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A Pinot Mystery Perhaps Solved

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Dec 1, 2006 3:00pm ET

In my Dec. 15 column, I wrote about my experiences with Beaulieu Vineyard's 1946 and 1947 Pinot Noirs. Those incredible wines were an early inspiration to anyone who tasted them, and they were the best vintages ever made by the late André Tchelistcheff (pronounced Chell-a-cheff).

According to Tchelistcheff, the grapes came from Carneros. But that always struck me as odd, since I had been led to believe that the first vines weren't planted there until much later, perhaps in the late 1960s or '70s.

Then I received an interesting note yesterday that might just solve this mystery.

It was from Tom Selfridge, president of the Hess Collection. He worked at BV for nearly 20 years as both winemaker and president, and he knew Tchelistcheff as well as anyone. He, too, had tasted the 1946 on several occasions and noted in his card that it was one of the greatest wines he'd ever tried.

"The first time I had it was at the Heublein auction," explained Selfridge, during a phone interview today. The 1946 was being auctioned and the auctioneer asked him to talk about the wine. In those days, an actual bottle of the wine was opened at the event, striking fear in Selfridge.

"I thought, ‘Oh my God, I know this wine is going to be over the hill'," he recalled. But of course it wasn't, and he "could tell [bidders in the audience] the truth. [The wine] blew me away."

Still, he was naturally curious about the source of the grapes, since the wine was so sensational. So he looked into BV records since Tchelistcheff's story about Carneros being the grape source didn't make sense to him either.

"The records showed that the grapes for that wine actually came from a small block on the BV No. 1 ranch in Rutherford," he explained, which is where the founders of BV, the Georges de Latour family and subsequent generations, resided. "The Carneros plantings came about 20 years later."

"André was a pretty good story teller," said Selfridge, "and what that tells me was that year was a pretty good one for Rutherford Pinot Noir."

Yet another mystery of sorts is whether Tchelistcheff coined the phrase "Rutherford Dust," an expression many attribute to him, a reference to the powdery soil.

On several occasions, I asked Tchelistcheff about this and every time he said no, he didn't use that phrase.

Not that it matters all that much. André was well into his 80s by then, and if he had used that phrase to describe the soil in Rutherford, it certainly would have been appropriate.

If you walk through a vineyard in Rutherford in mid-summer you need only look at your shoes for proof of its existence.

Selfridge recalls otherwise.

"I would swear he took credit [for the phrase Rutherford Dust]," Selfridge said, but he may well have changed his mind in later years, thinking the expression had been over used.

That's how history sometimes rewrites itself.

Still, I think Selfridge's research about the Pinot is probably accurate, and would explain a lot.

