IN THE BRICKS-AND-MORTAR backstory of the wines Dean Hewitson has made for 25 years, I hear a little echo of Willy Wonka.
It could almost be a chapter from a children’s history book: across South Australia, generations of 20th century school kids—Dean included—received small, foil-topped bottles of milk during their lunch breaks, packed up by the old Adelaide Milk Factory at what were, back then, the industrial outskirts of town. In more recent years, the historic operation gave way to Haigh’s Chocolates, an equally venerable Australian sweets company that took over the 100 year-old warehouse in Adelaide’s Mile End neighborhood in 2010.
Of course, there was never a Wonka-like character offering quasi-psychedelic, technicolor tours to children and their parents. But the combination of childhood memories and chocolate-making brought a smile to my face when Dean told me about the place where, for a decade in between the cows and confections, he built Hewitson Wines into an essential South Australian wine brand.
To borrow an Aussie term, a few walkabouts helped get him there.
“THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES are over for JV Wine and Spirits.”
So wrote the Napa Valley Register’s Jennifer Huffman ten years ago. She may have covered more dramatic stories since then, but it was a sad day when Napa’s best bottle shop closed its doors.
In the spring of 2012, according to the business reporter, JV’s owners and their landlord couldn’t agree on new lease terms, so that was that for the 30 year-old retailer. The demise of this boozy emporium meant that loyal customers like me were left high and dry, without a full-service, high-end liquor store that also carried a wide range of equally good wines. Since then, it’s turned into days (and months and years) of trash and weeds for the property while its owner has, for whatever reason, let it stay vacant.
With its distinctive, curved façade, artsy spire, and great location at the edge the Oxbow District, JV always struck me as equal parts indispensable and quirky. There certainly were, and are, other places here in Napa to buy adult beverages, along with the internet. Maybe it was for these reasons the store that used to bill itself in both local advertisements and on the sign over its entrance as the place “Where the Napa Valley shops for wine” eventually turned into anything but.
ADELAIDA, AS THE ALLUSION to boxing goes, punches above its weight.
It may be one of California’s less familiar wine regions, but this mountainous, oak-studded viticultural area just outside of Paso Robles boasts a couple of the Central Coast’s signature wineries, along with a major industry player. About three dozen others comprise an eclectic roster of Adelaida wineries.
The district is home to Tablas Creek Vineyards, the innovative grower-producer of Rhône and Mediterranean grape varieties I’ve written about previously. Several scenic miles up the road is the more mainstream Daou Family Estates (stylized “DAOU” on their labels), which specializes in Napa Valley-ish red wines. With their respective national footprints, each winery serves an ambassadorial role for Paso Robles as an important source of California wine.
In my travels, Daou has often seemed to show up as a grocery chain and steakhouse standby, while Tablas Creek’s Rhône focus makes it more of a mom-and-pop establishment brand (if mom hummed along to Edith Piaf and pop sported the occasional beret). Each produces a hefty 30,000 cases per year, enough to satisfy distributor and direct-to-consumer needs many times over.
“BETTER LATE THAN NEVER.”
When I’m taking my last sips out of the last glass poured from my last bottle of Paul and Jackie Gordon’s Halcón Vineyards wine someday, this is what I hope to remember to tell myself. Though I managed to miss the boat on a decade’s worth of Halcón vintages, I’m grateful that I came across this excellent, Rhône-centric label when I did. The truism above certainly applies.
I’m also glad to have had a chance to meet the Gordons, the now-former owners of this Yorkville Highlands vineyard, on a cold, rainy night in early 2019, while we all poured wines for a group of wine competition judges in a funky Cloverdale art gallery. Paul and Jackie had their Yorkville syrah to show off to the judges; I had a few library vintages of my bosses’ wine from the same AVA. Since then, I’ve become a bit obsessed with the English couple’s syrahs, along with their equally intriguing mourvèdre.
“Far-roving pioneer vintners from Europe carried with them the desire to create vinous echoes of their homelands.”
—Robert Lawrence Balzer, The Joys of Wine, 1975
ALMOST SINCE I STARTED drinking wine, I’ve thought of the mourvèdre grape in superlative terms.
Across borders in Spain and France and time zones in Australia and California, this thrilling, complex variety makes some of the wines—on its own and in combination with syrah and grenache—that I most enjoy putting in a glass.
Before that even happens, there’s the splendid fact of its name. Or, rather, all three of them.
The vine, which is best known in France and internationally as mourvèdre, started out as mataro in Spain before getting rendered into French. Then, somewhere along the line it became monastrell—a possibly neutral name created by, and for, the Spanish. Oz Clarke notes this in his Encyclopedia of Grapes.
According to the English wine writer, the name split the difference between Valencia and Catalonia, two Spanish regions closely identified with the vine—and whose respective towns of Murviedro and Mataró give a pretty strong toponymic clue to its dual identities. “Perhaps,” Clarke writes, “local pride meant that both areas claimed the grape so fiercely that Monastrell was chosen so as not to offend anyone.”
