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by Fred McMillin
for June 2000

 

The Great Grape Goof

 

The Goof

Leland Stanford, California governor, U.S. senator, founder of the university named after his son, knew how to do things right. Hence, success seemed assured when he decided to make great California table wines to rival those of France. The effort was staggering...50 miles of ditches to irrigate some 3,600 acres of vines. ...A number of French winegrowers were added to help one of California's best winemakers...two million gallon wine cellar. So that critical stages of fermentation could be followed even at night, "new-fangled incandescent lights were installed." (from Prof. Pinney's History of Wine in America)

Great was the anticipation when the Vina Winery's harvest began in the fall of 1887, from grapes grown in what today we would call climate district five. Would you believe, the wine was awful. The vast effort to make top table wine was a failure. What had gone wrong?

 

Call In The Professors

ZD Winery Just as the bad news was breaking, Professor Eugene Hilgard at the California Agricultural Experiment Station was comparing the effects of climate on grape ripening in Europe and California. His successor, Prof. Frederic Bioletti, divided California into two different viticultural districts, the interior valley and coastal area. Then, in the 1940s, at the University of California, Davis came the breakthrough. Prof. Albert Winkler and his young associate, Maynard Amerine, divided California into five districts based on the difference in growing temperatures. And generally, a particular grape made its best table wine in only one or two such zones. The coolest was called Region One. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are most likely to excel there.

 

Old Too Soon, Smart Too Late

OK. The professors now could tell us what grapes to plant in what region. What would they have told Governor-Senator Stanford to plant in his vast Vina vineyards? Zinfandel? Merlot?

 

Heat Summation

This concept is called heat summation; it refers to the total amount of grape-ripening warmth the vines receive during the growing season. Now remember, Vina was a Region V, in the upper Central Valley. I'm looking at Prof. Marian Baldy's Heat Summation tabulation; which table-wine varieties are recommended for V? NONE! Region V is dessert wine country. Cab and Pinot beware. Winkler and Amerine would have told Stanford to get out of the valley and plant on the coast.

 

Good Matches

Here are some examples of good fits, wine from the right grape in the right region.

Region I (the coolest)

  • Pinot Noir, ZD Winery, Carneros District, '97, $27
  • Chardonnay, R. Mondavi, Carneros District, '97, $23

    Region II

  • Cabernet Sauvignon, Wlm. Hill Reserve, Napa Valley, '96, $35

    Region III

  • Zinfandel, Rosenblum, Contra Costa County, '98, $13

    Region IV

  • Barbera, Montevina, Amador County, '97, $12

    Region V

  • Orange Muscat (Electra dessert wine), Quady, Central Valley, '98, $9 (for more about this wine see the Sept. 15, 1998 WineDay titled, "A Quady Honoree".)

     

    Postscript

    All recognize that there are other factors affecting suitable locations for a particular varietal, including richness of soil, water availability, wind, etc. However, I teach my students that the most useful starting concept for selecting the right location for a certain grape is heat summation.

    Some years ago, with about 1,000 people watching, I asked Prof. Amerine whether or not the Pacific Northwest would ever be able to make table wines to equal those of California. He smiled, and replied, "If they put the right grapes in the right locations, they can." Today, when we taste Oregon Pinot Noir and Washington Merlot, we learn he was right.

     


    This page created June 2000

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