THE PROJECTED TURNAROUND time for a winery in distress is about 10 years, give or take a few. . . .
The first one I witnessed firsthand was the rejuvenation of Beringer Vineyards in Napa Valley, which up until 1976-1977 had been in a long, downward spiral, producing simple, ordinary, largely uninspiring wines. . . .
Beringer hired Myron Nightingale, who essentially dumped all the bad wines and began an immediate program to retool the winery and secure better vineyards. . . .
Nightingale was a no-nonsense winemaker who knew it would take years before the public's perception would catch up with Beringer's wines. . . .
AND HE KNEW that if he made the right decisions and did the right things, he could make great wines. . . .
The breakthrough vintage was 1977, when Nightingale fashioned Beringer's first Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, a dense, rich, chocolaty wine that was among the finest of that drought year. . . .
When this wine came out in 1981, it won widespread acclaim, yet there were many skeptics who harbored doubts about Beringer's wines. . . .
It wasn't until the mid-1980s, almost a decade after Nightingale began to work his magic, that wine lovers really appreciated how great Beringer's wines were--across the board. . . .
Geyser Peak in Sonoma County is currently enjoying a similar style renaissance. This old winery, founded in 1880, had also let quality slide into a tailspin. . . .
IN 1990, AUSTRALIAN Daryl Groom, a winemaker for Penfolds, producer of the famous Grange Shiraz, came to Geyser Peak as its new winemaker. . . .
He arrived in time to make some final decisions about the 1987 vintage for Cabernet, which was still in barrel. . . .
After tasting the wine, he decided it needed a flash of new oak to perk up its flavors and discovered that Geyser Peak hadn't bought any new French oak barrels in nearly a decade. . . .
"We had a big battle with the accountants," Groom recalls, "and I thought seriously about packing up my bags and heading back to Australia. . . ."
Groom won the debate, and was able to put the 1987 in new French oak for a few months. . . .
HE WAS ALSO able to sort out the best barrels and cut down the blends so that the wine that finally went into bottle was much improved. . . .
Both the Alexander Valley Reserve 1987 and the Reserve Alexandre, a Meritage blend, received high marks from critics, including Wine Spectator. These two wines really impressed me. . . .
Success continued for Groom and Geyser Peak. He has righted the ship and set it on a new course, presenting a variety of complex, intriguing wines, ranging from Sauvignon Blanc to his prized Shiraz. . . .
You need great grapes to make great wines, and though Geyser Peak owned many vineyards, Groom began to seek out other growers to fill in the gaps. . . .
"As a young winemaker, I used to think that grapes grew on the back of a truck," smiles Groom, who is 39, with short-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair and tiny wire-rimmed glasses. . . .
"THE PRIMARY FOCUS is to get top-quality grapes and long-term contracts," he says, and that means anywhere he can find them in the state of California. . . .
With Shiraz, for instance, the grape sources range from cooler coastal climes to mountaintops to Monterey to Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley. . . .
For old-vine Zinfandel, Groom found a small plot in Cucamonga, in Southern California, of all places, where the vines are 110 years old. . . .
When Groom began, Geyser Peak farmed 97 percent of its grapes. Today Geyser Peak provides about 50 percent of its own grape needs and has contracts with 85 other growers. . . .
"Despite grape shortages and high grape prices, we've overbought so we can be more selective," says Groom. . . .
Many of the newer wines feature vineyard designations, as more growers like to see their names on the labels, acknowledging their efforts to grow the best grapes. . . .
"NOW WE HAVE growers calling us," says Groom. . . .
Today Geyser Peak and its second label, Canyon Road, account for 500,000 cases annually, about evenly split between the two brands. . . .
When Henry Trione bought the winery in 1982, volume was headed toward 1 million cases, most of that being the inexpensive Summit brand wine in the box. . . .
As anxious as Groom was to improve quality, friends and colleagues in the business encouraged him to take his time. . . .
"They told me it won't happen overnight," he recalls. "It's evolution, not revolution. . . ."
Now that he's preparing for his eighth harvest in California, Groom continues to be amazed by the diversity of climates, soils and grape possibilities in the Golden State. . . .
And he continues to bring elements of creativity to Geyser Peak's wines, including barrel fermenting Cabernet and Shiraz and the utilization of rotary tank fermenters. . . .
WINEMAKERS KNOW THAT barrel fermenting Chardonnay helps marry the wine and oak flavors early on, so the same logic applies with reds, says Groom. . . .
Rotary fermenters, wildly popular in Australia, are newer to California. They work like a cement mixer turned on its side, mixing the grape skins and must (juice), while maximizing the amount of flavor extracted from the grape. . . .
Rotary fermenters allow Groom to create richer, more plush wines with softer tannins and earlier drinking allure. . . .
Among my current favorites are the Venezia Stella Bianco 1995, a 50-50 blend of Chardonnay and Semillon that is ripe, fat and juicy, thanks to fat old-vine Semillon. . . .
Venezia is a second label used by Geyser Peak for its new wines, such as the aforementioned wine, Cabernet and Sangiovese. . . .
THE 1995 GEYSER Peak Alexander Valley Chardonnay is bold, with juicy tropical fruit, melon, fig, pear and spice nuances. . . .
The Venezia Sangiovese Russian River Valley Alegria Vineyards 1995 starts with floral aromas that lead to a plush core of plum and berry, and frankly this wine has more depth and substance than 99 percent of the Sangioveses made in California today. . . .
The Venezia Alexander Valley Cabernet Meola Vineyard 1995 is rich and silky, with beautiful dark fruit flavors and lots of spice and oak. . . .
The Geyser Peak Alexander Valley Cabernet Reserve is amazingly complex and concentrated, 100 percent barrel fermented in American oak. . . .
THE ONE YOU won't want to miss is the 1995 Reserve Shiraz Sonoma County, a fabulously rich and concentrated wine that is jam-packed with wild berry and plummy flavors and finish that goes on and on. . . .
Having worked for Penfolds and made the Grange, Groom is clearly excited with the progress he's made with Shiraz. . . .
On top of that, he's flat-out convinced that 1995 is the greatest vintage for reds he's even seen anywhere, a powerful endorsement anyway you look at it. . . .
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