If it's February, some of the hordes landing at Florida airports must be winemakers.
They're here because at this time of year there's not much to do at home other than prune a few vines. The grapes of '89 have long beenpicked, squeezed and fermented, and the young wine is sitting in tanks and barrels in winery ware-houses.
So it's time to put on sales hats and hit the road for wine festivals, competitions and calling on accounts. This mid-winter exodus sends wine makers and owners to the hustings, and particularly the big Florida market, to push their wines to restaurateurs, merchants and ordinary wine drinkers.
This year has brought not only vintners with new vintages but also a number of new wineries, or wineries little known to most Florida wine buyers. (Despite the slow-down in the wine market, new wineries still arise, most making top-dollar wines priced at $10 a bottle or more.)
There were almost a dozen new wine labels, for instance, at Walt Disney World's Ninth Annual Wine Festival, a Central Florida showcase that gave 6,000 wine fans a taste of the products of 60 wineries during the three-day event in early February.
Some were young wineries with only one ortwo vintages in their cellars. Others were wineriesthat had not been previously sold in Florida. And a few were new labels from established makers who were promoting new premium lines.
The Disney event is a regular stop for many wine makers, partly because it is run with Disney orderliness and partly because the Orlando resorts sell a lot of wine.
"I like thequality of the people it attracts. It draws a lot of the trade, people who make decisions (for hotels and restaurants)," said Rodney Strong, whose name appears on expensive Sonoma County (Calif.) chardonnays. "I'm pouring my best
Like most festivals, however, the chief aim is to impress ordinary wine fans by giving them a taste of the wineries' products and a whiff of their history and romance _ and maybe a handshake from the owner or winemaker.
Few vintners refuse the public contact, no matter how successful
they are. Behind one table pouring wine for three hours, for instance, was Frank Fisher, who left General Motors, founded by his grandfather, and opened a winery in the Sonoma wine country.
"This is not why I'm in the wine industry," Fisher confessed, waving at the
crowd. He gets a big kick out of driving a tractor in the vineyard. Yet, as he began this big push in Florida, he readily made small talk with novice tasters who had no idea of his link to Fisher Body.
His game face trans-
formed into a genuine smile when tasters returned to the table to say they had enjoyed his cabernet. To a man who volunteered,
"I've had that '83 of yours and I've got some more in the cellar," Fisher conceded that the '83 should be drunk soon and might not have a much longer life.
He didn't have that sense of creation or contact with customers at GM, he said. "Corporate life didn't give me the identity with the product that I have with the wine."
For Fisher, it's a chance to introduce his brand and label. Other winemakers used the festival to debut a new style or new line. Chateau Ste. Michelle poured its 1988 Johannisberg riesling, which is crisper and dryer than previous wines. Glen Ellen, best known for quality bargains in supermarket
wines, showed off its Benziger of Glen Ellen line, new premium estate wines that sell for two or three times as much. One of the most unusual debuts was at the table of Oak Ridge Vineyards, a big growers' cooperative in Lodi, far from chic Napa, in the Central Valley to the east. In addition to its quantity bottling, the co-op makes a small quantity of Crown Regency X.O.S. from 20-year-old brandies and, under the Handel & Mettler label, superb aged sherries and ports. Their aroma was so rich it stopped passers-by.
Although it is tough for new wines to stand out among 120 competitors, most of them better known, newness can add to the attraction. The most talked about sparkler, for instance, was a robust Cuvee Rouge from Culbertson, a California champagne house unknown in this market.
In one case, even absence provided publicity. Missing this year was Tom Eddy, the young winemaker who gave Christian Brothers new respectability as a maker of cabernet and chardonnay. Where was he? Starting a new winery on Diamond Mountain, north of St. Helena in the Napa valley. Acreage has been cleared for the first vineyards, but there won't be wine to sell for several years.
Here are some of the names you may be seeing more frequently on Florida shelves:
Benziger of Glen Ellen: When the Benziger family moved from New York to California in the 1970s, they planned to make fine wines from grapes grown on their property in Sonoma County. Instead, they stumbled into a grape glut and accidentally became one of the largest makers of inexpensive varietal wines. Now, they are reviving the dream of making and selling finer wines, often from estate-grown grapes.
