Alice Nightingale's fascination with noble rot and the great wines of Sauternes led her to produce a unique style of dessert wine in California.
By the time she and her husband and winemaking partner, Myron Nightingale, joined Beringer Vineyards in Napa Valley in the 1970s, they had perfected a method to create the ideal environment for botrytis cinerea--the mold that causes grapes to shrivel, concentrating the flavors, sugar and acid. The late-harvest Sémillon-Sauvignon Blanc blend they produced there, which Beringer named Nightingale after them, is considered one of California's greatest sweet wines.
Alice Nightingale died on Sept. 30, at the age of 85, in Tracy, Calif., where she had lived for the past 10 years. She had remained active as a winemaking consultant for a decade after Myron's death in 1988.
Though Alice worked behind the scenes, leaving the industry limelight to Myron, she was the driving force behind the evolution of the Nightingale style.
"They were a great winemaking team," said Beringer winemaker Ed Sbragia, who worked with the couple during their tenure at Beringer, from 1971 to 1988. "She was probably as instrumental to developing Nightingale as Myron was. She did all the lab work, and he did all the winemaking."
Alice did not have a formal education, recalled her son, Barry, but "because of her work with botrytis, she became quite a skilled microbiologist." Her research on botrytis led to many scholarly papers and to her work as a consultant on the subject for wineries in Europe and South America.
Alice was intrigued by what could be achieved by developing a process to inoculate grapes with noble rot inside the lab, rather than letting the process happen naturally in the vineyard. The Nightingales began experimenting with controlled botrytis inoculations at Cresta Blanca winery in the 1950s, creating a wine called Premiere Sémillon. At Beringer, they resumed the practice, which began with a careful selection of ripe Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes.
In their process, the grapes are put on trays, sprayed with botrytis spores and then covered with a tarp and placed in a humid environment. After about 30 hours, the botrytis attacks the grapes, according to Sbragia. Once the grapes shrivel, they are again picked over to remove unwanted berries, before being crushed and fermented. (Over the years, Beringer has changed how much time the wine spends in oak and how much new oak is used.)
The result "is one of the purest botrytized wines made," Sbragia said. The wines, which have routinely earned outstanding reviews in Wine Spectator tastings, are typically very rich, sweet and marked by layers of honey, fig, apricot and tobacco flavors. The wines also age well, thanks to the high acidity and residual sugar.
Alice Nightingale's memorial service is scheduled for 11:00 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 7, at the Morrison Funeral Chapel, 990 Vintage Ave., St. Helena, Calif. Friends are invited by the family to attend.