Time in a Bottle: "The California Wine Book" by Bob Thompson and Hugh Johnson (1976)

For a wine geek like me, old and out-dated wine books can sometimes be fascinating time capsules. I was rummaging through a used bookstore in Berkeley the other day, when I uncovered an old copy of “The California Wine Book” by Bob Thompson and Hugh Johnson. Published in 1976, this book has now become irrelevant for the most part, especially in terms of its original purpose, which was to provide a contemporary assessment of California wine. Considering how much the California wine industry has evolved over the last 30 years, the introduction to the book is almost mind-bogglingly quaint, as the authors acknowledge that keeping up with California wine has become increasingly difficult. They point out that, compared to the early 60s, “Now is a more engrossing time. Two dozen Cabermet Sauvignons demand consideration.” Two dozen? For all of California?

Although “The California Wine Book” can no longer offer too much modern insight, the scope of the book is interesting in itself. Today, no single book could ever cover California wine in any meaningful detail, and I doubt that many present-day authors would even attempt to cover the entire Golden State in just one single volume. The explosion of California’s wine industry now demands increased focus and specialization, and there are nearly a dozen California wine regions that warrant an entire book unto themselves. But despite the wine industry’s profound evolution, “The California Wine Book” does provide an interesting snapshot of a very different era. What I find especially fascinating is that the book captures the Napa Valley at a very pivotal moment in its history, just months (or perhaps only weeks) prior to the legendary Judgment of Paris.

For those who might be rusty on their Napa folklore, the famed “Judgment of Paris” established a profound paradigm shift within the Napa Valley, as two Napa wines topped the very best French wines in an international blind tasting competition (an eonological “Miracle on Ice,” to be sure). The two wineries responsible for this historic victory — Stag’s Leap Cellars and Chateau Montelena — are both acknowledged in “The California Wine Book,” although neither winery receives any special recognition (if the authors only knew what revelations were looming on the horizon). In this context, “The California Wine Book” offers a great depiction of the Napa landscape right before the big shift, before the phrase “cult wine” was coined, before winemakers became rock stars, and before Napa Cabernets hit triple (or even double) digit prices.

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The Napa Valley chapter of “The California Wine Book” organizes the wine industry into (a) The Big Seven and (b) all the others. I found this division particularly interesting, since some of those “Big Seven” wineries (Bealieu, Beringer, Christian Brothers, Inglenook, Charles Krug, Louis Martini, and Robert Mondavi) no longer exist. Among those missing today, the authors noted that Christian Brothers — which was pushing 2 million cases of wine annually in 1975 — refused to vintage date any of their bottlings. This practice really struck me as odd, but apparently, the winery (owned by the Catholic Church) had made a devout commitment to offer super-affordable wine. Christian Brothers winemaker, the legendary Brother Timothy, employed very complicated “fractional blending” techniques, much in the way a Port producer would use the “solera” system. The book acknowledges that this unique approach was an anachronism, even in 1976.

Among the Big Seven producers, it’s revealing to note that by 1976, three wineries had already been purchased by large corporations, proving that big business was already sniffing out potential profits in the wine sector. Hublein Corporation, which introduced then-executive Andy Beckstoffer to the Napa Valley, was responsible for the purchase of Inglenook and Bealieu, while Beringer had been sold to Nestlé in 1971. Many other food-and-beverage corporations, including Pilsbury and Coca-Cola, made similar acquisitions in the years following the Judgment of Paris, but with very little success (and some colossal failures). The Napa Valley still features plenty of corporate ownership these days, although alcohol-related entities currently prevail (Fosters Group, Constellation Brands, Diageo, and the rest).

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Of the 30 “other” Napa Valley wineries that “The California Wine Book” mentions, the authors subdivide this list into two further categories: “Small” and “On the Brink.” Some of the “Small” wineries include such stalwarts as Heitz Cellars, Stag’s Leap, Chappellet, Joseph Phelps, Stony Hill, Sterling, Franciscan and Chateau Montelena. Among this group, some of these wineries have remained family-owned over the years, while other wineries have been absorbed by large corporations. Most recently, Stag’s Leap was purchased by Italian-based Antinori in 2007, while Chateau Montelena was almost sold in 2008 (ultimately, the deal with Cos d’Estournel fell through by the year’s end, as the U.S. economy also took a dramatic turn for the worse). These days, Montelena is no longer up for sale, and the estate has now been owned by the Barrett Family since 1972.

Perusing through the entry for Chateau Montelena, I wondered if Mike Grgich would receive a mention as the winemaker, since it was his Chardonnay that prevailed at the Judgement of Paris. The authors of “The California Wine Book” do mention Grgich, and his profile is actually a dominant portion of the Montelena entry. At the time “The California Wine Book” was published, Grgich was still an partner at Chateau Montelena, perhaps just weeks before his relationship with the Barrett Family would ultimately unravel. After putting Montelena on the world stage at the 1976 Paris Tasting, Mike Grgich would soon leave the winery to launch Grgich Hills in 1977 (backed this time by Austin Hills, the heir of Hills Brothers Coffee).

Among the list of “On the Brink” wineries, I was amused to find “Silveroaks Cellars,” which had not yet released a single vintage at the time of publication (Silver Oak did have a wine program dating back to 1973, however, and was it due to make its debut either in late 1976 or early 1977). I also noted an entry for Diamond Creek, another legendary winery in its very infancy. As with Silver Oak, Diamond Creek also launched its campaign with the 1973 vintage, soon to become California’s first recognized cult wine (I believe that Diamond Creek Cab still retails for $175, if you can even find it). Silver Oak, on the other hand, has since emerged as a 100,000-case-per-year juggernaut (you can find this wine anywhere), with its Napa Valley Cabernet fetching $100 per bottle (don’t do it).

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