Culbertson Winery: This winery in Temecula, in the wine region southeast of Los Angeles, began producing in 1981. It commands a big following and $15 a bottle prices in California, but it is barely known in Florida. Its six sparkling wines are made by the traditional methode champenoise, primarily using pinot noir and pinot blanc grapes from that area.
Fisher Vineyards: Automobile heir Frank Fisher founded the vineyard in 1973 in the Mayacamas Mountains that join/divide Napa and Sonoma counties and made his first wines in 1979. He owns vineyards in Napa Valley now, as well. He produces chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon wines; the best and most expensive are made with grapes from his vineyards and bear the family's "coach insignia."
Ivan Tamas: The label was founded in 1984 by Steve Mirassou, who left the family's San Jose winery to establish his own firm with Ivan Tamas, a veteran California wine maker. Mirassou has stayed in the Livermore area near Concannon and Wente Brothers and uses grapes from that area for most of his chardonnay and sauvignon blanc; grapes for other wines come from other parts of California.
Merryvale Vineyards: The owners own Napa's Meadow Woods golf and croquet club and the chic Tre Vigne restaurant, but no vineyards. They combined resources in the early 1980s to buy Napa grapes for proprietary wines custom-blended for them. They produce a chardonnay and a $25 "red table wine" that is a Bordeaux-style blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot.
Murphy-Goode Estate Winery: This winery was started in 1985 by Tim Murphy and Dale Goode, veteran grape growers in Sonoma County's Alexander Valley. They decided to make wine as well as grow grapes.
Robert Stemmler: German-born Stemmler has worked for many major wineries and was always a firm believer in California pinot noir. After several years of making pinot on a boutique scale, he has joined in distribution with Buena Vista Winery, giving the big winery two pinot labels. The same winery produces Buena Vista's pinot noir and a smaller quantity of Stemmler's pricier pinot.
St. Andrew's Winery: This chardonnay vineyard just north of the town of Napa is a special project of neighboring Clos du Val, one of the earliest French investments in California. Clos du Val has its own chardonnay sources and has chosen to keep St. Andrew's a separate vineyard and winery under the direction of Darryl Eklund, formerly of Conn Creek and Trefethen. Its first vintage was in 1987.
Wild Horse: Another success story from southern California, Wild Horse was born in 1982 when Ken Volk, owner of a chain of public warehouses, and his son bought some vineyard land north of San Luis Obispo. The Volks grow several varieties of grapes themselves but buy pinot noir grapes from Santa Barbara County. The winery makes chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot. The winery took its name from the wild horses on the nearby Carissa Plains between Paso Robles and Bakersfield.
Our choice, Wild Horse.
Here are my favorites among wines tasted during the Ninth Annual Walt Disney Village Wine Festival in early February. Wines listed will not be available in all wine or liquor stores but can usually be ordered. Prices given are those charged at the festival and will vary.
Christian Brothers Barrel-Fermented 1987 ($12)
Domaine Michel 1986 ($19.50)
Wild Horse 1988 estate ($14)
Groth 1988 ($9)
Preston Cuvee de Fumee ($8)
Merryvale 1985 Red Table Wine ($25.25)
Rutherford Hill 1986 XVS ($30.50)
Sterling 1985 Reserve ($38.75)
Creston Manor 1989 Petit d' Noir ($9.25)
Markham Vineyards 1987 merlot ($12.25)
Charles F. Shaw 1988 estate gamay beaujolais ($8.75)
Robert Stemmler 1987 pinot noir ($19)
Culbertson (non-vintage) Blanc de Noir ($16.50)
Chateau Ste. Michelle 1988 Muscat Canelli ($6.50)
Handel & Mettler Gran Tawny Port ($7.75)
Handel & Mettler Victoria Cream Sherry ($9.25)
Not sold at Disney. Approximate Florida retail price.