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Feature Article

Napa's Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore Napa Style: Chateau Montelena's Jim Barrett, Robert Mondavi, and Stag's Leaps Wine Cellars' Warren Winiarski, revered leaders of the American wine industry.

America (Country Appellation)

The End of an Era:
America’s Most Important
Wineries Changing

by Alan Goldfarb
July 9, 2008

They’re all gone:
The iconic wineries that ushered in the Visionary Age of American wine are now in the hands of others, who may or may not possess that specter of illumination.

First, it was the Robert Mondavi Winery that fell, wrested away from the most famous wine family in the modern age, and swallowed by the oversized maw of another kind of culture. Then Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, whose steward is one of the classicists of American wine, was sold.  Senior-Ed-Alan-Goldfarb.jpg Now comes word that yet another illustrious property, Chateau Montelena, has probably gone on the trading block.

The Robert Mondavi Winery, Stag’s Leap, and Montelena – a troika of legendary wineries that were most responsible for putting America, California, and the Napa Valley on the world wine map - are going to be run by others.

At first blush, those developments don’t portend good things. All three will not have passed on their legacies to their scions. AA-commentary-250x67.jpgAnd all – depending upon which suitor nabs Chateau Montelena – will most likely have fallen into the hands of corporate entities.

In this era of wine in America that might be called the Golden Age, more wine than ever is being consumed here, and more money from it is being made. I’m sure many of you who read this are shouting back “That’s progress” at the words on the page. Perhaps so, if making more money is your criterion.

After all, it was Robert Mondavi himself who constantly and consistently preached that America could become a wine culture. One can only hope that Robert Mondavidespite his seeming insentience during the last few years of his life, before he passed away at nearly 95 in May, Robert Mondavi knew that his mission had been achieved.

But who now will be the voice of an industry – and a culture – that for all intents in the modern era is less than a half-century old? While some of us don’t need a God-like figure to tell us what to do, we still look to someone to guide us through a forthcoming period that could be fraught with mine fields; a treacherous landscape that will no doubt have economic, technological, and environmental hazards.

It was a year ago, on the last day of July, that Stag’s Leap was sold – for a princely sum. Warren WiniarskiWarren Winiarski, a ballroom dancer, and a Renaissance man, who taught the classics to college students, instructed us how to make and appreciate wine that came out of his soil, which was a true expression of that particular spot of earth.

And now Jim Barrett and his son Bo seem as though they’re ready to relinquish their hold on the Calistoga property they made famous with Montelena.

Robert Mondavi showed us the way and Warren Winiarski and the Barretts elevated the message. Their wines, beginning with the end of the 1960s through the middle of the ‘70s, catapulted the Napa Valley into the pantheon of some of the world’s greatest wines. It signaled a period that continues to this day.

And now they’re gone. Mondavi has departed this coil. His winery is left behind for others to try to maintain its stature. His family is forging ahead, trying to make their way with their own wine projects. Winiarski is in semi-retirement, still trying to keep his fertile mind active and prescient. Someday soon, he has hinted, he might make wine from the Chardonnay vineyard he owns in Coombsville, an area that will soon prove to be an incredible place to grow grapes.

I don’t know what the Barretts’ plans are. Jim Barrett will most likely retire, while Bo will most assuredly go onto another project, perhaps with his wife Heidi Peterson Barrett, the winemaker to the stars, who has a brand of her own called La Sirena.

Mike Ggrich, who not incidentally made the 1973 Chardonnay for Montelena that took top honors against a group of French Burgundies, has his own winery – Ggrich Hills. But he’s well into his 80s now, and fortunately for him, has given the property over to his daughter.

Jim BarrettAt Montelena, Bo Barrett said he couldn’t talk to me about the possible sale of his family’s winery. All he would say in his sardonic style was, “I’ve heard those rumors, too. Besides, I have only 5 percent, so I don’t know much.”

Montelena’s managing director Greg Ralston left me a voice message saying he had nothing to tell me at this time, but that he’d have something to say perhaps at a later date. Neither man confirmed, nor denied that the winery was up for sale.

Still, more than 30 years after the signal Paris Tasting of ’76, Montelena and Stag’s Leap have unequivocally proved that California indeed can produce some of the greatest wine in the world. That notion – and fact – will, of course, continue, perhaps in perpetuity.

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Reader Feedback

Reader Comments... [3]

Harry Haff , Chef instructor
Le Cordon Bleu Atlanta, Atlanta, GA
This to me is a sad story. I graduated from culinary school in 1979 and watched as California did so much to change the world wine scene through visionaries such as these people. It is unsettling to see great wineries last only one generation. The companies taking over these properties have tough acts to follow, very much like a giant hotel company buying out a five star restaurant and having a corporate structure attempt to maintain that level of quality. I'm picturing enology decisions being made in a walnut paneled board room. Nooooooooo!

Leo McCloskey , Management Consultant
Enologix, Wine Country
Amazingly there is only one person who commented on this article, effective July 22, 2008, on this important topic. What's really important about the sale of wine companies? The answer is hidden in the facts that so many companies were sold, by so many industry leaders who love the lifestyle, and all at one time. There must have been a single point of failure, that everyone in wine country knows about but few are willing to discuss. APPELLATION AMERICA's job is to uncover this news, which remains hidden. Is this the beginning of an era?

Richard Hsia , President
MVS, LLC, Grain Valley, MO.
Your article harkened back many memories for me. Back in the early seventies, I was enrolled and eventually graduated from the University of Hawaii Travel and Industry Management (TIM) School. In our first day indoctrination, I shall never forget the professor's exhortation in the wines and spirits class: Life is too short to drink bad wine!! At this seminal tasting of American versus French wines, I discovered the Troika of the American wine giants in your article, embarking on a life time of appreciation that has only grown as my hair line shortened and turned gray. I recently watched with relish the movie,"Bottle Shock" which is a memorial of the moment when American wines received their much deserved acclaim. I recently bought and laid down a few bottles of the 2003 and 2004 R. Mondavi's Reserve Cabernet, which have received good notice, as my way of keeping faith with this legend. I plan to do the same with the Stag's Leap SLV Cabernet and Ch. Montelena's Chardonnay. Thankfully, I understand that the Barrett's have decided to soldier on with their winery, at least for a while. R. Hsia

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