Dunne on Wine

Just in time for the new year: Great quotes from nearly 40 years on the wine beat

Karly and Buck Cobb, former owners of Karly Wines and Bantam Cellars in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley, at a 2013 reception following the sale of their wineries to Turley Wine Cellars. Mike Dunne
Karly and Buck Cobb, former owners of Karly Wines and Bantam Cellars in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley, at a 2013 reception following the sale of their wineries to Turley Wine Cellars. Mike Dunne

A year ago, I gleaned from my accumulation of wine articles, columns and notes a bunch of telling quotes from industry players who I’d interviewed over the past five decades. After I published several of their comments here, I realized I had just as many left over.

Thus, let’s kick off the new year by considering insights, humor and advice from several of the principals who have helped shape the modern California wine trade:

From a 1980 interview with Louis P. Martini, then owner of Louis M. Martini Winery in Napa Valley, on why he likes to visit vineyards during the fall harvest: “I like to see the grapes on the vines and taste them in the vineyards. That pretty much tells me as much about the wines as anything else.”

From a 1980 exchange of letters with the same Louis P. Martini, on what makes an effective wine label: “I believe any label that is not downright repulsive will work provided the product it represents is a good value. I have seen all styles of labels on California wine, from those that are trying to imitate a fancy foreign label to those that look like they should be on a can of tomato soup.”

From a 1987 interview with Buck Cobb, owner/winemaker of Karly Wines in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley, on making his early sauvignon blancs: “The less I do with it, the better I do with it.” (Buck Cobb and his wife Karly have since sold their winery to Turley Wine Cellars, which no longer makes a Shenandoah Valley sauvignon blanc.)

From a 1984 interview with Bob Trinchero, then winemaker at his family’s Sutter Home Winery in Napa Valley, on why white zinfandel had become so immensely popular, with Sutter Home annually releasing around 500,000 cases of the wine at that time: “With all due respect to wine writers, it’s a wine that they had nothing to do with. If they acknowledged it at all it was with a sort of backhand compliment … White zinfandel is a wine that the consumer made popular. It’s like a movie that the critics have panned, yet people are standing in line to see it.”

From a 1985 interview with John Movius, chairman of the California State Fair’s wine department, on the test he used to qualify judges for the fair’s wine competition: “Basically, this is a palate and memory test. You can have the best palate in the world, but if you can’t remember what you’ve tasted you have limited usefulness as a wine judge.”

From a 1986 interview with Eunice Fried, on her book “Burgundy: The Country, The Wines, The People,” which had just been published: “Burgundy might be the most French, and the most traditional of all French regions. It’s rustic, countrified. You don’t find the grand chateaux that you find in Bordeaux, you find that you are talking to the man who planted the vines and makes the wines. With few exceptions, it isn’t the place of the absentee landlord.”

From a 1986 interview with Jack Davies, proprietor of Schramsberg Vineyards in Napa Valley, on California’s emerging sparkling wines: “California winemakers are creating a new category of world-class Champagne, but don’t expect it to taste like French Champagne … More winemakers are recognizing that sparkling wines are wines first, and that the bubbles come later. For years, the emphasis was on bubbles and a little sweetness. That’s over.”

From a 1988 symposium on zinfandel, Louis P. Martini defining what he considered the characteristics of a fine zinfandel: “It should be very fresh, with very pronounced fruitiness, and good balance, not only of acid but good balance all the way around. It should be harmonious; nothing should stick out like a sore thumb. It should have a slight degree of tartness, for drinking with food. It should have a vivid ruby color. And most important, it should have a come-hither taste, the kind of taste where you can’t stand to see an empty glass before you.”

From a 1990 interview with James Conaway, author of “Napa,” a 529-page survey of the valley’s social history, on the push by vintners to use their wineries for weddings, concerts and other events that don’t involve making wine: “All these high-bogey tourist attractions aren’t in keeping with the spirit of the agricultural preserve, but the vintners claim they need them to market their wine. What they’re really saying is that they need them to print money.”

