Their famous “Premier Semillon,” made at Crest Blanca in the 50s, was groundbreaking.
Being young, and wanting to pack the travel week with as much as I could, I made a fatal mistake one day, or a near-fatal one. I scheduled a brutal four-city trip and told Myron that we would have to do this one by ourselves, no Alice. I was truly concerned for her health, as Alice was less mobile than Myron, and sometimes used a wheelchair in airports. I was immediately put in the Nightingale doghouse, and on our return was not invited to our regular dinners out as friends. I had crossed the line. Myron and Alice traveled together whenever possible. End of story, as they say.
The situation worsened no matter what overtures I made. Alice was again part of our flying circus, but she was cold, and frankly let it be known that she did not enjoy my company one bit. I needed to do something big to get back into the Redhead’s good grace. By then I was writing all the winemaker comments on vintages, winemaking, and viticulture for the marketing materials and knew everything about the Nightengales’ past, including their large contributions to winemaking since the 40s, up to their move to Napa.
Their famous “Premier Semillon,” made at Crest Blanca in the 50s, was groundbreaking. It was, as I mentioned, California’s very first botryised wine, made sweet to mimic the great Sauternes from France. These wines, as Myron informed me, were really Alice’s project. Her children had married, left the house, and Alice needed something to fill in the gaps. With help from UC Davis and some of its best winemaking minds, Myron and Alice began Premier Semillon, a wine truly ahead of its time. Alice loved the project, and became the driving force behind it.
Botryised sweet white wines are among the world’s most collectable, and can age a century in rare conditions, and for decades under normal ones. They are honeyed, sweet, and unbelievably complex wines, at their best worthy of all the prestige. However, they rely on a much prescribed set of weather conditions which are not as common in most parts of California as they are in Sauterne, Barsac, or parts of Germany and Hungary. So, Alice isolated the botryised spores – yes, botrytis is a fungus, as the English have termed it, “a noble rot” – then propagated them. She, with the help of Myron and her comrades at Davis, also created a closed environment where they could control the weather conditions, laid the grapes out on custom-made trays and sprayed them with the isolated botrytis cineria spores.
They made amazing wines with this somewhat complicated process. One day while talking to Myron, a dim light of inspiration pointed a way out of Alice’s doghouse. I set up a meeting with Jim Tonjum, Vice President and my boss, and explained why it was so important to begin again the process of making these wines at Beringer. There was a great story, the pioneers were back together making boyrtised wines. Other winemakers, like Dick Arrowood and Joseph Phelps, were making botryised Rieslings, others were following. Nothing was not possible for California’s new wave of winemakers. We were shooting for the stars. Beringer wanted to be a player.
Though it would be some considerable expense setting everything up for Alice to take over, Jim and Dick Maher agreed to finance the project. The last step was to meet with Myron and Alice together, and ask them if they would consider making another great boytrised Semillon using their methods from Cresta Blanca. Alice was stunned or very thoughtful or both. She said she would think about it and left the room. Myron said nothing but winked at me. Alice was about to welcome the lost son back into the family. Beringer was about to have a very special new wine.
In 1980, Alice made her first botrytised Semillon at Beringer. By then Alice, Myron, and I were back together going out to dinner. I stuck to wine, they always started the meal with a little of that English Chablis. I was out of the doghouse.
When asked by Jim what we should call the wine, I believe my answer was quick – Nightingale. We could have called it Sweet Alice, but Nightingale set the perfect tone and right pitch. What a delightful couple. Occasionally, the press would get to them without a filter. In the Wine Spectator one year Myron was asked about the vintage and said relatively complimentary things, “Except…Chenin Blanc sure took it in the shorts.”
Sometimes I just miss them. In some ways, they define a lost period of Napa’s history. One we can’t go back to ever again. Myron’s dad worked the railroads, they were children of low income families, had survived world wars and a depression. Winemaking was a job, not a fancy of romance or passions. It was just another way to make a living. Napa was more known for its mental institution than its wines. A few martinis, a good steak, baked potato, and salad was a great meal out.
Myron and Alice have both passed. There is a plaque in the Culinary Institute of America building in Napa Valley acknowledging Myron as one of Napa Valley’s legends. His verbal history was recorded for the Bancroft Library, and is in print form at the Saint Helena Library if anyone wants to read more about the humble but great man. Or if you visit me, I have a few copies in my wine library.
Myron and Alice, I feel, are best remembered through Beringer’s Nightingale wines. They have aged beautifully, even the first 1980 has vibrancy and complexity, and gives a lot of pleasure. It is a bit more golden than it was in 1983 when it was released. But then so are my memories of Myron and Alice.