At breakfast today my wife, Susan, announced that we were having a dinner party on the weekend. This came as a surprise to me. I was convinced through a lot of media, social and otherwise similar events were prohibited by our Governor of California. I reminded her of this and with a sigh, head down, she said she would wait. We really miss dinner parties. We are social animals at heart, and our hearts are injured as we wade through the restrictions of SIP. SIP was once something we did with a filled wine glass. Now it is something else.
I’ve hosted a few Zoom tastings and have friends who have Zoom dinner parties, but it just isn’t the same. Big parts are missing. Beating hearts a few feet away, laughter that hasn’t been compressed and delayed through the internet, the smells from a kitchen, from the wine glass; the symphonic cacophony of being in a room with many people enjoying themselves and the company – all missing. Zoom is a band aid with bad adhesive. We’ll peel it off and heal in the fresh air when the time’s right. But for now, I feel Susan’s heavy heart.
My first date with Susan was at the home of Belle and Barney Rhodes. Through the 70s,80s and into the 90s, their home in Oakville was the equivalent of Gertude Stein’s salon in Paris between the great wars. However, art was not what they collected. They collected wine and cookbooks and brought to their salon writers, chefs, and winemakers from all over the world. My wife had written several successful cookbooks before we met, and Belle had them in her library.
You never turned down an invitation to their home for dinner. If you did you might miss meeting someone who could change your life. I met writers like Michael Broadbent and Hugh Johnson; winemakers from France, Italy, and Spain, and Napa; celebrity chefs from all over the world, and new ones arriving to make Napa their home. I have said on many occasions, Belle and Barney were my surrogate parents in the Napa Valley. Quietly, and in their own gentle way, they nurtured my love of wine and food, and I owe them a lot. They did not seek fame or social status. They sought friendships and a full table of interesting people who loved food and wine.
Belle was a matchmaker. If a vintner was looking for vineyards, you would be seated next to the perfect grower. If you were a young chef arriving in the Napa Valley, you were seated next to the people who would help you succeed. Just ask Thomas Keller, Cindy Pawlcyn, or Michael Chiraello. A winemaker like me, seated next to other winemakers: Warren Winiarski, Bob Mondavi, Andre Tchelistcheff or a walking encyclopedia of wine and food like Darrell Corti. The wines were carefully choreographed by Barney. They were impeccable bottles from all over the world and were curated to stimulate conversation. Barney’s cellar was as deep as any I’ve ever walked into. It was a history vault of California wine, and all the greatest hits from the old world.
On one of these wild and crazy nights, the topic about false rumors came up. It was a very sore subject to the winemakers in the room that night – that, well, California wines don’t age. All show, no go. Now, you should remember this was a decade after the 1976 Paris Tasting, and this faux bruit was quite literally blown out of the water. If you don’t know about the Paris Tasting of 1976 I’m surprised you found your way to my diary: In a blind tasting in Paris, the best and brightest European palates voted a Napa Cabernet and a Napa Valley Chardonnay the Number One wines. Blind tasting. They had no idea what they were tasting, but they sure liked the California wines, and wanted their score cards back and burned. Thank goodness a journalist for Time magazine, George Taber, was in the room, and published the story. The rest is history, and over the decades when memories seem to fade, we do it again, with the same results.
Yet, the rumor stays out there. In the 1980s it was very popular on the East Coast, particularly in the New York wine trade. When you think about it, it is easy to understand. We were still the new kids on the block, and had an attitude. Bordeaux and Burgundy had deep roots in the Big Apple, and they did not want to share that sweet fruit with the new kids. Very understandable in retrospect, but that night at Belle and Barney’s we were riled-up.
I must have been enjoying the wine that night, for I volunteered to call the wine writer for the New York Times, Frank Prial, the next day and invite him out to Napa. We’d prove once-and-for-all to all the New York snobs we made wines that aged incredibly well, in fact maybe better than our Old World counterparts. Yep, we’d prove them, all right. Belle and Barney had the ammo for this attack in their wine cellar. Prial, many in the room felt, had a French wine bias. One called him Franco-Prial. It was war, and I volunteered for the first wave.
The next morning I found less courage in my charge into battle, but did manage to pick up the phone and call the New York Times. They put me right through to Frank Prial. I think this is a good time to give Mr. Prial the narrative. He wrote a very lengthy piece in the New York Times Sunday Magazine about what happened next. Mr. Prial, the podium is yours.
New York Times Magazine – March 29, 1987 – Frank Prial
IT STARTED WITH A TELEphone call. A fellow from St. Helena, a little town in California’s Napa Valley, rang me up some time back. ”We’re going to have an interesting dinner,” he said, ”and we’d like you to come.”
”But,” I replied, ”I’m in New York and you’re 3,000 miles away.”
