On Sept. 11, 1980, Mountain House Winery became bonded winery 4992.
Mountain House Winery would stay in touch with their fans through Mountain House Notes, a trifold pamphlet of information about the latest happenings and their wines. Fortunately, Ron Lipp and Michelle Turner retained the notes, and we present them for your enjoyment.
MOUNTAIN HOUSE NOTES
From our House to yours,
A LITTLE WINE (AT LAST)
We are herewith releasing our first wines – a red and two whites. They reflect, I hope, the notions which / have outlined above.
1980 LATE HARVEST ZINFANDEL
In the Shenandoah Valley in the foothills of Amador County is a stand of 50-year-old Zinfandel vines which in favorable years have a remarkable capacity to produce the essence of that variety’s fruit and charm. In the past, they have provided most of the famous Late Harvest Zinfandels of Mayacamas. In 1980, they came, with Bob Travers’ blessing, to Mountain House. The grapes arrived at the winery in nearly perfect condition, with a remarkable 30° Brix sugar. They were fermented for 9 days in the ’70s.
The wine was aged in an American oak tank to preserve its fruitiness and briefly barrel-aged before bottling in August 1981. The alcohol is 16.4%. At bottling, the pH was 3.2, and the total acid 0.8 gm/100ml. The wine is dry to taste; the residual sugar is only 0.37% by weight. If it tastes sweet, that’s the fruitiness, not sugar. 500 cases were produced.
This wine is Mountain House’s salute to Mayacamas. If you like it, I take all the credit. If you don’t, complain to Travers, if it weren’t for him I wouldn’t be in this crazy business.
1981 MENDOCINO GOLD
No, there is no grape by that name and it definitely isn’t something to smoke, The title is a Mountain House exclusive celebrating the County we call home, our only bow to chauvinism. What the bottle contains is three-quarters Mendocino County Chenin Blanc blended with Chardonnay for bouquet and aging potential and French Colombard for crispness. It has had 3 months in mainly French oak barrels to add further complexity.
It was bottled at the end of March 1982. Allowing a few months for bottle aging, it should be enjoyable this summer and keep getting better for a good while thereafter. The wine has 12.7% alcohol; its pH is 3.25, and its total acid is 0.69 gm/100ml. The wine is also bone dry. Some 450 cases exist.
So if you’re appalled at how much gold you have to part with to acquire any good Chardonnay, you may find a silver lining in our Mendocino Gold. It will at least give you something to drink while the expensive stuff is maturing.
1980 SONOMA CHARDONNAY
The grapes came entirely from an Alexander Valley vineyard with deep gravelly soils. They were picked on October 6, when they had achieved an almost perfect balance of 23.5° Brix and a total acid or 0.8 gm/100ml. After overnight skin contact, the juice was fermented for 18 days in the low 50’s before transfer to an American oak tank for finishing. The wine was aged in two-thirds French oak (Limousin and Troncais) and one-third American oak barrels before bottling in August 1981. Alcohol is 13.9%; pH is 3.49; and total acid is 0.68 gm/100ml.
The wine is already developing a complex and perfumy bouquet which should continue to improve with further bottle age. The alcohol and acid levels give a prospect of substantial aging potential. The wine is medium-bodied; that is, it may be said to emphasize balance and nuance overpower and audacity. (I think I read that in a wine book somewhere.) About 380 cases were produced.
A LITTLE HISTORY
In 1859, Alexander McDonald, a former New Yorker who had settled in California after the Mexican War, purchased a tract of land in the Mendocino Mountains. The inland region of Mendocino County was then a wilderness of Redwood forests and grassy valleys. On the coast, the lumber industry was developing, but the coastal towns were accessible only by sea.
In the next few years, the first dirt roads were cut through the rugged mountain terrain to connect the County with San Francisco. One route stretched South from the interior agricultural valleys around Ukiah; another pushed inland for 50 miles from the seacoast. These two great roads crested at McDonald’s property, where they converged for their southward journey to San Francisco.
In due course, McDonald built a stage stop and an inn to accommodate the growing stream of travelers and commerce. “Mountain House” soon became such a prominent landmark that the road to Ukiah was named “Mountain House Road” and the coastal route became known as the ‘McDonald-to-the-Sea” Highway.
In time, Mountain House’s role as a traveler’s refuge passed into history. The redwood hay barn keeps its vigil by the side of the road, but no stagecoach has run since the 1920s, McDonald-to-the-Sea (now called by some “Highway 728”) remains the principal road to the Mendocino Coast, but in the late 1930s, present Highway 107 supplanted Mountain House Road as the main route to the Northern California interior.
With these time-wrought changes, Mountain House seemed destined to become like many other California landmarks, more noteworthy for its past than its prospects. But in 1979, Mountain House began a new career – one which, like its former incarnation, resulted from its location, though for reasons which Alex McDonald could scarcely have imagined.
In 1979, another expatriate, Ron Lipp, and his partners purchased the property and began Mountain House Winery. That undertaking was the result of a process begun several years before.
In the early 1970s, Ron, then an antitrust lawyer in Chicago, had become intrigued by the California wine country. He was struck not only by the beauty of the area and the challenge of winemaking, but also by the revolution then underway as one new winery after another was begun by doctors, lawyers, and businessmen turned winemakers, each trying to meet the demand for new and distinctive wines.
To dispel any illusions born on cold Chicago nights about the romance of winery life in the bucolic California countryside, he worked the 1974 harvest at Mayacamas Vineyards in Napa. When he found that he was still intrigued after picking Cabernet on 1059 days, he decided there was no escape and began preparations to exchange his briefcase for a pair of cellar boots.
As part of that process, he enrolled in the Master’s program in viticulture and enology at the University of California at Davis and returned for a more intensive apprenticeship at Mayacamas to learn the things that books don’t teach.
He also began to look for land. Over 3 years the search extended to Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Monterey, San Benito, Santa Barbara, and Santa Clara Counties in California; the Willamette Valley of Oregon; and the wine districts of Indiana and Michigan. In the end, nearly 200 properties were considered. The last one was Mountain House.
The second matter is the amazing flowering of premium grape growing districts in California during the same period. Even a cursory survey of California wines reveals the remarkable extent to which the traditional sources of the best grapes have been joined or even supplanted by vineyards and areas are given scant regard or none at all a decade ago. And there is no reason to believe that this evolution will not continue unabated.
This is all part of the coming-of-age of California wines and as wine drinkers, we are the better for it. But this ferment presents a special problem for premium wineries. The idea that the perfect place to grow the ultimate variety can be found and that a winery can be based upon it assumes that this evolution in viticulture and wine tastes can be stopped in its tracks. Maybe someday, but not likely while you and I are still able to raise a glass to our lips.
Yet any winery whose production serves mainly as an outlet for its own vineyards is taking precisely that gamble. At Mountain House Winery, we believe that an essential element in making the best wines we can is preserving our freedom to remain part of the evolutionary process. We chose Mountain House not so much for its vineyard potential, although we think it is substantial, but for its location. The most important new areas of vineyard development in California’s North Coast lie at its doorstep and it has good access to the grapes of Napa, Sonoma, and beyond. We expect to always buy most of our grapes and to go anywhere we have to in order to find the best ones.
A LITTLE PHILOSOPHY
With Mountain House and its instigators thus introduced, I hereby forswear essays in the third person, hoping never to relapse in future issues of these Notes.
The adventure which has become Mountain House Winery began and continues as a dream to create a winery devoted to making the best wine we can on a scale small enough for both the wine and the winery to be a personal statement. You might call it wine as art, with one eye, focused on the income statement in order to keep the venture afloat. (I’ve heard the rumor that we are not unique in these aspirations; / trust that our friends and critics will take us to task if we stray too far.)
The search for Mountain House began as an effort to find a parcel in a cool coastal mountain location where fine varieties like Chardonnay could be perfected and a small winery built. But along the way, I was struck by two facts which have an important bearing on the challenge now facing premium wineries. The first is the incredible volatility (“dynamism” if you prefer) of the American wine market. Ten years ago, Cabernet was king; today, Chardonnay is a worthy successor, unless you believe the evidence that Sauvignon Blanc is about to mount a palace coup or that C.S. is going to regain the crown. As American wine preferences have evolved, the one thing that has remained constant is that nothing remains constant.
MOUNTAIN HOUSE NOTES
From our House to yours,
This issue of Notes, while denominated “Autumn”, probably should be called something euphonious like “Autumn-Winter” since it will reach you closer to Autumn’s Fall than its Spring. Or something like that. Our tardiness is due entirely to an uncommonly tough harvest, courtesy of Mother Nature. In September, following a virtually non-existent Summer, the Winter rains arrived early and with a vengeance. We haven’t had two dry weeks back to back since. The result has been mud and bunch rot from Mendocino to Amador and more than a few growers wondering why they got into this business. So there is more than the usual satisfaction in finally having all the grapes crushed and discovering that the new wines look pretty promising after all.
