Dunne on Wine

’86 dessert wine a sweet end for Mission del Sol

The first Harbor Winery Mission del Sol, left, is flanked by others just a little younger. Charles Myers, now 85, founded the winery 42 years ago in West Sacramento.
The first Harbor Winery Mission del Sol, left, is flanked by others just a little younger. Charles Myers, now 85, founded the winery 42 years ago in West Sacramento.

The sun is setting on Harbor Winery’s Mission del Sol, an original California wine created in the industrial heart of West Sacramento.

Nearly 30 years after it was made, the likely final version of the wine finally is available for consumers.

That would be the Harbor Winery 1986 Amador County Mission del Sol, an amber-hued dessert wine potent with alcohol (nearly 23 percent), relatively low in sugar for the genre (8 percent) and remarkable for the intensity and complexity of its aromas and flavors, which run to butterscotch, caramel, citrus and nuts. Think of Italy’s vin santo, or Portugal’s madeira, but with more buoyancy and less density. Sweetness is there, but it isn’t treacly.

Mission del Sol is a wine conceived by Charles Myers, a Sacramento City College English instructor and home winemaker who in 1972 went commercial with the founding of Harbor Winery in a utilitarian structure where vintage vehicles also were being restored.

In the fall of 1972 he’d expected to base Harbor’s standing on chardonnay. But autumn that year was uncharacteristically cold and wet, and the chardonnay grapes he’d planned to use were in too sorry a shape to crush.

Mission grapes from century-old vines on Ken Deaver’s ranch in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley, however, were hardy enough to withstand the atypical weather, so Myers bought a bunch.

Aware that the mission grape rarely yields a palatable dry red wine, he turned to an ancient Greek and Roman practice of making sweet and sturdy wines by adding boiled-down grape juice to fermenting must.

The result was the Harbor Winery 1972 Mission del Sol, a dessert wine that remains a brilliant light amber, with a vivid flavor of caramelized sugar accented with notes of chocolate and vanilla.

Over the next 15 years, Myers made eight more versions of Mission del Sol, each with mission grapes from ancient vines in Amador County. He couldn’t make it every vintage because the style of the wine demands that grapes be exceptionally ripe, with a high sugar content that is reached in only about three of every five harvests.

That infrequency may have been a blessing for his pocketbook. While Mission del Sol initially was popular in several restaurants – Chez Panisse and Narsai’s in Berkeley, Scandia in Hollywood, and many in and about Sacramento, including Movable Feast, Café Natoma, The Firehouse, LaSalle, Lautrec, Biba – consumer tastes were shifting quickly from sweet wines to dry. The 1986 Mission del Sol was allowed to age in barrel until it was bottled this summer in large part because of the public’s aversion to dessert wines, says Darrell Corti, the Sacramento grocer and longtime pal of Myers who purchased the entire lot of 1986.

Though mission grapes are black, Myers would crush and press them quickly, largely avoiding pigment from the skins, giving him the clear or lightly pink juice he wanted.

Then he would begin a delicate maneuver that involved adding neutral-flavored concentrated grape juice to the must, keeping sugar at about 10 percent as the alcohol rose to around 19 percent, when fermentation would cease. Because the mission grape is low in natural acidity, he also would tweak the wine with acid adjustments.

He customarily aged the wine in small whiskey barrels of American oak for five or six years before bottling it. While mission grapes were revered by California’s early missionary padres for their adaptability and durability, they weren’t highly regarded for the simple wine they yielded. Vintners learned, however, that with long and patient aging, and fortification with distilled spirits, the juice of mission grapes could be transformed into a classic California dessert wine, of which Angelica is the most historic and celebrated.

Myers initially entertained the thought of using the mission grapes he’d bought to make Angelica, but in 1972 federal regulations governing the use of distilled spirits in wineries stipulated that a federal agent be on hand, a requirement that Myers found onerous, recalls Corti.

Thus, Myers turned to a 1947 winemaking textbook that outlined an early 20th century method of making high-alcohol dessert wines not with distilled spirits but with grape concentrate.

The name “Mission del Sol,” incidentally, was inspired by the similarly styled dessert wine “Semillon de Soleil,” first made by the Napa Valley winery Stony Hill in 1968 in emulation of the vin-de-paille wines of the Rhone Valley and Jura in France.

On the eve of the release of the 1986, Corti convened at the East Sacramento restaurant One Speed a tasting of all the Mission del Sol vintages he could round up, several of them provided by Margaret Myers, the daughter of Charles Myers.