”Well,” he said, ”we’re going to open some interesting wines.” And then he read me this list:
1969 Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs. 1968 Souverain Johannisberg Riesling. 1971 Heitz Cellar Johannisberg Riesling. 1965 Heitz Cellar Pinot Blanc. 1967 Heitz Cellar Pinot Blanc. 1969 Heitz Cellar Pinot Blanc. 1965 Stony Hill Chardonnay. 1967 Stony Hill Chardonnay. 1961 Heitz Cellar Pinot Chardonnay. 1962 Heitz Cellar Pinot Chardonnay. 1951 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon. 1951 Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernet Private Reserve Georges de Latour. 1952 Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernet Private Reserve Georges de Latour. 1952 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon. 1958 Inglenook Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Cask F11. 1958 Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon. 1958 Beaulieu Vineyard Private Reserve Georges de Latour. 1949 Inglenook Vineyard Pinot Noir. 1955 Beaulieu Vineyard Pinot Noir. 1958 Hanzell Vineyards Pinot Noir. 1959 Heitz Cellar Pinot Noir. 1960 Heitz Cellar Pinot Noir. 1973 Wente Bros. Riesling Auslese. 1973 Freemark Abbey Edelwein. 1960 (circa) Cresta Blanca Premier Semillon. 1953 Ficklin Vineyards Port.
”I’ll be there,” I said, and I was, along with a dozen or so assorted wine makers, writers, collectors and other delicate snouts – what the French call fines gueules. After all, how often does an invitation come along to a dinner with 26 famous California wines from memorable vintages, some of them at least 30 years old and most of them destined never to be seen or tasted again. These wines came from the cellars of three friends, Dr. Bernard Rhodes, Bob Thompson and Dr. Bob Adamson, who are more than just avid collectors; all have grown up with California wines and have lived the history of each bottle they open.
The man who called me was Tor Kenward, a Beringer Vineyards’ executive, who had offered Rhine House, the old Beringer mansion in St. Helena, for the evening, along with Beringer’s young chef, Gary J. Danko.
Dr. Rhodes recently retired as director of the Kaiser Health Plan and Hospitals, and once owned the land on which the famous Martha’s Vineyard cabernet sauvignon is grown, and Bob Thompson is one of California’s foremost wine writers. So immersed are they in their subject that they could recall just about every vintage we sampled; the frost in the spring of one year, the hot summer days in another, the unexpected rain during the harvest in a third. They knew, too, that Heitz Cellar’s 1961 and 1962 chardonnays – still called pinot chardonnay in those days – came from Hanzell Vineyards, over in Sonoma, the winery started by James D. Zellerbach, former United States Ambassador to Italy. Mr. Zellerbach built Hanzell to duplicate the wines he had grown to love in France. When he died, the winery was closed down for a time and its wines, many still aging in barrels, were sold off. Mr.Heitz bought the chardonnay and finished it in his own style.
They explained, too, how many of the Heitz pinot blanc grapes came from Fred McCrea’s vineyards at Stony Hill, in the rugged hills northwest of here. If Joe Heitz became something of a legend for his great cabernets, Mr. McCrea holds a similar title for his chardonnays. He made great chardonnays at Stony Hill when experts were still saying California could never produce good white wines. Thanks to Mr. McCrea and a few others like him, chardonnay eventually eclipsed pinot blanc and other white grapes as the source of California’s premier white wine. If anything distinguished the white wines at the dinner, it was their freshness and youth. Long years in bottle had added delightful complexity and hardly a hint of oxidation. It would be rare to find a similar group of white Burgundies that had held up as well. I found the 1965 Stony Hill and the 1962 Heitz to be a couple of the best.
The stars of the dinner were, as they usually are, the cabernet sauvignons. If the list sounds as if the hosts had obeyed Captain Renault’s instructions in ”Casablanca” to ”round up the usual suspects,” it must be remembered that in the 1950’s there really were only a handful of serious wineries in California. After Charles Krug, Louis Martini, Inglenook and Beaulieu, it was mostly jug wine.
What is remarkable about those years – and what this particular dinner showed once again – is the way these four wineries, with a very small market to serve, turned out exceptional wines year after year. It’s also interesting to recall that most of these wines originally sold for $2, more or less, a bottle. My own favorites were the 1951 and 1958 Beaulieu Private Reserve, and the 1952 Martini and the 1958 Charles Krug.
Oh yes, with these wines, we ate:
Salmon medallion, with leeks, cabbage and two caviars. Truffled foie gras and sweetbread terrine. Peking duck breast salad with glazed turnips, pears and pearl onions. Noisettes of lamb with fennel compote and tarragon lamb essence. Mushrooms, snails and air-dried beef on croutons. Baked raspberries in lemon cream. Port sherbert with flakes of Stilton cheese and pistachios.
Thank you Belle and Barney. We miss you. We miss dinner parties that go deep into the night, our consciousness, and memories. You brought out the best in us, nurtured this crazy kid, and helped shape my life. Susan and I survived our first date at your home, and have two wonderful kids to remind us. You’re not world famous, but you did more for Napa Valley than most anyone I know during our formative years. You will always be celebrated in the hearts of all those you touched.
I see a diary entry in the future about the times we made caviar together in your kitchen drinking champagne. I also see one about the chef for our night with Frank Prial, Gary Danko. Man-o- man, I’m a lucky guy to have known you all. Looking back in Lock Down can have some silver in its lining.