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California Winemaker Don Blackburn Dies

French-trained producer helped champion Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in California

Augustus Weed
Posted: May 6, 2009

Winemaker McDonald "Don" Blackburn died April 23 at his home in Los Gatos, Calif., after a yearlong battle with cancer. Blackburn was 54 years old. His career included tenures at several notable wineries, including David Bruce, Elliston, Bernardus, Byington and Emeritus Vineyards. He was also a contributing writer for Wine Spectator in the late 1970s.

He first made a name for himself in California while winemaker at Bernardus, earning praise for his Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. His work at the winery helped bring attention to the Monterey County wine region in the late 1990s.

"He was a tremendously positive influence," said Brice Jones, founder and president of Emeritus, based in Sebastopol. Blackburn was head of winemaking at Emeritus beginning with the winery's inaugural 2004 vintage. Unfortunately, the entire vintage was lost in a warehouse fire at a Wine Central facility in Vallejo that destroyed millions of dollars' worth of wine.

Despite the setback, Blackburn went on to produce two outstanding Pinot Noirs from the 2005 vintage. "There was not a challenge he wouldn't accept," Jones said.

Blackburn first became interested in wine while studying abroad in France. He spent his senior year of college in a language exchange program and worked in a vineyard during harvest. Blackburn went on to study at Beaune's Lycée Viticole and spent 10 years learning about winemaking in the vineyards and cellars of several wineries in Burgundy, Bordeaux and Alsace. In 1977, during his time in Burgundy, he began contributing regularly to Wine Spectator. In the late 1970s he returned to the U.S. and brought his knowledge of French techniques and a passion for the grapes of Burgundy.

Blackburn's love for wine was mirrored by a passion for the arts. At Bernardus he would play classical music over the winery's sound system, choosing particular songs or composers for his different wines. During presentations at winery meetings he would ask staff to match his wines with different pieces of music to see what fit together.

"He was such a gifted teacher," said Marie Gewirtz, who met Blackburn while she was doing PR and marketing work for Bernardus and knew him well. "He did a great service to American wine."

Nicolas Cantacuzene, Blackburn's assistant winemaker, will take over as head winemaker at Emeritus. The winery is organizing a celebration of his life for June 5.

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