‘OF MEDALS AND SUCH’
Following the remarkable reception which greeted our first release of wines last Spring, I was asked on several occasions why our wines were not to be seen in the many competitions which seem to have sprung up like mushrooms after the first rains. / usually responded that we had more than a little skepticism about the value of these events and that therefore, as a general rule, Mountain House would not enter them.
Wine competitions are undoubtedly great fun and, given the proliferation of wines, are probably about as inevitable as teenage acne. They at least tell the consumer about somebody’s preferences and give wineries some help in selling their product. (“Buy the wine that just went Gold at the Sleepy Hollow Fair!”) But at present, these competitions seem a dubious guide to wine quality. At best, they risk being unhelpful; at worst, they are downright misleading. There are at least 3 levels on which these events fall short.
The first is the obvious matter of the competence of the judges and the validity of the competition rules and procedures. Can the judges distinguish Chardonnay from Potato Sherry and rank entries on a consistent basis? (If the judges have been tasting Potato Sherry, can they now distinguish anything?) Have they been expected to evaluate 50 wines in a morning without suffering permanent sinus failure (the dread curse of Olfactory Burnout)? Are wine categories meaningful? Are the wines available in the market or are they special “competition blends” which will never grace a restaurant table? Are the Late Harvest Zinfandels being judged by an emeritus professor who believes that any wine with over 14% alcohol is a crime against nature? Are substantially all qualified wines included in the event? One prominent competition carefully excludes wines made from grapes grown within the county but vinified by wineries located elsewhere – thereby ensuring that local wineries garner all the medals.
One aspect of the problem is the tendency to draw distinctions where none exist, to place great importance on differences in scores that are meaningless. A famous tasting some years back was widely proclaimed as proving the superiority of some California Cabernets to a group of renowned French Clarets; a mad rush immediately ensued to grab up the remaining bottles of the winners”. Subsequent statistical analysis revealed that, by and large, the judges had in fact been unable to distinguish the French and American entries in terms of preference. So the real lesson of the tasting was that the California wines as a group were on a par with their illustrious European counterparts – an important conclusion in its own right, but not the one acclaimed at the time.
Perhaps because valid distinctions are so hard to make, many competitions have suffered from the failure to be discriminating enough. One major statewide event was long known for handing out medals as freely as politicians kiss babies. If your wine didn’t get at least on honorable mention, it was probably unfit for human consumption. Another leading statewide competition recently awarded 61 medals for Chardonnay – not very useful as a shopping list the next time you visit your local wine merchant. The once cherished gold medal is so obviously depreciated that some competitions have now gone to double gold and “best of class”. (Isn’t that what a gold medal is supposed to be?) No doubt, the judgings will, in due course, take the next logical step, following the example of the recording industry, and begin awarding platinum medals as well. Some competitions have already resorted to a “Best of Show”, perhaps in reaction to the mind-numbing prospect of 91 gold medals in a single show. By what standard does one compare a gold medal dry Charbono with a gold medal 12% residual sugar Muscat in deciding whether one of them is best in the show? Or is a fine Chardonnay inherently more worthy than the world’s best-ever, knock-out Gamay Beaujolais?
The seemingly endless spawning of medals surely results in part from a desire not to hurt anyone’s feelings – like giving a present to everyone attending a toddler’s birthday party – and partly from winery pressure. If the winery down the street got a medal for its Pinot Noir, you’d better get one for yours, too. If enough competitions hand out enough medals, there will be some for everyone.
The paradox is apparent. While the medals by their nature purport to distinguish excellence, their exploding number makes them meaningless. Which is what the competitions risk becoming.
Which may not be such a bad thing. It does relieve the fundamental, underlying problem: by what standards are the wines to be judged? Even if a competition has a superb set of judges employing flawless procedures and is downright parsimonious in handing out accolades, it still must confront the crucial issue of its standards of quality. Should wines be judged for their present enjoyability or the judge’s estimate of their long term potential? (This is no small matter when, as in one recent competition, Cabernet Sauvignons being judged in a single class included every vintage from 1976 through 1980.) Should a glass of wine be evaluated from a technician’s point of view with attention to its enological defects or for the pleasure of its tastes and smells? If the latter, are the proper standards of judgment the unabashedly subjective preferences of the taster or some objective criteria? What objective criteria?
There lies the heart of the matter. At the bottom, the issue is an intensely difficult question of the philosophy of esthetics. And the plain fact is that at this stage in the development of our wine culture there is no well-established body of objective criteria by which to judge wine quality. Should Chardonnay be intensely fruity or heavily oaked? Should the winemaker aim to produce a blockbuster wine – huge and dramatic – which even the most fatigued or jaded palate will be able to grab onto as “different” and therefore medal-worthy, or should his goal be to produce wine which blends harmoniously with food? Should Cabernet be judged at 9 a.m. in the laboratory or in the evening over Beef Wellington?
This difficulty is of some moment, When a major competition hands out a gold medal, it is not the same thing as your Sunday night tasting group deciding which bottle is it’s favorite. The competitions purport to speak with authority and expertise. Their results are not taken as the mere subjective preferences of 5 wine drinkers who got together for a congenial day of good company and checking out the new releases, but as an objective pronouncement of quality: This Is The Best.
It is a burden which the competitions cannot bear. Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, there is no parallel between a gold medal for the javelin throw in the Olympics and a gold medal for Sauvignon Blanc in, say, the LA County Fair, Awards at wine competitions are the highly subjective judgments of a relatively narrow cross-section of wine drinkers.
And not very consistent judgments at that. If any proof were needed of the absence of common criteria consistently applied, it is readily available in the inconsistency of the competitions’ results. Thus the organizer of one of California’s leading competitions recently noted that 3 other major competitions were held at about the same time as his. Each appears to have attempted to survey most of the wines currently available. Yet he noted that of the 194 wines which received a medal or honorable mention in his competition, only 14 received any kind of recognition – even an honorable mention – in all 4 competitions and only 46 received recognition in even 2 of the other events.
But why so much huffing and puffing about all this? Maybe the competitions are sort of meaningless, but it’s all good clean fun. Not quite.
The second matter is the coherence of the competition’s results. This is a major problem even for those high caliber events which have striven to eliminate flaws of the objectivity and authority, these events lead consumers to make wine buying – and therefore drinking – decisions based on their results. When the New York Times prints the results of the Orange County Fair in its next edition, it’s not for lack of something else to report. A major distortion of the market results.
Even more important is the largely unrecognized impact of these events on American wine tastes. We are, both as consumers and producers, in the midst of a major, long-term evolution in our vinous preferences. Thus, California wines have moved in recent decades from timid imitation of the Europeans (make it from Zinfandel, but call it “Burgundy”) to brash adolescence in which we asserted our independence by producing tannic gut-busters which the Europeans never could, to a more subtle style whose dimensions are not yet clear. The competitions interfere with this process by creating an illusion of objective authority. If a Chardonnay got a gold medal in a major competition it must be “good” wine, right? Well, if enough people make their wine buying decisions that way, that’s the kind of wine which will be produced; and wine judges, not consumers will become the arbiters of wine style.
So what’s to do? You can’t possibly sample all the wines yourself to find the best ones. First, take the competitions with a grain of salt. Regard them as the subjective preferences of a probably knowledgeable group of tasters whose tastes you may not agree with. If a wine gets a medal in 3 major tastings, maybe you should grab it! Second, look hard at the really good wine publications, the ones that don’t merely give a wine 3 stars, but tell you why in explicit terms which allow you to determine whether it suits your tastes. Finally, in an age of ever-expanding wine offerings, there may be no substitute for reliance on a wine merchant whose judgment you can trust and whose palate is reasonably compatible with your own. Find him and hang on to him.
Our 1980 Sonoma Chardonnay is, alas, long gone. Modest quantities remain of our 1980 Amador Late Harvest Zinfandel and 1981 Mendocino Gold. The former should be required rations for a long cold winter, especially if you own a St. Bernard. As for the Gold, we specifically disavow the advice of the wag who suggested we should drink the wine and smoke the label.
A (VERY) LITTLE WINE
We are herewith releasing two wines, a white and a red.
1980 MENDOCINO CHARDONNAY
This is our first release of Chardonnay from our home County. The grapes came from a vineyard in the Talmage area of the Ukiah Valley of Mendocino County. The vineyard is characterized by a well-drained deep gravelly soil. The grapes were harvested on October 3, 1980, at 24.2° Brix. The must be fermented for 19 days in the mid-’50s and then transferred to an American oak tank for finishing. The wine was barrel-aged in two-thirds French oak (Lim mousin and Troncais) and one-third American ook before bottling in June 1982. The alcohol is 13.2%; pH is 3.02; and total titratable acid is 0.89 gm/100ml.
