As 2011 comes to a close, Wine Spectator reflects on the winemakers, grapegrowers, enologists, distributors and all-around industry promoters who died this year.
We bid farewell to a true California icon in 2011 with the passing of Kendall-Jackson founder Jess Jackson. The controversial lifelong trackman and attorney-turned-vintner was vastly influential during the California wine industry's coming of age, becoming a self-made billionaire with the wine empire he built around Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay.
We also said goodbye too soon to Debra Whiting, chef and owner of Red Newt Bistro in New York's Finger Lakes, who was killed in an auto accident. This year we mourned influential importers Ab Simon and Joe Dressner and California vintners Patty Bogle, Mike Lee, Budge Brown and Laurie Wood. Here we pay tribute to some of the many wine industry veterans that will be missed in 2012.
Robert Lawrence Balzer
One of America’s first wine journalists, Robert Lawrence Balzer wrote an influential column for the Los Angeles Times magazine. Balzer got his start in wine when his father put him in charge of buying wine for their small grocery store in Los Angeles at age 24; his career as a columnist led him to become a prominent wine educator, publishing 11 books on the subject. Balzer died Dec. 2 at the age of 99 at his home in Orange, Calif.
Patty Bogle launched what would become one of California's most successful value-oriented brands with her husband, Chris, and father-in-law, Warren Bogle Sr., in 1979. Bogle Vineyards now makes more than 1 million cases annually of some of California's best value Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Chardonnay and more. Bogle died Feb. 11 at the age of 59 after a lengthy bout with leukemia.
Robert "Budge" Brown
Longtime California grapegrower Robert "Budge" Brown purchased and devoted the Cleavage Creek winery in Napa to the fight against breast cancer after losing his wife, Arlene, to the disease in 2005. Brown died May 18 at age 78 when his single-engine plane crashed in the El Dorado National Forest.
Founder of wine importing company Louis Dressner Selections, Joe Dressner introduced Americans to many unique wines—particularly those from Burgundy—with the philosophy of importing wines from small family estates that worked organically with indigenous yeasts, no filtration and minimal intervention. Dressner died in September at age 60.
San Francisco wine and restaurant reviewer Robert Finigan helped define American wine criticism. He published the influential Robert Finigan's Private Guide to Wines newsletter from 1972 and 1990 and published several books, including Robert Finigan’s Essentials of Wine. He died Oct. 1 at age 68 in San Francisco.
One of the most influential and controversial icons of the California wine industry, Jess Jackson built a wine empire around Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, becoming a self-made billionaire. During nearly three decades, Jackson launched or acquired more than 30 wine brands in California, Italy, South America, Australia and France. Combined, they currently produce more than 5 million cases annually. Jackson was a successful Bay Area attorney when he got into the grapegrowing business in the 1970s, but his first love was horses. Jackson's Curlin and Rachel Alexandra are both two of the highest-earning horses in the history of thoroughbred racing. Jackson died April 21 in Sonoma County at age 81 after several years of treatment for melanoma.
Longtime Sonoma winemaker Mike Lee helped build Kenwood Vineyards, one of California’s most popular wineries. Lee, with his father and brothers, purchased Pagani winery in 1970, renaming it Kenwood, and Mike became the winemaker, learning on the fly while taking courses at U.C. Davis. He died May 2 at age 66 after suffering a heart attack while playing golf in Santa Rosa.
One of the world’s most prominent enologists, Pascal Ribéreau-Gayon, headed the department of enology at the University of Bordeaux for 20 years. He had enormous influence as a professor, researcher, consultant and author. Ribéreau-Gayon died May 15 in Bordeaux at age 80.
The affable, often-chuckling Jean-Jacques Sabon first started working at his family estate of Roger Sabon & Fils in 1963 as a young teenager and was in charge of the vinification by 1975. During his 30-plus-year tenure, he turned the estate into a reference point for pure, perfumy, silky, Burgundian-styled Châteauneuf-du-Pape. He was also among the early believers in the multiple cuvée approach, making separate bottlings based on vine age and vineyard parcels beginning in the late 1980s. Sabon died in December at age 63 after battling cancer.
Ab Simon was the most influential and successful importer of Bordeaux wines to the U.S. From the 1970s through the end of the century, Simon dominated the American market for the great wines of Bordeaux, first at importer Austin Nichols, then, beginning in 1974, as chairman of Seagram’s Château & Estate Wines Co., which he ran until retiring in 1999. In 1988, Simon imported more than one in every five bottles of Bordeaux’s five first-growths, according to the New York Times. After his retirement, Simon championed many causes in Israel, among them the Tel Aviv Foundation and Hebrew University, and was involved with several other charitable activities. Simon died New Year’s Day 2011 at age 88.
French chef René Verdon cooked for the Kennedys in the White House and later opened one of San Francisco's best French reastaurants, Le Trianon. Verdon influenced a generation of chefs in California, especially those in the French wing, including Hubert Keller of Fleur de Lys and Roland Passot of La Folie. Verdon died Feb. 2 at his home in San Francisco at age 86.
The chef and owner of the Finger Lakes' Red Newt Bistro, Debra Whiting, one of the area's most popular restaurants, was killed June 30 in an automobile accident. Her husband, Red Newt Cellars winemaker Dave Whiting, survived the crash. The Whitings' Red Newt Cellars and Bistro is a top draw among locals and tourists alike on Seneca Lake. The couple also wrote a guest blog for Wine Spectator in 2008. Whiting was 52.
Frank Lawrence “Laurie” Wood was instrumental in the replanting of Napa Valley vineyards and its wine renaissance after Prohibition. Wood was among the cutting-edge viticulturists in the 1960s as California viticulture experienced a renaissance. Over the years, he planted, consulted for and/or managed Martha’s Vineyard, Sycamore Vineyard, Bella Oaks, Bosche Vineyard, York Creek, Cain, Snowden, Barnett, Grace Family, Merryvale and J.J. Cohn, home to Scarecrow. In 1965, Laurie and childhood friend Chuck Carpy, along with five other partners, bought and revitalized Freemark Abbey Winery. Wood was also a renowned water dowser whose skills in locating underground water reserves took him from Marin, Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino, Solano and Napa counties to the Sonoran Desert of Mexico. Wood died at his home in St. Helena on Aug. 9 at age 91.
Matt L Kirkland Md — Gladwyne, PA, USA — December 31, 2011 9:51am ET
Andrew Waterhouse — Davis, California — January 2, 2012 3:50pm ET
Thomas Matthews — New York City — January 3, 2012 10:55am ET
Jan Mccartan — Hood River, Oregon, usa — January 12, 2012 12:08pm ET
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