Businessman and Napa vintner George Vare, who died earlier this month, was at the top of the shortest lists. In the 1970s, an era when California wine was in its formative years, Vare actually understood the wine business as a business, inside-out and bottom to top, far better than most.
He was among a generation of vintners who were straight shooters.
People who wanted to know how wine functioned as commerce often turned to Vare for insight, analysis and perspective. He knew the numbers.
He convinced a brewer, Schlitz, to try wine at a time when marketing beer and wine were about as different as soda and Vitamin Water.
Vare recognized that wine had to first be a profitable endeavor and pay its way; wine as art and nuance and variety came later, and he was able to enjoy that, too. He came from an epoch defined by this equation: In order to make a small fortune in wine you start with a large one.
Vare ended up faring quite well financially. Besides leading Geyser Peak to a prominent position, he was able to profit handsomely in a pair of blockbuster deals: First, he and his partners bought Beringer from Nestlé. A few years later, they sold Beringer to Foster's.
He liked the artisanal side too, and wasn't afraid to take risks. Were he to launch a low-alcohol, méthode Champenoise sparkling cider today, marketed as low-calorie, it would likely be a hit. Pomme de Vare was just 30 years ahead of its time. Luna Vineyards was at the forefront of the Cal-Ital movement and bet too heavily that Sangiovese would be easy to master in Napa (it isn't), and that people would want to drink expensive Napa Valley Pinot Grigio (they tried it, but Luna found out it was easier to buy grapes or bulk Pinot elsewhere).
But it was Vare's fascination with an obscure Friulian white, Ribolla Gialla, that inspired him in his later years and served as a bridge between him and the next generation of young winemakers. His 3 acres of Napa Valley Ribolla Gialla illustrated everything impractical but meaningful about the wine business.