The Mendocino Chardonnay is somewhat fuller and a tad oakier than its Sonoma predecessor. The bouquet is remarkably forward and complex for its youth, so we expect good things from this wine. On the palate, it is redolent of butterscotch, with a lingering finish. Only 300 cases exist.
This is a Mountain House exclusive, a red wine to complement the Mendocino Gold which we released last Spring. Like the Gold, this wine is a blend which relies principally on a grape noted for its fresh fruitiness, supplemented by a grape which develops a more complex bouquet and taste. In this case, the blend is three-quarters Zinfandel and one-quarter Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Zinfandel came from the same remarkable 50-year-old Amador County vineyard which produced our 1980 Late Harvest Zinfandel. The Cabernet came from two Sonoma County vineyards, one in the Alexander Valley near Healdsburg, and the other a mountain vineyard near Cloverdale.
The wine was aged largely in an American oak tank to preserve its fruitiness, with a brief period in French and American oak barrels. Alcohol is 12.7%, pH is 3.28, and total titratable acid is 0.86 gm/100ml. The wine was recently bottled. About 400 cases were produced.
Vermillion has an intensely fruity nose and a velvet palate, as befits a young, but table-ready Zinfandel, but is already beginning to show some of the complex spicinesses which results from the interaction of Zin with Cabernet.
MOUNTAIN HOUSE NOTES
From our House to yours,
TRUTH IS STRANGER THAN…..
In the Autumn, 1982, issue of Notes, I ranted at length about the defects in a wine competition. In a moment of rhetorical frenzy / even venture that the once-vaunted gold medal has become such common dross it would no doubt soon be supplanted by platinum. At the time, / thought my comment might be a tad excessive; in fact, it turns out only to prove the poverty of my imagination. A publication which subsequently crossed my desk tells of a wine declared to be an American National Grand Champion. May the Force be with you.
FROM YOUR HOUSE TO OURS
One of the legacies of Mountain House’s stagecoach days is a rustic redwood caretaker’s cottage situated beside an ambling stream not far from the main winery building. By 1979, when we acquired Mountain House, the cottage had become a bit too rustic, so we began a gradual renovation – replacing sagging floors and rotting foundations, modernizing the utilities, and ousting the resident mice (we think). In 1981, we also began a landscaping program in the cottage yard, planting such common flora as daffodils, daylilies, and boxwood, and a few less common species, such as Japanese iris and aquilegia.
Our efforts in this direction are far from complete, but they now seem sufficiently far along to share them with you. Accordingly, on Memorial Day, Mountain House celebrated the grand opening of its visitor’s cottage, with due apologies to the ghosts of any caretakers-past for the intrusion on their privacy.
During the Summer, we will be open to receive visitors Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and at other times by special appointment. You may inspect the winery, sample the wines, and make purchases by the bottle or case. You may also consult Michelle Turner, our Sales Manager, and Linda Villa Gomez, our Cellar Mistress for their views on such burning questions as the best wine to serve with baked beans. (If they’re not around, you will have to settle for the winemaker.)
Mountain House is located on Highway 128, 7.2 miles north of the town of Cloverdale. Look for us on the west side of the road. Our post-Summer hours are still unresolved, but a call to the winery will provide current information. *No, that’s not what it means.
One of the special joys of owning a bona fide historical landmark is piecing together its past, a study which contrasts sometimes tedious days spent pouring over dusty library records with others devoted to gossiping with neighbors and tracking down descendants of Mountain House’s early residents. As our collection of genuine archives and dubious fish stories grows, we hope to share it with you at the Visitor’s Cottage and in Notes.
In the first issue of Notes, we told you that Mountain House was founded in 1859 by Alexander McDonald and soon became the site of a prominent inn and stage stop for travelers between San Francisco and the Northern reaches of the State. The photograph reprinted in this issue of Notes shows the Inn at Mountain House, The original was taken, as nearly as we can tell, about 1875. The inn later burned down, but the Victorian residence and hay barn which stood on either side of it, remain.
We value Notes greatly as a way for periodically reporting to you on our progress. But the high costs of printing and distributing it inevitably forces us to periodically update our mailing list. If you place an order with us on the current order card, you will automatically be kept on the mailing list. If you don’t, please return the enclosed Mailing List Card, showing your current address, to assure that you receive future issues of Notes.
THE LAST OF THE FIRST
With this issue of Notes, we are releasing the last wine produced by Mountain House in our maiden vintage – 1980. It also happens to be our first Cabernet Sauvignon. It is accompanied by the first varietal from the 1981 harvest, a Chardonnay.
1980 SONOMA CABERNET SAUVIGNON
The grapes for this wine came entirely from a hillside vineyard located near the top of Pine Mountain, just north of the Alexander Valley. The grapes were harvested on October 4 and 5, 1980, at an average Brix of 24.40. The must be fermented in stainless steel for 4 days at temperatures ranging from the mid ’70s to the low 80’s and was pressed off the skins at 4° Brix. Fermentation was completed in an American oak tank. The wine was aged for 27 months in a combination of French and American cooperage before being bottled in January 1983. The alcohol is 13.0% and the pH is 3.45.
There is an uncommon range of flavors in this wine. It speaks of cassis, of black currants picked at full ripeness and of earth tones. The wine is round on the tongue with a prolonged finish. It is perhaps more Bordelais than Californian and is best as a good company for food, with sufficient acid to stand the competition of strongly flavored dishes. Some 420 cases were produced.
1981 SONOMA CHARDONNAY
This wine is a product of the same high mountain vineyard which produced our 1980 Cabernet. Like that wine, the grapes for the Chardonnay benefited from the long, cool, even growing conditions which permitted the grapes to achieve full ripeness without losing their natural acidity, The grapes were harvested on September 9 at 23.70 Brix and 0.85 g/100 ml total titratable acid. The must was fermented in stainless steel for 16 days at temperatures mainly in the high 50’s. The wine was aged for 7 months in an American oak tank and 8 months in American and French (Troncais and Limousin) oak barrels before bottling early in January 1983. At bottling, the alcohol was 13.6% and the pH was 3.37.
This is perhaps the “friendliesť” Chardonnay which we have produced thus far. The bouquet is a lush combination of ripe melons and vanilla. In the mouth, the wine is viscous, soft, and supple, unusually harmonious for its youth, with a lingering aftertaste. We wish we had more than 460 cases.
We still have for sale at the winery or by mail, varying quantities of some of the wine from our prior releases. Consult the enclosed order card for availability and pricing.
Recent months have seen a growing chorus of alarm in the press over the injury inflicted on the American wine industry by “unfair” competition from imported wines -chiefly from Italy, France, and Spain. A common complaint is that government subsidies permit foreign producers to dump their wares on the U.S. market at reduced prices, with a devastating effect on sales of American wine.
As a wine drinker, I may salivate over the prospect of a bargain purchase of a feisty Rioja or a perfumy Puligny-Montrachet, but as a wine producer who drives a German car and uses a Japanese TV set, I must admit to a certain tightening of the stomach when I read that wine may be the latest industry threatened by a foreign peril.
For it is true that foreign wines have made major inroads in the U.S. and that at least the California wine industry is in difficult straits. Wine imports into the U.S. have leaped by over 50% in the last 5 years – apparently invigorated by heavy promotion and low prices – and now account for a record 24% of the American wine market. In contrast, sales of California wine stagnated during 1982 and even declined in the first quarter of 1983.
All in all, it is easy to understand and even sympathize with the anguish over hard times and the resentment of foreign competition reflected in the press reports. But the striking thing about those reports is how short they are on information to back up their charges. Maybe, when all the facts are in, it will turn out that the woes of the American wine industry are at least in part a product of unfair European practices. But in weighing this issue, and what, if anything, to do about it, there are a few points we ought not to lose sight of if we are to avoid making our friends in Europe scapegoats for problems whose origins lie elsewhere.
First, we are in the midst of an incredible sea change in the California wine industry. Life would be chaotic if not a vicious drop were exported from Europe. There are now nearly 500 bonded wineries in California, most of the new kids like Mountain House, all of them fighting for shelf space and consumer loyalty.
Even old, established wineries are feeling the heat. A decade or so ago, only half the wine consumed by Americans was table wine; now three-quarters is. A decade or so ago, only a quarter of the table wine was white, now 60% is. Everybody knows about the boom in wine on the cocktail circuit. Not as widely perceived is an apparent corresponding decline in consumption of wine as a mealtime beverage. New labels, new wines, new consumption patterns, everybody trying to find a niche.