Curtis Fox
December 1, 2006 6:04pm ET
James,My favorite part about wine, besides the pleasure derived from what comes out of the bottle, is all the history. The story of this BV pinot is really fascinating. I would really appreciate a follow-up blog/story.Am I correct in assuming that Rutherford is not particularly well-known for its pinot noir? What about those vintages, or that particular vineyard do you think led to such a fantastic and long-lived wine? I know luck is always a factor in agriculture, but not the sole factor.Are grapes still grown on this site? Pinot or any other for that matter?Thanks.P.S. I also really enjoy your blogs about you and your son. They remind me of all the great times I have had with my Dad sharing wine.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  December 1, 2006 6:19pm ET
Curtis, You are correct. Rutherford is mostly Cabernet country, but lots of grapes would (and do) perform well here, including Chardonnay (check out Staglin or El Molino), the former in a cool area, the other slightly warmer. For Zinfandel (Edizione Pennino and Elyse Morisoli. As the BV vineyards were sold to various owners, including the Staglins, the focus has been on Cabernet, which of course truly excels here, whereas Pinot, until recently, was risker, both as a grape and wine. I doubt there's much Pinot grown there anymore, but as soon as I say that (which I just did) someone will write in telling us it's still there. Thanks for the compliments. I see what else is left to write about this, and may even give Andre's wife Dorothy a call. She knew a lot about the wines as well; last time I saw her she was returning from a big game fishing trip in Belize.
Stephen J Levin
California —  December 2, 2006 10:30am ET
I had the 1946 BV Pinot Noir twice and both times it was a stunning and amazing wine. Once was at the Heublein auction to which Mr. Selfridge refers, and once was a bottle from a private collector, an uncle of my best friend's. While in no way resembling a red Burgundy from France, it was a wine of great style and finesse with great perfumes and significant fruit.
Gregory Dryden
Kirkwood, MO —  December 2, 2006 12:02pm ET
James, a quick question about the 12/15 magazine cover. I noted the Merry Edwards Klopp Ranch in the photo was from the 2004 vintage, not the 2003 that collected such high praises from you. Yet I haven't seen a rating on the 2004. Have I overlooked this somewhere? Thanks in advance for the response. And I agree with your assessment of the 2003 -- a handful of bottles remain in my cellar from the case I purchased following your stellar rec on this wine.
James Suckling
 —  December 3, 2006 5:33am ET
Jimbo: Remember the years in 1982 and 1983 when we tasted numerous vintages of these BV Pinots at the Heublein auctions? They were all superb. I also remember drinking various vintages with my father from the 1960s. He had them in his cellar as well as the BV Private Reserves. I always wondered why the Pinots were so well-structured, dense and powerful.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  December 3, 2006 12:31pm ET
James, I'll never forget that (and the scene at the bar afterward). My next case is to find out how many cases of 1947 were really made. Seems like it must have been 20,000, given how many times it shows up. Say hi to your Dad for me. He's a great guy!
James Laube
Napa, CA —  December 3, 2006 12:38pm ET
should have read cases of Cheval Blanc 1947...
Gary Lipp
Napa, CA —  December 3, 2006 6:57pm ET
Jim,When I worked in the cellar for Joe Heitz in 1981 I was the beneficiary of comments made by a writer from "Newsday" that California wines don't age. Joe arranged a dinner at his house to prove this writer wrong, and luckily I was included. We were all amazed by the elegance and richness of both the 1945 and 1941 BV Georges De Latour Cabernet Sauvignon wines we drank that night. But to the person, everyone agreed that the most delicious wine that night was labeled 1940 BV Burgundy. We all assumed that the makeup was Pinot Noir (thought hard to tell at 40+ years of age), but most of us were unaware that the winery had used that name for a wine. I really don't remember Joe shedding any light on the history of the wine that evening. But reading your comments about how good the 1946 and 1947 Pinot Noirs were doesn't surprise me after having had their predecessor the 1940 "Burgundy".
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  December 4, 2006 8:11am ET
I may be wrong but I believe that El Molino - certainly a top-notch CA Pinot producer - sources some Pinot grapes from the Rutherford area. Seems like an odd place to me but it seems to work!Adam LeeSiduri Wines
Steve Coyle
Chappaqua, NY —  December 4, 2006 2:20pm ET
In fact, El Moluino does sourec Pinot Grapes from Rutherford ... and a fine Pinot it is!!!
Dave Pramuk
December 4, 2006 2:29pm ET