WHEN JOEL PETERSON INVITED ME out to eastern Contra Costa County back in January to visit the vineyard he makes wine from for his artisan label, Once & Future, I did what I usually do when headed someplace for the first time and mapped it on my computer.
Finding the approximate location Joel had given me for the addressless vineyard—a Bible Fellowship church—I switched Google screens from “map” to “satellite” to search for some patch of green terrain nearby lined with rows of vegetation I could identify as vines. What I found instead, in an open rectangle of land just over a road from the church, were beige columns dotted with evenly spaced black shapes, alternating with mossy-looking strips of green. From above, the small, dark shapes looked like trees. “That’s a weird place for an orchard,” I thought to myself.
Staring at the satellite image on my laptop screen, I noticed a few more of these beige-green plots interspersed among the neighborhood’s residential and mixed industrial blocks, some larger than Joel’s site and some smaller.
OVER THE YEARS, I’VE WALKED, trudged, and even climbed through my share of vineyards, but I can’t recall bringing as much of one home on the bottoms of my shoes as I did in late January, when I met up with Joel Peterson in Oakley.
In an unassuming place near the edge of the Delta, it’s all about the sand.
The morning after an atmospheric river flowed across the Bay Area, I headed out to eastern Contra Costa County and followed Highway 4 along an actual river—the San Joaquin—to get to my destination, an eight-acre vineyard near the Oakley-Antioch border. This unlikely viticultural spot on the suburban map doesn’t have a formal name, but Joel has designated it Oakley Road Vineyard for the wine he produces from its old-vine mataro grapes.
While his relatively new Sonoma-based label, Once & Future, isn’t nearly a household wine brand in the tradition of Gallo, Kendall-Jackson, or Mondavi, the wine company he founded in the mid-70’s certainly is. Joel launched Ravenswood in 1976 with the intention, in his own words, of creating “a small, personal project, where I was going to make just fine, single vineyard-designated wines and nothing else” from sites around Northern California.
THERE’S A WINDOW of time on my resumé in the early 2000s when it was my lot in life to run a romper room of a wine bar in San Francisco’s Civic Center. Occasionally, to avoid its semi-deranged, tinfoil-hatted owner, I’d pop across Hayes Street to Absinthe Brasserie & Bar for a nerves-soothing tumbler of Oban. Neither Rob Schwartz nor Jeff Hollinger, the head bartenders, knew me very well, but each poured a generous shot of the Scottish single malt, which I always thought of as a singularly kind gesture of hospitality.
Just a few years later in 2006, that pair partnered with the talented San Francisco food photographer Frankie Frankeny on a well-conceived cocktail recipe book, The Art of the Bar. In it, Rob and Jeff included a section on some of the classic drinks they served at Absinthe that butted up against current trends. “Die-hard devotees,” they observed with some amusement, “surely cringe at the idea of calling vanilla vodka mixed with Midori and a mélange of fruit juices a melon Martini.”
No doubt feeling reverberations of the 90’s vodka craze that spilled over into the new millennium, they wrote, “Nowadays, just about anything served in a martini glass is dubbed a Martini.”
Vermouth is the beginning of everything. The pre-meal aperitif. The first stop when leaving work. The start of a chat with your friends. — Más Vermut Málaga
“THIS VERMOUTH RECIPE was originally made in Málaga by my family.”
Patrick Mata wrote this in an email to me in September. Via the website for his New York importing company, Olé & Obrigado, I’d sent him a note to ask about the Spanish vermouth brand that carries his name.
As I’ve written about in the previous two columns, I picked up a bottle of Mata Vermouth Blanco back in August at the increasingly eclectic Lawler’s Liquors in Napa and discovered, more or less with my eyes closed, that it marries quite well in a cocktail with Savage & Cooke Tennessee rye whiskey, lemon juice, and a few dashes of bitters. I dubbed it the Tahoe Delicioso, after the lake where it was concocted in August by your vacationing correspondent.
This column is dedicated to the memory of Daniel Hyatt, a good friend and great San Francisco bartender.
WHEN IT COMES TO COCKTAILS, I’m a bit of an accidental tourist. Their mixing, I mean, not the imbibing. In this respect, I’m highly intentional. Especially these days.
As we headed out to the West Shore of Lake Tahoe for a week’s vacation in August, I intended to make a drink or two using the ingredients I’d brought along on the trip. The tourist in me would’ve preferred to sip some punch on the dock at Chambers Landing or enjoy cocktails at Sunnyside Lodge’s lively bar, but the pandemic was doing a great job of sucking the fun out of those time-honored Tahoe traditions (we did manage to get some Chambers Punch to go—this little miracle of an adult beverage could be the subject of its own column).
Arriving at our rental cabin in Tahoe Pines, a century-old community along the West Shore that recedes back into immense groves of white fir and Jeffrey pine, we unpacked for a relaxing week and the temporary escape from reality back home. There was still plenty of reality by the lake: over the next six days, the steady stream of traffic along West Lake Boulevard would be a reminder of Tahoe’s popularity, especially during this coronavirus road trip summer with almost no one getting on airplanes.