Second, in recent years the wine industry has been hostage to general economic conditions to an extent not seen since the Great Depression. By most measures, the last real non-recessionary year was 1978. The subsequent 4 years correspond with the explosion of new California wineries in the market and the efforts of those wineries to absorb the production of all those new vineyards planted in the mid-’70s. More recently, high U.S. interest rates and the blessings of Le Socialisme Francais have taken their toll: a dollar, which not long ago bought only 4.5 French Francs, recently commanded nearly 8. So a bottle of Beaujolais which used to sell for $10 can now be priced at $5.60 and yield the same Franc return.
Third, some of our complaints are aimed at what appears to be European social policy which is not aimed at us. Yes, the Europeans subsidize their farmers, artificially reducing the prices of farm commodities – but not just farm commodities intended for export. As a passionate free trader, I would love to get rid of such governmental subsidies – including those sponsored by the U.S. government for American farmers (including grape growers. But that’s a much larger issue, wineries are making major reductions in grape purchases. A number of wineries have gone into bankruptcy or reorganization; at least two have sold off their equipment piece-meal. California grape prices may be down in 1983 by as much as 25%.
And finally, the Europeans have a wine lake which makes ours look like a piddle. It is elementary economics, good business, and generally legal under the U.S. antitrust laws to clear a surplus commodity at any price, which covers marginal cost even if it means selling the product at far less than its total cost.
All these factors must be plugged into the equation in assessing the source of our ills. But what if the Europeans do turn out to be doing us dirty. What’s to do. One California winery widely distributed a proposal that we quit buying Italian winery equipment. But that’s cut ting off your nose to spite your face. If an Italian wine press gives me the best quality and lowest cost of the equipment available, I don’t understand how I help consumers or myself by resorting to an inferior alternative. A more common approach says “We ought to close American markets, just like they close theirs.” Beggar thy neighbor.
Only two problems. First, it doesn’t work. Second, it puts the price of the salvation of the American wine producer on the back of the American wine consumer. Sure, I can sell you more wine if I make sure you can’t have something you like better
What we can do is a very careful job of getting our facts straight and then endeavoring to eliminate, by negotiation or legislation, real and provable foreign policies which constitute unfair trade practices aimed at our markets. Meanwhile, we should take a hard look at some of the imports’ very effective marketing and promotional techniques and make sure our complaints aren’t a case of sour grapes.
MOUNTAIN HOUSE NOTES
From our House to yours,
Our first Mendocino Chardonnay in 1980.
In 1981, the grapes were picked on September 9, nearly a month earlier than the prior vintage. They came in with an excellent balance of 23.4° Brix and 0.92 gm./100 ml. total titratable acid. One-third of the lot was given overnight skin contact. The must was fermented for 27 days at temperatures in the mid-50’s. The wine was aged for 10 months in an American oak tank and barrel-aged for 5 months in three-quarters French oak (Limousin and Troncais) and one-quarter American oak before bottling at the end of 1982.
The current release is readily identifiable as akin to the 1980 version. It is full-bodied with a nose suggesting both butterscotch and green apples. It is perhaps more vicious and a bit less oaky than the ’80 was at a comparable point of development. The bouquet is coming along nicely; the wine is still a bit short in the finish, but that should come along in due course. We expect it to be long-lived. The alcohol is 13.9%, pH 3.3, and the total titratable acid is 0.75 gm./100 ml. We made about 350 cases.
1982 MENDOCINO GOLD
Last year, we introduced a new proprietary wine, Mendocino Gold. The concept was to blend a variety known chiefly for its initial fruitiness (Chenin Blanc) with a lesser amount of a second grape noteworthy for its richness and aging potential (Chardonnay). We also added some French Colombard for crispness. To add further interest, the wine was aged in mainly French oak barrels – but only briefly, lest the fruitiness is dissipated. The wine was fermented to dryness.
Our initial release (the 1981 version) has developed exactly. as we had hoped. In the beginning, it was intensely fresh and zesty. As the Chenin Blanc quieted down, the Chardonnay and a touch of the oak flavor came forward. The wine is now subtle and complex, an excellent accompaniment to seafood, but equally enjoyable by itself.
We are now releasing the 1982 edition. It was handled the same way as the ’81 in all respects but two. First, in 1982, the French Colombard grapes were not up to par, so that variety was omitted. Second, growing conditions last year suggested the value of unusually cool fermentations.
Thus, the Chenin Blanc was fermented for 83 days at temperatures as low as 43°.
The result is a wine that is almost overwhelmingly fresh and fruity with the aroma of crisp, ripe pears. It is, at the moment, simply delightful and should have an intriguing future. The alcohol is 11.5%, pH 3.0, and the total titratable acid 0.65 gm./100 ml. The wine is bone dry but so fruity that it may seem sweet to some. There are about 400 cases.
We cannot imagine a more festive or exuberant holiday spirit – one to complement your own.
RANDOM FREE FLOATING THOUGHTS AT THE END OF OUR FIRST SEASON IN THE VISITOR’S COTTAGE
Like the creatures which inhabit the woods at Mountain House, we are now wintering-in, which is to say that the “closed” sign is securely in place in front of the winery and the tasting bar in the Visitor’s Cottage has been furloughed until lilac time next Spring. (We will, however, interrupt our hibernation this Winter to sell wine, but not for tasting, if you make advance arrangements to visit.)
The following fare-thee-wells come from assorted notes accumulated during our inaugural season in the Visitor’s Cottage:
- To the couple who bought a bottle of Late Harvest Zinfandel on our opening day and returned the next day to buy 6 more because it was the best they had ever had: Thanks, we needed that.
- To the lady who asked, confidentially, which one of our wines to serve with her gourmet baked beans: May we refer you to some of our competitors down the road?
- To the man who bought 5 cases of our Mendocino Gold to pass out to customers of his Mendocino Gold: We love cash customers.
- To the lady who brought her 4 urchins directly from the seacoast to the restroom at Mountain House and left a substantial quantity of sand as a souvenir: May all your corks go bad.
- To the gentleman who came to sample our wines three different times before announcing that he only drinks White Port: Would you like to meet a lady with some terrific baked beans?
- To the lady in the red Mercedes convertible who came to meet “the charming winemaker”: Michelle is away Mondays and Tuesdays from 9 till 5.
- To the man who drove out of his way to visit us because he loves our Petite Sirah: Sorry, we don’t make Petite Syrah.
- To the couple who stopped on the way to their honeymoon at the Little River Inn and bought a bottle of our Sonoma Chardonnay because they wanted a special wine for a special occasion: You are why we keep trying to make it the best we can.
- And to all of you who made every weekend this season a special occasion for us through your wit, curiosity, and occasional sand: See you next Spring.
The fruits of the 1983 harvest are now secure in the aging cellars, safe from the threat of incipient Winter, and those of us in the wine crafting trade are noticeably more relaxed. Harvest is always a special time in a vint ner’s life, but one whose sense is a little difficult to portray.
One more load of Chardonnay remains unpicked and the forecast is threatening. On Thursday night, you call the grower. “Let’s pick at first light tomorrow morning.” You go to bed wondering if you’ve held out too long. At 9 a.m., the last grapes are loaded on the truck and the bins are covered with plastic sheets. At 11 a.m., the rain begins. You spend Friday afternoon dashing out to the fermenting pad to crush the grapes during lulls in the storm. You finish in the early evening just as the night lights are going on. The juice has the best flavor you’ve seen all season. Within a few days, the Cabernet also has been picked and crushed and the pace begins to slacken.
This year, you got lucky. You skated all season on thin ice; but in the end, you never got dunked. Despite a small crop, you got all the grapes you wanted, including a new source of first-rate Chardonnay and a marvelous batch of Cabernet Franc. The cellar is now bursting with new wine. To be sure, a little of the Chardonnay had to be culled for bunch rot and the Cabernet Sauvignon feel a bit shy of the mark in sugar. But the flavors of the new wines are full of promise and there is good cause for Thanksgiving.
So here are the ground rules:
- You may mix or match in a single order all the wines currently available as shown on our order form (one bottle of this, two of that, etc.).
- The total number of bottles in your order must be a multiple of 3 (3, 6, 9, 12, 15…27… 312). This is necessary to conform to the capacities of our shipping containers. (Well, maybe if you order 311 bottles, we could make an exception for an order that large.)
- The bottle prices are shown on the order form already reflect the 10% discount formerly given on full case orders. Thus, our usual price for 1980 Cabernet Sauvignon is $10 per bottle; the price on the order form is $9. In effect, you can now get a case discount on a 3 bottle order.
