Dunne on Wine

‘Personal favorites’: Parting thoughts after 46 years on the California wine beat

For my birthday five years ago, our son Justin and his wife Mohana gave me a handsome wine journal in which to jot tasting notes. But it came with a catch.

They asked that I fill the book with my “personal favorites” and that when finished I return the journal to them to be passed on to “the next generation.” That’s spooky, and may explain why the journal isn’t yet complete, though only a few pages remain to be filled in.

My “personal favorites.” Several wines I have tasted over the past half century qualify, but I never tracked them in any orderly way, nor saved special bottles or even their labels, aside from a handful. There are only five empty and dusty bottles atop the desk credenza in my office, and two are birth-year wines (never mind).

You might think that with two file cabinets and countless boxes of wine-related folders, clippings and notebooks, I could come up with enough favorites to fill the book, but it’s taken a lot of searching and even more reflection. As I skim through the log I find I am not apologetic for any of the choices. Others may quibble, but I am satisfied that they are or were wines of careful craftsmanship, true to place and personality, often surprising and generally high in value. I still feel grateful for having experienced all of them. Invariably, they bring smiles.

They aren’t necessarily noble wines, though some by their character certainly would be among the first inductees in my imaginary California Wine Hall of Fame. At the top of that list would be the Bonny Doon Vineyard 1984 Le Cigare Volant, a perfumey and peppery blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre. By the way, in a 1988 feature for The Sacramento Bee I did include Le Cigare Volant as one of 12 wines that would go down in California’s winemaking history as pivotal by showing just how seamless, vibrant and evolving a blended wine based on traditional Rhone Valley grape varieties can be when made here.

Another would be the Santino Wines 1986 White Harvest Zinfandel – slightly sweet, somewhat spritzy and persistently refreshing. It wasn’t the first white zinfandel, but it stood out from the rest for its originality and care in an era when white zinfandel was hugely popular. I haven’t seen a Santino white zinfandel for years, and Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard is tinkering with the style for Le Cigare Volant.

The lesson here? Like mural art that appears on buildings one season and is gone the next, enjoy wines for the pleasure and enlightenment they deliver at the moment. That said, nostalgia helps account for some of the wines in the book.

A case in point is the Shenandoah Vineyards Amador County Special Reserve Zinfandel. The one in the journal is the 1985, striking for its pronounced berry fruit and peppery spice. Zinfandel and the Shenandoah Valley is where my interest in wine took root in the early 1970s, when as a Sierra foothill stringer for The Bee an editor asked what was up with vineyards and wineries he had heard were being developed in Amador County. And by the way, that “Special Reserve” zinfandel, which originated in 1979, still is being made in a style honest and vital.

Nostalgia also played a role in adding to the journal the 1990 Perrier-Joulet Champagne, which my wife and I shared in a Cannery Row restaurant on a wedding anniversary 20 years ago. Same with the light yet soundly structured 1985 R.H. Phillips Vineyard Semillon, memorable in part for its label painting of a yellow-billed magpie common to Yolo County’s Dunnigan Hills, a blown-up and framed print of which still hangs over my desk.

The biggest takeaway from tackling the journal was affirmation that context, while not everything in wine appreciation, plays an outsize role in how impressive and memorable a wine is. When you taste both the 1990 and 1991 Chianti Classico Riservas of Castello di Volpaia with winemaker Maurizio Castelli in the estate’s Tuscan cellar, you are apt to come away pretty much convinced that Chianti Classico is truly one of the world’s finer and more accessible wines, a conviction reaffirmed many times since.

And then there was the night in November 1981 when an old bottle of Port was poured at the restaurant Café Natoma in Folsom. It was just what classic Port should be – saturated with layered dark fruit, bright with amber highlights, lively, sweet and clean, showing surprisingly little weathering, which was remarkable given its provenance. By the style of the bottle and the nature of the cork – hand whittled – the Port was believed to have dated from 1815, maybe earlier. There was no label, given that the bottle had been buried in ocean silt for around 140 years. It had been uncovered in 1979 from the wreckage of the British ship Able off the coast of Savannah, Ga., and via the auction route made its way to a restaurant in Folsom.

I wasn’t far into this journaling when I sensed another reason why the exercise was so daunting. Aside from trimming the thousands of wines I’ve tasted down to a few especially significant cases, it dawned on me that my wine writing largely has dealt with wines accessible now. Little if any thought was given to posterity, though if a wine was built to last and wouldn’t be readily drinkable for a decade or so, that was noted. The point of Dunne on Wine and earlier iterations of my wine columns primarily has been to provide readers with guidance to wines they could get their hands on and enjoy now, why the wines were styled the way they were, and what they said of a personality, vintage, region and so forth.

While filling in the journal’s pages I also was struck by all the wine people I’ve been fortunate to know, many in the role of helping me learn. That prompted me to fill 17 pages at the back of the journal with telling quotes collected from them over the decades, several of which I have shared in these columns over the past couple of years.

My earliest wine-related contribution to The Bee I have been able to find was a couple of photos and a caption from the grape harvest of 1973 in Shenandoah Valley, published Oct. 12 of that year. At the time, I was a correspondent for The Bee – paid 35 cents per column inch, which may have encouraged me to write long, a habit I’ve not been able to break.

I joined The Bee’s features department as a full-time staff writer five years later. After 30 years in features, I retired as The Bee’s food editor, wine columnist and restaurant critic. That was a decade ago, but I continued to contribute a wine column, first weekly, then biweekly in recent years.

This is No. 473 in that string. There won’t be a No. 474. In these difficult economic times for newspapers I have been told that this column is a luxury The Bee no longer can afford. I understand that, and hope confidently that the money saved in bringing this column to an end is used to further The Bee’s crucial role as community watchdog. I still have some writing of wine to do, however. Several blank pages remain to be completed before I return the journal to Justin and Mohana. Thank you.

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