I believe California growers are still allowed to call one Pinot noir clone Gamay Beaujolais - a fairly common variety in Napa Valley in those days. However, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel were the most widely planted varieties in Napa until around 1970 and my bet is that the famously innovative Mr. Tchelistcheff was using a fair amount to pump up his Cabs, "Burgundies" and even the Pinot noirs. That might account for the longevity, density and power Mr.s Lipp and Suckling refer to. Dave Pramuk, Co-proprietor Robert Biale Vineyards and Hill Climber, President P.S. I Love You (the Petite Sirah advocacy organization)
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  December 4, 2006 3:28pm ET
I had the BV Beaumont Pinot Noir 1946 several times in the 1970s and 1980s. The wine was phenomenal. I remember Andr¿chelistcheff saying that he tried for years to duplicate that wine and never could do it. He also steadfastly denied that there was anything in the bottle but Pinot Noir, the suspicion being that it got its depth and richness from a judicious addition of something like Petite Sirah. The wine stood as a tantalizing reminder that California could produce magnificent wines from Pinot Noir, which is finally happenning.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  December 4, 2006 5:11pm ET
Harv, you're giving away your age...I had forgotten (because of my age) that it was called Beaumont. I wish I had kept the bottles, too, because they're so famous.
Kevin Rogers
Geyserville, CA —  December 4, 2006 5:45pm ET
The BV1 vineyard referenced by Mr. Laube in the blog is still part of BV's portfolio. It's planted to Cabernet now, though.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  December 4, 2006 6:18pm ET
Dave, that's a good observation about blending. I'm sure in an era (the 1940s through 1960s) when varietal labeling was far less important than it is today that winemakers blended to make the best wine possible, which I'm also sure is still true. Why mess with success?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  December 4, 2006 6:25pm ET
Steve, you and Adam are also correct on the El Molino Pinot Noir. Most (up to 90 percent, as I recall) of the Pinot comes from the Star Vineyard in Rutherford and for many years Ric Forman was the winemaker and/or consultant. I believe Reg Oliver, the late owner, also blended in Carneros grapes from time to time, again aiming to make the best wine possible.
Jack Magnuson
Sugar Grove, IL —  December 5, 2006 11:28am ET
I have an opportunity to purchase a six bottle case of 2000 Mondavi Opus One @ $100 per bottle, which is about $50 under market price right now. The problem I'm having is that you have this wine rated at 89; as a matter of principle, I struggle with paying that much for an 89 point wine, even at a bargain price. Would you make this purchase?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  December 5, 2006 12:02pm ET
Jack, don't worry about the "very good" or borderline outstanding score. If you've never tried Opus, then you should. If you already know the wine, and like the style, then buy one. If you're looking for value, Opus is not your ticket.
John Wilen
Texas —  December 5, 2006 12:45pm ET
Jack, as someone with ready access to current wine prices, I can tell you that $100 for the 2000 Opus is market price. You are not getting a deal. Evidence: one bottle sold on winecommune on 12/4 for $100 and a 3-pack closed there on 12/4 as well for $280 which is $93.33 each. The wine is available at retail for $113; you can find it on winesearcher.com Buy the wine if you tried it and liked it, not because it's a bargain, which it isn't.
Elyse J Ward
Buffalo Grove, IL —  December 5, 2006 1:56pm ET
I've read your comments regarding a better year on the horizon for 2004 Cabs, relative to 2003, but was wondering what your opinion is of 2004 as it relates to Syrah? I have been given my allocation of John Anthony's '04 Syrah release and haven't read much about the vintage. Any insights?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  December 5, 2006 2:01pm ET
Elyse, 2004 is a great year for Syrah and you'll see shortly a tasting report on our site with some of the better wines I've tried lately. Also, we'll have full report in the Jan-Feb issue.
Elyse J Ward
Buffalo Grove, IL —  December 5, 2006 10:01pm ET
Jim - I noticed that you replied to my question about 2004 Syrah, and in particular John Anthony, but your answer never made it to the blog. Any chance for a re-try?? Thanks!
Lily Oliver
El Molino, St. Helena, CA —  December 6, 2006 12:33pm ET
We planted our first block of Pinot in Rutherford in 1991 (2 1/2 acres) and our second in 1999 (1 1/2 acres) and we are in the process on a third 1 1/2 acre block. El Molino Pinot noir is 90% Rutherford & 10% Carneros and we are in the process of phasing out the Carneros fruit. Ric has never been a Winemaker at El Molino, although he is a minority partner in our vineyard (Star Vineyard, 68 acres) and he gets 100% of his Chardonnay from Star, as does El Molino. We feel that Rutherford is a great place to grow the Pinot noir that we are making at El Molino. I know Tchelistcheff's Rutherford Pinots were always an inspiration to my Dad.

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