Mr. Carneros, Champion of the Land and Pinot Noir

Rene di Rosa, Carneros Pinot Noir visionary and eccentric philantropist, died this past weekend at the age of 91
Oct 6, 2010

“Let’s see,” Rene di Rosa would say in a staccato delivery, thinking aloud to pique the attention of anyone who might be listening. “I wonder what kind of wine we should drink with dinner tonight.”

Anyone who knew di Rosa, or dined at his home in Napa, could anticipate the answer. It was always the same.

“I know,” di Rosa would say with a sly grin and twinkle in his eye, as if the idea had just come to him. “Let’s have a Pinot Noir.” It didn’t matter what was on the menu. The wine would be Pinot Noir.

With that, he would lead a guest or two—occasionally me—down the spiral staircase into his cellar for the ritual selection of that evening’s red wine.

Di Rosa’s cellar was well-stocked with great wines, but it was Pinot Noir, above all others, that captured his fancy. He delighted in letting guests select a bottle from one of his basement’s wine racks.

For the longest time, the eccentric newspaperman, vineyardist and art collector championed two underdogs in the wine world: Carneros and Pinot Noir. To him, the two were inseparable.

In that sense he was a visionary, one of the first to plant Pinot in Carneros in his Winery Lake Vineyard. From there, he became a leading advocate, both for the emerging wine region and the grape struggling for recognition and appreciation. We dubbed him Mr. Carneros after he appeared on the cover of Wine Spectator in December 1985, with a story about California’s best vineyards. He loved the nickname. It fit him perfectly.

Di Rosa died Sunday night in Napa. He was 91 years old and in failing health for several years. Yet, he never lost his passion for Carneros, Pinot Noir, art or people. When he bought the 450-acre property in the 1960s and planted a vineyard he called Winery Lake (his home was a former winery; the “lake” a large pond except in his vivid mind), Carneros was mostly open space. It had languished since Prohibition. There were a few vineyards but more sheep than people. But this expansive appellation of rolling hills that extended from the city of Napa south and then west to Sonoma, became the gateway to wine country.

Di Rosa was a larger-than-life character—eccentric, witty, irreverent and a true patron of wine and the arts. Early on in his career, he worked as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, but that didn’t suit his tastes and he decided to grow grapes. At the time he planted Winery Lake, Carneros was considered too cool a climate for the era’s mainstay grapes, Cabernet and Zinfandel. There were pockets of success, with Buena Vista and Louis M. Martini’s vines. But di Rosa, encouraged by his longtime friend and mentor, André Tchelistcheff, believed that the area’s proximity to San Pablo Bay and its cooling influences, would be well-suited to Burgundian varieties, and di Rosa planted Pinot, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer, among other grapes, beginning a new era of trial and error farming. But he had major supporters. Besides Tchelistcheff, Robert Mondavi was a big fan of the idea that Carneros would be idea for Pinot Noir. It took a long time, but beginning with the likes of Acacia and Saintsbury, and many other wineries that used the Winery Lake Vineyard designation, the area began to make progress.

As good as some of those Pinots were—the 1981 Belvedere Winery bottling being perhaps the finest of that era—it would take another generation and the wholesale replanting of the area to better clones to raise the level of quality. Moreover, even as Carneros has gained, other coastal areas along the Pacific have risen to the occasion with this grape, which is enjoying a groundswell of appreciation.

Di Rosa’s home and property are now part of the di Rosa preserve, a great nature preserve and exhibit, with some 2,000 pieces of art, and a few personal favorites, including David Best's Rhinocar, which I once helped di Rosa push into a nearby garage when it started raining during one of his parties. (He was afraid the glue on its ornaments might melt.) The phone at the preserve is the same one he used at his residence. He may no longer be there to answer it, but I still know what he would be drinking with dinner tonight.

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