From a 1991 interview with Bob Trinchero, then chief executive officer and chairman of the board of Sutter Home Winery in Napa Valley, on the question he most enjoys answering at a public wine tasting: “What I most enjoy talking about is the success of white zinfandel. That’s sort of a neat story, a rags to riches thing that a lot of people can identify with. But that’s not the most asked question, which is: Why is it in a green bottle? I tell them that when we started to bottle white zinfandel that’s all we had. By the time it became popular we couldn’t change it.

From a 1992 interview with Julio Gallo, who with his brother Ernest had built the biggest winery in the world, E&J Gallo of Modesto, on why they were buying land in Sonoma County rather than Napa Valley: “We’ve been buying grapes in Sonoma since the late 1930s, and we came to the conclusion that the Sonoma side produces wines with more intense flavor. They are fuller-bodied. The evenings are cooler in Sonoma, so you get better acids, what we call better mouthfeel. If they are properly aged, they are better wines.”

From a 2002 interview with longtime Napa Valley vineyardist and winemaker Volker Eisele, on neighbors upset with James Conaway’s second book on Napa Valley, “The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley”: “Every periodical treats us (winemakers) as demigods who just descended from heaven to bring this nectar to humans. The wines are praised, but other issues are ignored. They don’t look at the political views or what the owners are doing to the environment … Then someone suddenly holds up a mirror to say, ‘This is you guys, this is what you do.’ It’s not what we are used to.”

From a 2005 interview with winemaker Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard at Santa Cruz, on a surge in the number of large corporate wineries: “There is a dichotomy between artisanal winemaking and corporate winemaking. One is calculated, profit-driven and largely a marketing exercise. One is an expression of a personal aesthetic. Megabrands live in their own world. Small artisanal brands live in a totally different universe, and we don’t communicate at all. They have the money, we have the soil, and therefore, the soul.”

From a 2005 interview with Richard Sands, chairman and CEO of Constellation Brands Inc., which had just bought Napa Valley’s most iconic winery, Robert Mondavi, on whether he drinks Richard’s Wild Irish Rose, a wildly popular sweet, cheap, fortified dessert wine his father had named after him: “It’s a very good dessert or aperitif wine, and from time to time I do sip it. My grandmother drank it, and she lived to 100. If you had a blind tasting with other dessert wines like port and sherry, people would pick it as a very unique and flavorful wine that complements its high alcohol very nicely. But I tend to be more of a vodka drinker.”

From a 2009 interview with Randall Grahm, when asked to explain the significance of wines that express a sense of place: “I would use words like resonance, emotional connection, depth, mutability, motion. One of the things that is important to me is wines that move, evolve, change in the glass. They aren’t static, they’re dynamic. A terroir wine should be this kind of kaleidoscope, it just unfolds, it continues to reveal layers of depth as it develops in the glass. How many bottles have you had where the last sip was far and away the most interesting? This happens all the time with real wines. Finally, it’s coming out of its shell, finally I’m beginning to understand, and then it’s gone. It’s a metaphor for life. By the time you understand it, it’s gone.”

From a 2010 interview with Matt Hughes, then the winemaker at Lake County winery Six Sigma, on what distinguishes the terroir of Lake County: “Being a grape here is like sunbathing on top of the Sears Tower with nothing but an empty mojito glass by your side. You get a thick skin and an edgy personality.

From a 2013 interview with Jeff Stai, owner of Twisted Oak Winery in Calaveras County, on why he chose Calaveras to grow grapes after considering other areas: “You know what you have to do to put in a vineyard in Calaveras County? You put in a vineyard. Calaveras County is an agricultural county and proud of it.”

From a 2013 interview with Chaim Gur-Arieh of C.G. Di Arie Vineyard & Winery in El Dorado County, on the difficulty of growing and making cabernet sauvignon in the foothills: “I got into the wine business because I thought it would be a challenge, and cabernet has been a challenge.”

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.