by Fred McMillin
for December 29, 1999


The Bad & The Beautiful


The Bad

Botrytis cinerea (bow-TRY-tihs sin-eh-RAY-ah) is a fungus that grows on the skin of grapes. ("Botrys" is Greek for "cluster of grapes.") It can attack the vine at flowering, leading to the death of the bunch before the grapes have even begun to form. On ripe grapes, if conditions are warm and moist, gray rot forms, destroying the grapes. (Johnson & Halliday, Vintner's Art)

The Beautiful

When Botrytis forms on ripe grapes under the proper conditions (moisture followed by dry heat), it alters the grapes so they produce some of the world's greatest dessert wines, honeyed, complex, luscious. (Bespaloff, Encyclopedia of Wine)

The Rest of the Story

I'm trying to identify a California white wine...

    A Riesling?—No floral notes.
    A Chenin Blanc?—Way too intense for Chenin.
    A Dry Gewürztraminer?—Nope. No honeysuckle.
    Sauvignon Blanc?—I can't find the herbs.
    Semillon?—No figs or wax.
    Chardonnay?—Neither melon or pineapple.

So I'm stuck. The dominant characteristic is PUNGENT POWER. There's some lemon and grapefruit and cloves...I GIVE UP. Let's take it out of the sack.

Shooting Star Chardonnay WOW! I can't believe it. It's a Chardonnay from the renowned Carneros District by ace winemaker Jed Steele. How did I flunk that one??

The Answer

The fine print gives the answer. Jed says, "The Chardonnay has been concentrated and made more complex [amen!] by the effects of Botrytis. Here's the wine. If it's sold out, the winery may have another Botrytis beaut.

1997 Shooting Star Chardonnay
Winemaker—Jed Steele
Evaluation—For only $12, you can learn a lot.
Contact—Jed, Pamela or Dave at (707) 279-9475.


I should have paid more attention to Johnson & Halliday's fine book. Further on it described today's wine perfectly. "A small degree of Botrytis in white grapes may be no bad thing. In making a wine such as Chardonnay, it accentuates and adds to the complexity of the total flavor." RIGHT!

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.


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