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.