Reflections on Legh Knowles
By James Laube, senior editor
IN HIS PRIME, he was the best wine salesman around, maybe even better than Robert Mondavi. . . .
The difference between Legh (pronounced Lee) Knowles and Mondavi was that Knowles was selling Beaulieu Vineyard's wines and Mondavi's name was on his label. . . .
That never seemed to matter much to Knowles, for during his three decades at BV -- as general manger, president and then chairman -- he stood for and symbolized BV's commitment to excellence, even at times when BV's reputation was tarnished and its future in doubt. . . .
A good friend to many in wine, Knowles died in Napa on Aug. 15, at the age of 78. . . .
All California winemakers owe Knowles a debt of gratitude for his many contributions to both BV's wines and the rise in prominence of California wine. . . .
WINE LOVERS TOO benefited from Knowles' dedication to BV's wines, for there were times when BV -- famous for its Rutherford-grown Cabernets -- came perilously close to losing its edge. . . .
When Knowles began selling BV wines in 1962, he hit the road and worked the streets at a time when few Americans knew about California wine or its potential. . . .
He and many others of that era helped open doors for California wine and preached the gospel of the Golden State's bounties, long before California wine had the kind of loyal congregation that worships it today. . . .
With his deep baritone voice and keen sense of humor, Legh had a wonderful way of demystifying wine, whether in person or through his radio commercials for BV. . . .
If you tasted a wine and liked it, then it was a good wine. That, said Legh Knowles, was about all you needed to know. . . .
EVEN THOUGH HE liked the wine media, and worked it to his advantages, he routinely chided wine critics for their verbosity in describing wines and what he termed the "prismatic luminescent" school of writing. . . .
I met Knowles in 1978, the year I moved to Napa, and he taught me many things about BV and the wine business. . . . There have been many people through the years who have worked to uphold the quality and traditions at BV, including the legendary wine master Andre Tchelistcheff, who worked there from 1936 to 1972 and was responsible for the BV Private Reserve Cabernets. . . .
But in his own way, Knowles was just as important, for he was committed to the Georges de Latour family -- which founded BV in 1900 -- and even when BV became a Heublein property, Knowles stood firm in his belief that BV maintain the highest standards. . . .
THERE WAS ALWAYS the possibility that BV, the grand old Napa Valley estate, would follow the path of Inglenook, another proud Napa Valley estate also owned by Heublein, that was turned into a symbol for a jug wine brand. . . .
When there was talk of cutting corners or pushing production, Knowles wouldn't stand for it. He insisted that BV uphold the quality of its Georges de Latour Private Reserve, even through troubled times. . . .
BV is back on its feet again, making the best wines it ever has. The entire lineup, from Cabernet to Pinot Noir to Syrah, Zinfandel and Chardonnay, have risen to new heights. . . .
PART OF THAT CREDIT must go to Knowles, for he ran a tight ship and steered a steady course at the crucial times when BV needed a strong, visionary leader. . . .
BV Cabernet ran through Legh's veins to the end. . . .
It was a honor and a pleasure to have known him for so many years. . . .
His energy, enthusiasm and determination will be missed by many. . . .
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, will feature the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a roster of Wine Spectator editors. This week senior editor James Laube, author of three books on California wine and a regular columnist in the magazine, takes a turn. To read past Unfined, Unfiltered columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.