The order will be shipped by U.P.S. in a single shipment to a single destination. We will not separate wines by type or send them to multiple destinations. (If you do want wines sent to different locations, we will treat them as separate orders and assess a shipping charge for each.) Our shipping and handling charge for orders of less than 12 bottles is $8; for 12 bottles or more, it is $10.It begins in late Summer with a certain quickening of the pace around the winery as the crusher and presses are put into place, hoses checked, new barrels soaked up, and fermenters cleaned. Worklists somehow grow longer, not shorter. Do you have enough hydrometers? Has the leaky valve in the refrigeration system been fixed? Will the Cabernet bottling be finished in time? The excitement becomes tangible.
As the season progresses, so do the vineyard reports. The Chardonnay is nearly ready in Sonoma. The Cabernet is ripening unevenly, it will be tough to decide when to pick. The acid levels in the grapes seem a little low. The crop looks small. Maybe there won’t be enough tonnage to fill the tanks. If this heatwave keeps up, the shortage will get even worse.
The weather suddenly changes. A thunderstorm, then a cold front. The sugar levels in the grapes go down. The Chardonnay is beginning to show signs of bunch rot. If the weather doesn’t shape up soon, there could be trouble. Watch and wait. The anticipation takes on a nervous edge.
With each new band of clouds, the telephone rings. “We’ve got to pick.” Growers’ memories of last year’s storms and mold are still too raw. High anxiety time. High stakes time, too. If you pick now, you’ll get low sugar, under-ripe grapes – and hard thin wine to show for the effort. If you wait, maybe the weather will clear and you’ll have a banner vintage of lush, ripe fruit yielding rich, full-bodied wine. Or maybe the storms will resume and everything will come unraveled – vineyards turning to seas of mud, vines laden with grapes tumescent with rainwater and stinking of rot.
You gamble. “Let’s let it hang on a little longer. If the weather gets worse, we’re ready to move fast.” Keep it casual. I hope you made the right decision.
Then it begins for real. One truckload, then another. Crushing, pressing, settling, racking. Adrenalin pumping. Check the sugar, test the acid, inoculated with yeast. Clean-up at midnight. Bone tired. Oh, the refrigeration has to be checked again. Now you remember: this is why you got into this crazy business. As the fermentations take off, the air fills with the heady perfume of yeast and new wine. Vintners have been doing it, pretty much like this, for hundreds of years. A link with the past, but a time of renewal. It’s still magic every year.
The fruits of the 1983 harvest are now secure in the aging cellars, safe from the threat of incipient Winter. The crusher and presses have been cleaned and greased and put away for the year. The vineyard is littered with brown and yellow grape leaves, the pomace has been added to the compost, and we have just finished planting daffodil and tulip bulbs in the gardens by the Visit or’s Cottage. The cellar has settled into a quieter schedule of racking and finding the new wines and supplies are coming in for our Winter bottlings of last year’s Chardonnay. In a few weeks, it will be time to start working on the year-end government reports and finishing the bookkeeping.
And talking with the growers about our needs for the ’84 vintage. I wonder what kind of harvest it will be.
One benefit of our new shipping policy can be to ease your holiday shopping. You may now send wine directly from Mountain House to friends, relatives, and business associates in quantities of 3 bottles or more. We will enclose a card identifying you as their benefactor. Your bonus will be fewer hours spent battling shopping mall crowds, and therefore, more time in front of the fireplace enjoying your own gustation.
U.P.S. now allows us to ship wine to addresses in California and the following 12 jurisdictions: Alabama; Illinois; Indiana; Michigan; New Jersey; New York; Rhode Island; Virginia; Washington; Washington, D.C.; Wisconsin; and Wyoming.
Send us a separate order form for each order. And don’t dally too long if we are to make shipment before the Holidays.
MORE OR LESS
From time to time, we have received inquiries from wine drinkers who were interested in our wines, but not sure they really wanted to order them in case lots. An understandable sentiment in a day when so many wineries are offering their wares for sampling. Dim sum, yes, but not a whole plate of each, please. Could we possibly ship orders of mixed cases? Well, thank you kindly, but no, we couldn’t – not really set up for that sort of thing, you know. Too complicated, too expensive to handle. After a few more inquiries, we decided to take a hard look at whether we really could handle it – and conclude.
MORE HOLIDAY CHEER
We are now releasing two white wines – our last from 1981 and our first from 1982. Each appears to be even better than its predecessor.
MOUNTAIN HOUSE NOTES
From our House to yours,
TIME FOR WINE
We are herewith releasing two wines which are true children of their vintage:
1981 CABERNET SAUVIGNON
This is our second release of Cabernet. The wine is a marriage of grapes from three vineyards. One, high up on Pine Mountain, north of the Alexander Valley, also supplied our 1980 Cab. A second is located on the Alexander Valley floor. The third, which provided about half our tonnage in ’81, is from a marvelous vineyard located on a bench near Glen Ellen. You will see much more of it in future Mountain House Cabernets. It imparts an aromatic, eucalyptus-mint fragrance to the bouquet.
Befitting the warm, languorous conditions under which it was grown, the wine is soft, luscious, and velvety. As complex as our 1980, it is presently more drinkable. The wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. The alcohol is 13.1%, the pH is 3.37 and the total titratable acid is 0.675 gm/100 ml. About 830 cases exist.
1982 SONOMA CHARDONNAY
The grapes were produced by the same Alexander Valley grower who provided our 1980 Sonoma Chardonnay. In 1982, picking had hardly begun when the rains came. A week of cloudiness and humidity wreaked havoc in the vineyard, turning most of the crop to mush. Among the devastation, however, were limited numbers of excellent berries, including some with a blush of Botrytis—the highly prized growth whose magic is best seen in Sauternes and Trockenbeer enauslese rieslings-but unaffected by other assorted molds. Over two days a crew of 12 from Mountain House armed with shears individually selected these berries, usually only a few from each vine. Less than 2% of the crop was picked and the wine is the smallest lot which we have made to date, a mere 280 cases.
The resulting wine is the most subtle, delicate, and complex Chardonnay which we have produced. There is a distinct, though not powerful, the perfume of Botrytis in the bouquet, yet the wine is entirely dry. Barrel aging was reduced on this wine in order to restrain the oakiness. The alcohol is 13.5%, the pH is 3.25 and the total titratable acid is 0.68 gm/100 ml.
OF MEDALS AND SUCH: A REPRISE
The results of the Orange County Fair Wine Competition are in. As usual, the judges churned out medals like they were a politician’s campaign promises-giving a total of 871 awards in all. That included 114 medals for Cabernet Sauvignon and 107 for Chardonnay. Of the 42 Petite Syrah entries, 20 went bronze or better.
If you’re like most serious wine drinkers, you probably care chiefly about who came out on top in your favorite varietals, say, $8 and up Sauvignon Blanc. But the most interesting results in Orange County this year are not among those high falutin’ categories. The real action was in that utterly plebian class “Generic Red.” In the “$5.51 and up” price range, there were 10 entries. The sole gold medal went to Hop Kiln Winery’s 1981 Marty Griffin’s Big Red, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Petite Syrah, and Napa Gamay, which seems to retail for about $6. There were, in addition, two silver medals. One was given to the 1980 Opus One, the prestigious new creation of Robert Mondavi and Baron Phillippe de Rothschild, which is appearing on wine shop shelves for $50 a bottle. The other was given to 1979 Insignia, the highly regarded top-of-the-line red wine from Joseph Phelps Winery which goes for about $30 each.
What! A $6 offering outsourcing two heavy-duty hitters from the stratospheric $30-$50 range? It’s always possible that one of the big guys is a clunker, but it hardly seems likely that both are. So Marty’s Big Red must be the undisputed Bargain of the Century and you’d better immediately run down to your local wine merchant and buy every case you can lay your hands on.
Why are you still sitting there? Skeptical? Well, so am I. I have no doubt that Big Red is an excellent value and the Orange County Fair Competition is rightly regarded as being among the very best of the breed. But I suspect that the truth about the Generic Red results is quite different than the explanation I have ventured above. In the Autumn, 1982, issue of Notes, I presented a lengthy critique (some might say tirade) about the inherent defects in wine competitions. In the course of that essay, I opined: “Even if a competition has a superb set of judges employing flawless procedures and is downright parsimonious in handing out accolades, it still must confront the crucial issue of its standards of quality … And the plain fact is that this stage in the development of our wine culture there is no well-established body of objective criteria by which to judge wine quality.”
Or to put it another way, judges are controlled by their expectations and the process of judgment is fundamentally subjective. In an open-ended category like Generic Red, orthodox expectations associated with groupings like expensive Cabernet and moderate-priced Gamay go into the shredder, and judges can end-up preferring a $6 wine to a $50 one. Like a Rorschach test, competitions may tell more about the observer than the subject.
