablis (the US has never worried overmuch about borrowing French appellation names.) Hugh always said Hearty Burgundy was the best cheap wine or best everyday wine in the world, back then … far better than the vin ordinaires of France. It was true. They made superb basic wines. And kept the costs down by sheer engineering. This was a winery/factory where the grapes went in at one door, whilst at another door, sand went in and got turned into glass bottles. Somewhere in the middle the two came together and out at the far end came bottled wine. It just boggled your imagination.

That was the end of our wine tour. The Grand Finale. After that we went up to Yosemite for a bit of recreation, climbed a few cliffs – the ones that had staircases – and then flew home. It was amazing how we learnt so much in a week. We saw a great new wine country, a great wine story just as it began. I certainly got fired up by that famous ‘can do’ attitude, and the speed they were going. After all, the Californian wine industry could be said to be really very young because of course Prohibition had shut the whole thing down for many years. So although winemaking started on the West Coast with the Conquistadors, all the operations we saw were pretty much brand new. And they had already achieved so much.

This week in Bordeaux we saw several examples of how enterprising people are – at last – investing millions into livening up the Bordeaux Wine Scene. Forty years later Bordeaux is now catching up with Napa and Sonoma and Co.

We observed the new Cheval Blanc winery (giant flying saucer with trees on), whilst sitting next door atop a giant shiny red metallic box in the Terrace Rouge brasserie at next door La Dominique. We visited a building site at Château Marquis d’Alesme next door to Château Margaux where they are finishing a winery that is classic Bordeaux outside but totally Chinese inside. At Les Carmes Haut-Brion we saw a half finished winery looking like a great upturned boat – in the middle of a pond, when finished – the latest creation of Phillipe Starck. We also, of course, saw the extraordinary Peby Faugeres building which is hard to miss because it sits in the middle of the view from our own La Clarière.

And we saw – best of all – our own new winery, about to receive its first vintage. Compared to all the above, ours is a modest affair, but for me it is the most exciting of all. Harvest news next week.



About Tony Laithwaite

Tony Laithwaite, founder of Laithwaite's, whose passion for wine is still going strong!