The tasting, which included the original 1972, showed with clarity and spunk the durability of the style. Their color invariably was bright, shading into various hues of amber. Almost without exception, the wines were smooth, sweet, citric and persistent. Their aromas and flavors remained deep and alluring. The 1976 spoke mostly of orange rind, the 1977 was a veritable cheese plate, the 1978 a bowl of mixed holiday nuts. Several were characterized by the quality called “rancio,” which has nothing to do with “rancid,” but is a classic and highly valued wine term that speaks to a smokiness, earthiness and nuttiness that develops in dessert wines that have been long aged in wood.

The 1984, still available at Corti Brothers and at the wine shop Amador360 in Plymouth at the entrance to Shenandoah Valley, was denser, sweeter, friskier and edgier than the older, mellower vintages.

“This is where I want my wines to go,” said a fellow taster at that gathering, winemaker Marco Cappelli of Miraflores Winery at Somerset in El Dorado County, where he makes several dessert wines intended to live long, as well as an angelica he bottles under his own eponymous label. He marveled at the complexity and animation of the wines after so many years, indicating that he hopes his will represent the same kind of vitality when they are as old.

As a dessert wine, Mission de Sol easily can be savored on its own. But it also can fill several roles at the dinner table, especially in the fall, when a soup like butternut squash is apt to be on the menu. Corti recommends that the wine be paired with chicken-liver crostini, foie gras, pate, fall fruits, pumpkin pie, walnut pie, apple pie, mince pie, steamed persimmon pudding and anything made with mushrooms.

Years ago, Charles Myers told me he enjoys tasting Mission del Sol while eating a spicy kind of apple, in particular Braeburn, especially if it is accompanied with a side of Brie.

He didn’t attend the tasting, though his daughter did. Today, Charles Myers lives in an assisted-living facility in Sacramento. “At 85, he is somber and healthy, but suffers from some physical and memory issues. He no longer drinks alcohol and has switched to tea,” says Margaret Myers.

She and her husband, Tony Passarell, are shutting down Harbor Winery while selling the last remaining bottles of semillon, merlot and syrah in its inventory. The varietals are on the shelves at Corti Brothers with the Mission del Sol.

“It has been a nightmare trying to figure all the legal requirements to keep the winery open until the remaining wine has been sold. My father has suggested we take up winemaking. In his usual manner, he said, ‘There’s a book out at the winery. Read it. That’s how I learned,’” says Margaret Myers.

Corti, selling the 1986 for $40 and the 1984 for $18, said of the Mission del Sol in his store’s fall newsletter: “When it is gone, it is gone forever. This is the end of a wine type which began more than 40 years ago in West Sacramento.”

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 mikedunne@winegigs.com.

Barrels back to their whiskey roots

Harbor Winery’s Mission del Sol may be dwindling away, but in a peculiar and poetic twist the thoughtfulness and economy that went into the wine will live on.

When Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti bought the last lots of the Mission del Sol he also got the American oak barrels in which the wine long had aged.

They aren’t going to waste. With the barrels empty, Corti shipped them to Amador Distillery in Jackson, the seat of Amador County, where the mission grapes that provided the foundation of the wine were sourced since the wine’s inception nearly 40 years ago.

At Jackson, the barrels again hold whiskey. That was their original role when Charles Myers founded Harbor Winery. The rage for French oak barrels within the California wine trade was accelerating at that time, but they were more expensive than he wanted to spend, so Myers turned to less-costly barrels of Kentucky oak from Kentucky distilleries.

The Kentucky whiskey now in the barrels was acquired by Corti from a Kentucky distillery after it had been aged for several years. Since last year it’s been further aged in the old Mission del Sol barrels in Jackson. The recently bottled whiskey is being released under the Corti Brothers label as “Exquisite Whiskey.”

The front label notes: “Amador County Mission del Sol Barrel Enhanced.”

The whiskey, distilled in 2006, was made with a mash of 70 percent corn, 25 percent rye and 5 percent malted barley. A brilliant amber, it is fragrant, smoky, smooth and rich, with a suggestion of charred oranges and a heat that starts ticklish and ends up fiery. It’s 90.5 proof, or 45.25 percent alcohol by volume. The whiskey, selling for $49 a fifth, is in a traditional style bottle made in Missouri.

How long can the old Mission del Sol barrels be used? That’s unpredictable. They could last for many more years. According to one scientific book on whiskey, its barrels can be refilled until they lose their “virtue,” a term by which a barrel’s integrity is measured as long as it benefits the mature nature of its contents.

Mike Dunne