Friday, July 17, 2015

BV's sad visage in the rear-view mirror

This reminder of the good old days of a Napa family jewel that ended up belonging to an international liquor conglomerate (from

Beaulieu Vineyard Reliving Past Glories

In the 1930s, Beaulieu was one of the most magnificent properties in California.
© Beaulieu Vineyards | In the 1930s, Beaulieu was one of the most magnificent properties in California.
The company's flagship wine still echoes those made during California's golden age.
If you visit Beaulieu Vineyard's reserve tasting room in Rutherford, you can buy Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from the 1970s for about the same price as the current release. This is amazing because it was one of California's most iconic wines for decades.

For 30 years after Prohibition ended, Beaulieu and Inglenook were about the only California wineries even attempting to make world-class wine. Beaulieu's wine was served at the dinner tables of Winston Churchill, Douglas MacArthur and Queen Elizabeth II.
That said, just as today, Beaulieu has never made its money from the top of the portfolio. Georges de Latour founded Beaulieu in 1899, but not to make quality wines. He bought inferior leftover wines from other wineries and sold them cheaply for a good profit. His wisest move, from today's perspective, was buying 100 acres in Rutherford to live on and base his operation. His second wisest was befriending the archbishop of San Francisco, so he could keep making sacramental wine during Prohibition.
The Beaulieu estate was, along with Inglenook, the most magnificent place in Napa Valley in the 1930s. The house was surrounded by gardens and filled with French-speaking servants. But de Latour realized his wines weren't very good, so he went to France looking for a winemaker.
André Tchelistcheff, hired by Beaulieu in 1938, brought modern winemaking to Napa Valley, introducing measures as basic as good hygiene. In cleaning up the filthy cellar, he found some barrels of red wine that tasted much better than the rest; they had been laid down in 1936. When de Latour died in 1940, Tchelistcheff convinced his widow to release them as the Georges de Latour Private Reserve for the unheard-of price of $1.50 a bottle.
For the next three decades, Tchelistcheff kept the quality of the Georges de Latour Private Reserve high, while making compromises with the rest of the wines because of the family's penury. This was the golden era for Beaulieu's flagship wine as an ambassador of the US wine industry.
The family finally sold the winery in 1968 to Heublein, the first in a decades-long series of corporate acquisitions and mergers as various non-wine companies thought they could make money in Napa Valley, then decided they couldn't.
"When I started here in 1989, I worked for RJR Nabisco," says Jeffrey Stambor, just the fourth director of winemaking in Beaulieu's 80-plus-year history. "I worked for a lot of different companies, all right here at this winery. Within the first three years of my employment, I was tendered two severance packages, but they never signed off on them."

Main men – Georges de Latour (L), Joel Aiken and André Tchelistcheff.
© Beaulieu Vineyards | Main men – Georges de Latour (L), Joel Aiken and André Tchelistcheff.
The luster of the Georges de Latour name lingered through the 1980s, even in (frequent) down years but, by the 1990s, a new generation of small-production Napa Cabernets stole its thunder. In 1997, when Diageo (the current owner) was formed from the merger of two of the UK's largest drinks corporations, production of the Georges de Latour Reserve was up to 18,000 cases. Robert Parker gave the 1997 Georges de Latour 90 points but wrote: "Beaulieu is no longer one of California's cutting edge wineries."
Whiskey is Diageo's main business, but it pays more attention to its wine portfolio than some of its corporate forerunners, all of which took advantage of Beaulieu's legacy to varying degrees. Beaulieu will never be cutting edge again, but when you look back on the real history of the winery, it's easy to say that on the whole, it has never made better wines overall than it does right now.
During the golden era under Tchelistcheff, wines below the Georges de Latour Reserve level suffered from inferior quality grapes and equipment. Later, Heublein was so ignorant of wine that it once recommended grafting over all Beaulieu's vines to Gamay to increase turnover and cashflow, according to James Conaway's book "Napa."
Tchelistcheff quit in 1973. Beaulieu has had an army of winemakers come and go, but only four have been charged with making the Georges de Latour Reserve.
Joel Aiken was in charge through the mid-1980s and tried to keep the reputation high, even as he sometimes had to explain why that was important. Under Aiken, the Georges de Latour Reserve always had the pick of the corporation's Rutherford vineyards, especially one called BV1, in the heart of the appellation between the Inglenook and Hewitt vineyards. That vineyard was replanted in the late 1980s after phylloxera hit Napa Valley, so most of its Cabernet Sauvignon vines are more than 25 years old now. There's also a little Petit Verdot in the section closest to the road. For many years the Georges de Latour was only Cabernet, but now – while labeled as Cab – it often includes smaller percentages of the other Bordeaux varieties.
A few years after Diageo took over, Aiken convinced corporate management that, to compete with the smaller wineries then making the most heralded Napa Cabernets, Georges de Latour Reserve had to get smaller, in more ways than one. In addition to making about four times as much of the wine as he recommended, the Georges de Latour Reserve was made in the same giant wine factory – even in the same humongous fermentation tanks – as Beaulieu's other Napa Valley wines. (This is not to be confused with BV's enormous facility in Monterey County that makes the BV Coastal line of wines – the company likes to use the name Beaulieu for the Napa wines and BV for the rest.)

Beaulieu Vineyard Reliving Past Glories
© Beaulieu Vineyards
In 2005, a small section of the winery was set aside for the Georges de Latour Reserve. Stambor, then Aiken's assistant winemaker, says the main things they were looking for were better tannin management and a fuller midpalate. They were convinced they could achieve these with smaller, dedicated tanks. They proved their point to Diageo's satisfaction, so Rosenblum (another Diageo brand) inherited those smaller tanks and in 2008 Aiken and Stambor built a dedicated winemaking room for Georges de Latour.
Today that wine gets much of the same cutting-edge treatment as other top Napa Cabs. The fruit is picked at 3:30am, so it arrives cool at the winery. It goes through an optical sorter and is fermented in a combination of stainless steel, oak tanks and some new oak barrels. Pumpovers are controlled by computer to extract as much flavor as possible. Diageo also brought in Michel Rolland as a consultant. He comes in three times a year to help blend the Georges de Latour. The result is a ripe, rich Cabernet that represents the modern Napa style. And there's a lot less of it; fewer than 5000 cases.
Georges de Latour Reserve Cabernet will never again be a flagship of Napa Valley. But its modern wines uphold its reputation, and you can still go to Rutherford and taste a wine from the era when there was almost no better-regarded Napa Cabernet. Will you like it better? Once you get there, it won't even cost you $200 to find out.

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