HARVEST WINE SALE
By the time you receive this, the Mountain House crush pad will be enveloped in the heady perfume of fermenting Chardonnay, the finches will be in ecstasy in the pomace heap, and the winemaker will—as usual-be mumbling about whether the crusher can hold up to one more load of grapes. In short, that unique time of bleary-eyed excitement known as harvest will be upon us.
It hardly seems possible that Mountain House is entering its fifth vintage and is no longer the new kid on the block, but the calendar clearly says it is so. To celebrate the occasion we herewith announce our Fifth Vintage Harvest Wine Sale to be held through the month of September. On each weekend during the month (that is, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday), the Visitor’s Cottage will be open for wine tasting, and a special 35% discount off our regular retail price will be given on full case purchases of wine, including purchases of mixed cases. At that price, your cost is less than wholesale, which should give you a reason to celebrate, too.
If you can’t make it to Mendocino, we will extend the same discount to any mail order received by us before the end of September. The order must be for 12 or more bottles to be shipped to a California address. (UPS no longer handles out-of-state deliveries.) A handling charge to cover our shipping costs will be added.
So long as the wine is made from fruit, the fundamental vagary of this generally unpredictable business will be the weather. And seldom has the verisimilitude of this truism been greater than in the past few vintages. In 1981, a warm, dry growing season brought the earliest vintage in many years. A few North Coast sparkling wine producers were picking at the end of July and most wineries were into the crush at least a month earlier than in 1980. In 1982, an exceptionally felicitous Spring flowering and berry-set period were followed by a gentle Summer. As Harvest approached, the grape crop appeared huge beyond anyone’s imagination. The main preoccupation was how the wineries could possibly absorb all this bounty.
And then the rain came. In itself, there’s nothing.
A tropical storm, usually on its last legs, wheels up out of Baja, dumps a half-inch of moisture and moves on to die. The pickers get a brief respite while the vineyards dry out and the sugars in the grapes go back up. Within a couple of days, things are going full blast again. But not in 1982. In that year, we had El Niño. What started as a storm, risked becoming a way of life. Rain, followed by days of overcast skies and high humidity, and then more rain. The vineyards became seas of mud; sugar levels plummeted; picking stopped with no resumption in sight. Some vineyards, with especially heavy leaf canopies, became perfect incubators for every manner of mold and other micro-organisms.
Bunch rot turned grapes to slime. The effects were surprisingly uneven. Some areas were devastated, others hardly touched. One Mendocino grower lost nearly an entire vineyard to mold but took solace that his other vineyard was holding its own. A week later, it was stripped bare by hail. For all the travail, the 1982 crush still set a tonnage record. Some people called El Niño a blessing in disguise. Maybe next year will be better.
In the winter which followed, the rains were endless. At Mountain House, the total approached a hundred inches. As Spring advanced, growers were unusually attentive to spraying and dusting for mold and mildew, and many growers began relentlessly hedging back their vines to increase air circulation. Summer echoed Spring, cool and unsettled. The vintage would be late. The first signs of bunch rot appeared, scattered here and there among the Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay. The vines were hedged again and the crop thinned to get off infected bunches. The tension in the air became palpable. A thunderstorm rumbling across the September sky announced another soggy harvest. For a second year, there would be little cause for joy in the vineyard.
In 1983, El Niño showed its egalitarian side. Regions which had been spared in ’82 took the brunt of the damage in ’83. In the first vintage, Cabernet Sauvignon had escaped largely unscathed; its loose clusters and tough skins resisted infection. In the second, the weather stayed too cold for them to mature. In many vineyards, the Cabernet was picked half-ripe. No one called that a hidden blessing.
After two unbearable autumns, the remorseless 1983 Winter showers of rain seemed to augur another round of the same. But at year’s end- December 29 at Mountain House-Jupiter Pluvius turned the spigot off. The skies went dry. By February, the lawns needed regular watering again. The fields turned brown weeks before their time.
In June and July, one heat record after another fell. The lilies at the Visitor’s Cottage, which usually flower till Labor Day, went to seed by early August and the nasturtiums refused to bloom at all. In vineyards with too little leaf cover, the Chardonnay suffered from sunburn and began to raisin. Wineries are scurrying to finish their Summer bottling, clearing their tanks in anticipation of the earliest harvest ever.
But for all this, there is surprisingly little complaining. Maybe someday we will be back to grousing about too much dust and spider mites and heat stress in the vines and the pumping costs of having to irrigate too much. For now, we are too busy getting the crusher ready, too excited about picking in the sunshine again, and too nervous keeping a weather eye on the horizon.
This is not Everyman’s Chardonnay and not for wine drinkers who look for a brass band in the bottle. But for those with a palate for a more elegant and perhaps European statement, this should prove a wine of abiding intrigue. You might call it a berry select wine. You berry probably would be correct.
HOISTED ON HIS OWN PETARD
I concluded last Autumn’s Notes with something called “Random Free Floating Thoughts at the End of Our First Season in the Visitor’s Cottage.” Among the fare-thee-wells included in that essay was one addressed “To the lady in the red Mercedes convertible who came to meet the charming winemaker’: Michelle is away Mondays and Tuesdays from 9 till 5.”
In keeping with my chauvinistic temperament, I looked forward to receiving curious and envious queries from some of my winemaker friends about the mysterious lady. In the weeks which followed, I was mildly perplexed when they showed no interest. It turns out that what they really wanted to know is what Michelle is doing Monday and Tuesday. Now that I think of it, so do I.
MOUNTAIN HOUSE NOTES
GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS
The good news is: now that we’re back in the newsletter business, we can announce the release of our 1982 MENDOCINO/NAPA CHARDONNAY. The bad news is: There almost ain’t none. You can’t blame that on Fred Wasson, but you might blame it on the Ritz-Carlton. When we introduced our wines to Chicago in March, the wine buyer at the Ritz was so enthusiastic about this one he asked for our entire non-California allocation. We had a similar reception in Colorado and at such places as Geoffrey’s in Malibu and Emile’s in San Jose. A dozen or so cases remain, for sale only at the winery or on the enclosed order card.
The grapes for this wine were endowed with a modest blush of botrytis cinerea, the “noble mold” of Sauterne’s fame. The juice was cold fermented in stainless steel and finished in oak. The wine was aged for 11 months in American oak tanks and 8 months in mostly French oak barrels before bottling in May 1984. The bouquet and forward palate are redolent of the earthy tones of botrytis, but the wine is dry, one of the few non-dessert botrytized wines extant. It is medium-bodied, with moderate oak tones and a long, lingering finish. The alcohol is 13.4%, the pH is 3.16, and the total acid is 0.83 gm/100 ml. About 550 cases were produced.
TWO FOR THE ROAD
It almost seems anticlimactic, but we also have two “regular” wines ready to release:
The second vintage of our proprietary blend of 75% Amador Zinfandel, and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon. The Wine Spectator called our first release a “great’ table wine; we think this one is even better. The bouquet is cherries and violets. A medium ruby color belies a rich, full-bodied flavor. It is tannic in the mouth, smooth in the aftertaste. Michelle calls it an explosion of Zinfandel.” The alcohol is 13.4%, the pH 3.11, and the total acid is 0.8 gm/100 ml. We produced about 410 cases.
1983 SONOMA CHARDONNAY
No botrytis in ’83, so the wine more closely resembles our earlier vintages. The aroma is a heady bouquet of pears, apples, butterscotch, and vanilla. The wine sits lush and viscous in the mouth — well balanced and aromatic with a lingering aftertaste. It is moderately oaky. The wine will benefit from further bottle age; we think it has a fine future before it. The alcohol is 13.9%, the pH is 3.15, and the total acid is 0.73 gm/100 ml. Some 490 cases were produced.
AN OLD BEAUTY
No, I don’t mean Michelle — who is hardly past the first blush of youth. I have in mind our 1980 SONOMA CHARDONNAY.
When Michelle and I were associated with Mayacamas Vineyards, in the days before there was a Mountain House, one of the things we most admired was Bob Travers’ tradition of holding back a small portion of each wine for deferred release after it was fully bottle aged. It’s a tough practice for a new winery to emulate, especially in the cash-flow department, so our ‘hold-backs’ will be tiny indeed. But within those limits, we hope from time-to-time to offer a few diligent wine drinkers an opportunity to taste our wines fully matured.
Appropriately, our first re-release is the first Chardonnay we produced. Originally offered in the Spring of 1982, it was good enough for the Golden Gate Wine Society to award it a trophy as the outstanding winemaking achievement of that year. We said about it then: “The wine is already developing a complex and perfumy bouquet which should continue to improve with further bottle age. The alcohol and acid levels give a prospect of substantial aging potential. The wine is medium-bodied.” In maturity, the wine is a bit oakier, but in every other respect has lived up to our expectations. We produced 380 cases; only 15 remain. So a 3 bottle limit, please. If you like, you could blame this one on Fred Wasson too, for it is made solely from his grapes.
