How do you know when you have made it in the wine world? Well, one indication would certainly be monetary success. But the ultimate compliment may include being honored by the Smithsonian Institution with an exhibit featuring your wines.
This is the recognition that five winemakers from California had bestowed upon them when they traveled to D.C. for the opening of the National Museum of American History exhibit titled Food: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000. Joel Peterson, Warren Winiarski, Margrit Mondavi, representing her late husband, Robert Mondavi, Robert Biale and Violet Grgich, representing her father, Miljenko "Mike" Grgich, were honored for their contributions to the evolution of the American wine industry.
The exhibit's main attraction is renowned chef Julia Child's kitchen, painstakingly re-created inside a glass-enclosed space at the entrance to the exhibit. Also included in the display are vignettes that illustrate various examples of America's love affair with food, including a brief history of processed foods. But it was the area focusing on the history of wine in America, including a display titled Red, White and American that got my attention.
During a dinner held at the museum to honor their accomplishments, Winiarski summed it all up with the following comment. "Great wine requires an unwavering commitment to aesthetic proportion, and that is something I continue to stress today ... to the new generation of winemakers." Amen and pass the cabernet. Retail prices are approximate.
Grgich first gained recognition at the celebrated Paris Tasting of 1976, a seminal blind tasting that changed the course of American wine when his 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay was selected as the best white wine in the tasting. Today, his commitment to quality is captured in the 2009 Grgich Hills Estate Chardonnay ($29). This certified biodynamic chardonnay offers generous aromas of pear cobbler with hints of orange blossom and toasty oak. The palate delivers flavors of wines twice the price with pretty notes of honeycrisp apple, lemon meringue and vanilla on the remarkably long and elegant finish. QPR 9
Winiarski is the founder of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars and winemaker of the famous 1973 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon that took first place in the red wine category in the aforementioned tasting. You can taste the nuances of the pedigree in the 2008 Stag's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon ($50), where aromas of black fruit dominate the bouquet. The incredibly well-balanced wine displays flavors of blackberry, black cherry and roasted coffee over the entire palate. Notes of leather and cocoa fill out the expansive finish. QPR 9
Mondavi forever changed the way that American consumers think about wine, transforming the beverage from special occasions to daily appearances on the dinner table. His legend lives on through the 2009 Mondavi Napa Cabernet Sauvignon ($25). Wonderfully dense and focused, with an aromatic nose of blueberry and saddle leather scents, the flavors of blackberry, cassis and dark chocolate on the front of the palate nicely integrate with notes of dried herbs and tobacco on the lengthy finish. QPR 9
Biale's legacy began in 1937 when the Biale family grew zinfandel grapes and raised chickens on the outskirts of Napa. In 1991, Robert, along with his father, Aldo, and his childhood friend, Dave Pramuk, founded Robert Biale Vineyards. Today, they are known for their zinfandels, like the 2010 Biale Vineyards Monte Rosso Vineyard Zinfandel ($50). The vibrant flavors of blackberry, blueberry liqueur and raspberry fruit glide over the tongue where they are met by cinnamon, clove and black pepper on the lively finish. QPR 8.5
Peterson was well on his way toward getting a doctorate in microbiology when he got bit by the wine bug. He is now known for his beautifully balanced zinfandels. The 2009 Ravenswood Winery Belloni Vineyard Zinfandel ($35) is a wonderful example of a "field blend" zinfandel, with delicious flavors of ripe plum, boysenberry and clove that wash across the palate in waves. Superb balance leads to a lengthy, smooth finish. QPR 9.5
Note: QPR is a rating system that compares the quality a wine delivers relative to the price. A QPR of 10 is considered an excellent value.