Which should reassure you when you dine at the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago or Alexandre’s in Denver, where you can now find Mountain House vintages for the first time – though I’m not sure how we found time to open up two major new markets in between audits.
That brings us to Spring and the newsletter in hand, which will seem to you a little more jam-packed than usual because it is trying to do double duty. For which you can blame Fred Wasson.
AN OFFER YOU CAN’T REFUSE
More than a few of you have inquired over the past few months as to why the latest issue of Mountain House Notes did not grace your mailbox this Winter. Some have ventured a prosaic explanation: was the Postal Service (an Orwellian if ever there was one) again running amok? Others inquired whether Mountain House had joined the forlorn ranks of the California wineries biting the dust. One perverse soul, his solicitude masking an ill-concealed glee, wondered if the winemaker had finally run out of hot air. The answers are “no”, “no”, and “fat chance”.
The truth is that the Autumn, 1984 issue of Notes never left the typewriter – a casualty of the tyranny of time, which is to say, our most hectic year yet. (Further confirmation of our tardiness may be observed in the fact that this issue, denominated “Spring”, is emerging at what looks oddly like Summer. I could tell you that it is always Spring in Mendocino; I’m sure you’re grateful I didn’t).
Instead, I’ll tell you the problem is all Fred Wasson’s fault. Fred grows Chardonnay in the Alexander Valley – some of the best Chardonnay I’ve seen and an important component of Mountain House’s Sonoma Chardonnay since our first vintage. Fred’s a grower of the old school who does it as much for love as money and likely as not will plant a few tomatoes or a little corn at the end of the vine row because he can’t stand to waste space.
But for all his experience, Fred still gets afflicted with grower anxiety as the harvest approaches. So when he called me last August 12 to tell me his grapes were ready to pick, I reacted more with skepticism than concern. The Summer had been hot, but we had never picked Chardonnay before September 9. The crusher and wine presses were still in storage gathering cobwebs, and Michelle and I were about to fly to Boise where the Arid Club, a prominent social gathering, was holding a “Mountain House Night”. Sure, Fred, I’ll come down and look at the vineyard this evening.” That way he’d know I was paying attention; besides, it was about time to start monitoring the grape sugars anyway. I returned that night in stunned disbelief. The next day the crusher came out of storage, and we started calling around for extra help. On August 15, Fred’s first load of grapes came in.
At this distance, the month which followed is an indistinct blur. Everything came ripe at once and could hardly be pulled off the vines quickly enough. To add to the fun, the harvest was so early half the pickers were still South of the Border. We weren’t the only ones caught by surprise. Such crews as there were often wandered from vineyard to vineyard bidding up their services. You never knew how many hands would show in the morning.
That early frenzy more or less set the tone for the rest of the year; things never quite got back on an even keel. As Harvest receded and the prospect of a respite before the Autumn sales trips and year-end bookkeeping grew palpable, we discovered a new benefit of becoming an established winery. Having five vintages under our belt doesn’t just make us experienced. It also means we are on the list. I can now report that we have overpaid our property taxes, are a little light on our workmen’s Compensation assessment, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms apparently is satisfied for the time being that we are not poisoning the Chardonnay or bootlegging Cabernet out the back door.
Remember the time you visited a charming, small winery nestled in the bucolic countryside and heard tales about the magic and the madness of the harvest and for a moment savored the idea of chucking the rat race and embracing the vintner’s life? And remember how you wondered if you’d still be able to make the payments on the BMW and manage the annual trip to Costa Del Mar? And decided maybe you’d leave things the way they are.
Well, think again. This Autumn, for the first time, Mountain House will offer to 10 couples with romance in their hearts and grapes on their mind the opportunity to spend one glorious day making magic and Chardonnay (or Cabernet as the case may be).
Here’s the deal:
- You send us your name, address, and telephone number and a $75 deposit. Singles cost the same as couples; first come, first served. We will send you a confirmation.
- We will call you by September 1 to notify you of our expected crush dates. Because the harvest depends on the weather, we won’t know until then how the season is progressing. When we call, we will give you a choice of 2 dates, each on a Saturday or Sunday. As things now stand, we think the dates will be during the last two weekends in September. When we call, you must either accept or decline. If you decline, we’ll send you back all but $10 of your deposit. If you accept, you’re on the hook. We’ll then give you final directions. If for any reason we can’t accommodate you (Act of God, reinstatement of Prohibition, etc.), we will give you a full refund and a complimentary bottle of wine When you show, you must make a final payment of an additional $75.00.
At $150 per couple, this is not exactly a free lunch. So what do you get for all that loot? First, a real hands-on day working at an honest-to-God low-tech winery. (When we say “hands-on” we mean it.) Depending on the state of the crush, you may be picking grapes above. Second, a sumptuous picnic lunch. Third, some snapshots, not guaranteed suitable for framing, and other memorabilia of the occasion. Finally, as the ultimate souvenir of your winemaking gambit, a case of the wine you helped make. The wine will not, of course, be available until it has been aged, bottled, and is ready for release. We’ll let you know when the time comes.
So, if there’s a vintner inside you crying to get out or you’d simply like to try something none of your friends has already done, send us a note and a check, but don’t wait too long.
A LOUSY DEVELOPMENT
So long as wine comes from grapes, vintners’ fortunes will be fundamentally grounded in the vagaries of farming. The mud and molds of the recent El Nino vintages gave us graphic reminders of our vulnerability. But even in the best of vintages, the enemies of grapes are legion: mildew, leaf roll virus, spider mites, grasshoppers, and starlings to name only a few of the more commonplace. Historically, the worst plague of all was phylloxera (Daktulosphaira vintafolide (Fitch) to the fastidious). A plant louse which long escaped identification because of its unusually complex life cycle, phylloxera stunts and ultimately destroys vines by sucking on their roots. Vinifera grapevines, on which the European and California wine industry depends, have no resistance.
About 1860, phylloxera was unwittingly introduced to Europe from the Eastern United States on experimental cuttings. Over the next 30 years, 75 percent of the vines in France (and doubtless as much in other grape-growing countries) were destroyed by the organism, devastation of unprecedented proportions. In the 1870s, phylloxera also entered California (from either Europe or the Eastern United States) and wreaked havoc in the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma.
In time, it was discovered that the native vines from the Eastern United States were resistant to phylloxera; not necessarily immune, but largely tolerant of its depredations. With this discovery, most of the vineyards in Europe and California were replanted to grafted vines – vinifera rootstock grafted to native American or hybrid rootstock. And phylloxera receded in most growers’ minds to a historical curiosity.
Growers in a few new vineyard areas like the Salinas Valley near Monterey grew so sanguine they planted their vineyards to ungrafted vines. To their chagrin, phylloxera has now emerged as a serious pest there. Growers elsewhere have taken this development as the price for excessive optimism, secure in the safety of their grafted vines. All that may be about to change. Entomologists at U.C. Davis has identified what appears to be an entirely new biotype of phylloxera in, of all places, Napa County. This new strain, labeled Type B, attacks formerly “resistant” rootstock. It thrives on AXR #1, the most common St. George, previously thought to be entirely immune to phylloxera. It isn’t clear yet whether Type B is an import or an evolutionary development or what the possibilities are for controlling it.
Originally, Type B was identified in only two vineyards in Napa. But as the U.C. publication “Grape Pest Management” observed in 1981: “Experience has shown that phylloxera will eventually reach every vineyard in an infected district despite heroic preventative efforts.” The latest information is that Type B has apparently invaded a Sonoma County vineyard as well. This is a subject on which we are all likely to hear more. Much more.
MOUNTAIN HOUSE NOTES
From our house to yours,
This is the last issue of Mountain House Notes which will grace your mailbox. As you know, recent years have been a constant ordeal for small, new wineries struggling to find a niche in a tumultuous industry beset by the recession, cheap imports, and ever-shifting consumption patterns. And so it has been for us too. Like many of our colleagues and rivals, we were drawn into the California wine industry in the early 1970s. It’s difficult sometimes to recall how things were then.
The industry was reborn after Repeal and World War II in shambles — vineyards in all the wrong places, wineries, and distribution networks in disarray, and its image badly tarnished by memories hungover from Prohibition. Everyone “knew” that good wines came only from Europe, preferably France. If it was a bottle for a serious occasion, like entertaining the boss, it should come from Chateau Belles Vignes and say something like ‘Grand Vin’ and “Mis en Bouteille dans nos caves”, none of which necessarily meant much but sounded impressive.
To succeed in this environment, an American wine should say ‘Chablis’ or ‘Rhine Wine’ or maybe ‘Burgundy’, or ‘Claret’, or ‘Chianti’ (all three of which might have come from the same tank). A few courageous or maybe foolish producers offered bottles with uncomfortable names like ‘Pinot Chardonnay’ which were surely suspect because you never saw them on an imported label.
By the 1960s, there was talk of a brave new world in California where producers like Heitz, Mayacamas, Spring Mountain, and Ridge were making a new style of wine, not imitation French or German, but something that could stand on its own. The California climate yielded lush, ripe fruit the Europeans could only dream of and the Californians, like exuberant teenagers flexing the newly-found muscles of adolescence, made wines to suit: fruity, tannic Cabernets, black as ink, and late harvest Zinfandels to bequeath to your grandchildren. And by the mid 70’s, Mon Dieul, Frenchmen tasting blind in Paris discovered that they liked California Cabernets and Chardonnays as well as, perhaps better than, their own great chateaux.
Those were heady days that promised a real coming of age for California wine. No craven ‘Chablis’. No apologies because our cellars lacked 300-year-old cellar rots to infest our cooperage and infect our wines. No apologies for daring to explore the stylistic potential of California’s climate and soil – even if our Pinot Noir didn’t end up tasting like your favorite 1966 Musigny, made of course from Les Vieilles Vignes.
It was in contemplation of joining this adventure that most of us budding California wine entrepreneurs signed up. But somewhere on the road to 1985, something happened. Maybe it was the relentless and masterly promotional efforts by the French and the Italians, and the mind-boggling collapse of foreign wine prices, or the eagerness of some California wineries to cash in on their newly acquired reputations, or the inconsistency of the wines from some new producers, or the explosion of new labels, or maybe all of the above. For whatever reason, a countercurrent developed, hardly noticeable at first, but by 1985 an unmistakable trend. You can see it in ersatz chateaux set self-consciously among the live oak in Sonoma County or Carmel Valley, seeming for all the world as though they’d rather be overlooking the Loire Valley or mellowing in St. Emilion. It’s evident in California Chardonnays put up in dead leaf green push-up bottles with labels that look from a distance remarkably like something from Puligny-Montrachet, with a cute little neck label and delicate script. Or a California table wine called ‘vin blanc’ or ‘vin maison blanc’. Or a blend of California Cabernet called a ‘marriage’. By these signs is the ephemeral and fragile fabric of California’s claim to emancipation made transparent.
But enough! The hallmark of California’s frontier legacy is not to carp at evolution, but to embrace it – and perhaps to go it one better. And so, we now join the good company of Au Bon Climat, Carmenet, Château St. Jean, Clos du Bois, Folie A Deux, Grand Cru, and all their confreres.
The next time you visit your local Marchand du vins or bistro, be sure to look for our new label, “Les Grands Vins du Maison de Montagne,” now put up solely in champagne-style bottles. (The wine formerly sold as Mendocino Gold is now available as Vin Blanc Superieur.) Next Spring, you may, of course, expect to receive Le Printemps issue of Le Journal du Maison de Montagne.
And if you’re planning a trip in our direction, remember what we always say in Mendocino:
“Venez nous rendre visite et goûter nos vins.” Which for those of you who still like Late Harvest Zinfandel means ”Drop on by.”
AN OFFER YOU COULDN’T REFUSE
In the last issue of Notes, we presented “An Offer You Can’t Refuse.” Specifically, we proposed: “This Autumn, for the first time, Mountain House will offer to 10 couples with romance in their hearts and grapes on their minds the opportunity to spend one glorious day making magic and Chardonnay (or Cabernet as the case may be).” We promised a hard day’s work, a sumptuous lunch, and a case of the wine you helped make (when it’s ready for release, of course).
I’m happy to report there is no shortage of romantics in the world. In less time than we believed possible, all the slots were filled and we started a waiting list. In order to make the experience as personal as possible, we divided the couples into two groups and scheduled them on successive weekends. And on September 7 and 14, Mountain House held its First Annual Invitational Grape Crush. We may never be the same.
Saturday, September 7, announced itself at 2 a.m. with a roll of thunder and a pelting rainstorm. With the prospect of 10 eager romantics, primed for adventure, due on our doorstep at 8 o’clock, it was a fitful night spent wondering whether they’d settle for a game of 12-handed Canasta.
By 8 o’clock, the weather and our spirits had considerably brightened. The assembled crew spent the morning in a nearby vineyard picking grapes destined for our 1985 Cab, one eye alert to any darkening of the scudding clouds. Remarkably, the storms which had drenched Mountain House the night before had barely touched the neighborhood of the morning’s endeavors, so the grapes were brought in nearly dry. The picking was just concluded when the squalls commenced. The morning’s bounty was quickly crushed into a covered fermenter and the crew beat a hasty retreat indoors.
The rains had evidently returned to stay, but the crew’s conviviality could hardly be dampened. The morning had been a near thing, but success in every respect. Accordingly, we settled in for a heavy afternoon’s work of self-congratulation over marinated beef roast, lasagna, pepper salad, chocolate cheesecake, and various cheeses, walnuts, and other morsels. All washed down with assorted vintages, including a couple of bottles of 1980 Late Harvest Zin to take away the chill.
For recreation, a labeling line was set up on the porch, and a few neglected cases from the cellar labeled and foiled. If you come across an odd bottle of Mountain House with label akimbo, it probably was a product of that afternoon.
The succeeding Saturday could hardly have offered a more bucolic contrast. A crispy morning wrapped in wisps of fog emerged by midday to an autumnal mountain glory, all azure above and bronze below. What better balm for healing civilization’s bruises than the quiet industry of harvesting the first fruit from Mountain House’s virgin Chardonnay vineyard? And so a contented day filled with the quiet rhythms of picking, crushing, and pressing, the air perfumed with the heady bouquet of fresh Chardonnay juice. Then, in the languor of the afternoon, a repetition of the prior weekend’s feast, with whipped cream raspberry cake added for good measure. There are worse ways to spend an Autumn day. Are there any better?
And so, to Gary, Cheri, and Burnie; Carol and Eric; Debbie, Michael, Bob, and Lorrie; Sue and Tres; John and Lois; Jenny and John; Ruth and Hubert; and, always Verna: thanks for giving us the excuse.
How can we not do this again?
HOLIDAY WINE SALE
If your household is like ours, holiday entertaining and gift-giving put a considerable dent in the budget this time of year. Let Mountain House help. Use the enclosed retail order form to order 12 or more bottles by December 15 and save 25% off the single bottle price. That gets you a luscious Chardonnay for only $8.25 or a rich, hearty Zinfandel for only $4.50.
We will, as usual, accept orders for as few as 3 bottles at our regular price. And we will ship gift orders for you to any address in California, enclosing a gift card with a message of your choice.
This also should be an offer you can’t refuse, but don’t wait too long. Mistletoe time will be here before you know it.
TIME FOR WINE
Speaking of luscious Chardonnays, we are now releasing our 1983 MENDOCINO CHARDONNAY.
It is medium-bodied with moderate oak. The wine has good fruit, butterscotch undertones, and some of the same subtlety which our 1981 version also displayed early on. Through several vintages, we have observed that the Mendocino Chardonnay is a bit slower to develop than its sister from Sonoma. At the outset, the latter is fruitier and more accessible. The Mendocino rewards patience, however, display ing in time an intriguing perfume and earthy palate which work wonderfully with food. The 1983 Mendocino has a pH of 3.4 a total titratable acidity of 0.74 gm./100 ml., and 13.9% alcohol. We produced about 440 cases.
GIVE THANKS – AND CHEERS
“What we need to do is make a White Zinfandel,” said Michelle last Autumn. “They’re getting to be all the rage.”
“Over my dead body.” I protested. “I only want to make real wine, classics like Cabernet and Chardonnay.” And remembering her Italian stubbornness, I added for good measure, “There will never be a White Zin under Mountain House’s name!”
What I thought to be a rather forceful ultimatum was taken by Michelle as no more than an interesting challenge. Over the ensuing months, she and Cindy, her co-conspirator in the tasting room, faithfully reported each day’s encounters: “Six people said they were looking for a wine with some sweetness;” “Three people asked why we didn’t make a ‘blush’ wine;” “One lady needed a case of White Zin for a party.” You know what follows: Viking fortitude succumbs to Sicilian persistence.
And so … Mountain House Winery is pleased to announce its latest offering: THANKS! TM and CHEERS! Under either appellation, the wine’s the same: a White Zinfandel made entirely from North Coast grapes. The wine is fresh and fruity, crisp and tart – and slightly sweet. The alcohol is about 11% and the sugar 1%, a classic in its own right. So, if you want to give Thanks this holiday or send Cheers somebody’s way, consider our new additions.
One final item: although the wine is from Mountain House, you may notice that the label says “All Occasion Wines.” That was my decision. I wouldn’t want Michelle to think she was getting things her own way.