Entries in California (2)


Toast: Grandfather's Book Opens Door to Past (Vacaville Reporter)

Note: This was my column published in the Vacaville Reporter on 11/6/12 and the Vallejo Times Herald November 11/7/12.

No one enjoys the guilty pleasure of a season's worth of TV consumed over a weekend as much as I do. I was halfway through the first season of "Boardwalk Empire," the HBO series about Atlantic City bootlegger Nucky Thompson, when a genuine artifact from Prohibition arrived in my mail.

It was a book, "The Complete Wine Book," by Frank Schoonmaker and Tom Marvel, that had once belonged to my grandfather. He died before I knew him, so this connection in the form of a wine book is a treasure. A personal treasure for sure, but it is also a historical gem, because it was published in 1934, months after Prohibition was repealed. It gives the reader a firsthand account of what it was like to be a wine lover at a time when drinking wine was not allowed. Maybe I should say that, legally, it was not allowed, there were loopholes.

People who made wine at home, either because of old-world tradition or new-found necessity, were permitted to make up to 2,000 gallons a year. During Prohibition, the amount of California acreage planted to wine grapes actually increased in order to supply these home winemakers. Yet Schoonmaker and Marvel bemoan the state of domestic viticulture at that time.

The problem was that in order to stay in business during Prohibition, grape growers were forced to uproot their tastier varieties, which were thin-skinned and didn't travel well, for heartier grapes that made inferior wine, which, according to the authors, were the alicante bouschet, zinfandel and petite sirah. I strenuously disagree with their condemnation of zinfandel and petite sirah, but I digress.

It takes about four years for a grapevine to produce a marketable crop, and even longer to age a wine. After repeal, even if grape growers had immediately replanted the better varieties, Americans would have to wait years for good domestic wine.

"To expect of American vineyards any real quantity of fine wine before 1940 or 1945 would be to expect a large-scale repetition of the Miracle of Cana," wrote Schoonmaker and Marvel.

They were also upset with grape growers appropriating the names of French localities such as Chablis, Burgundy and Champagne for California wines.

Steve Buscemi as Enoch "Nucky" Thompson "There is no indication that California wine would ever be considered as good as European wine. To attempt to maintain, as Mr. William R. Hearst, a loyal Californian, does with laudable, if mistaken, patriotism, that under these conditions the wines of California are 'just as good as those of France, if not better,' is even more ridiculous."

However, the authors were optimistic about the future of California wine, recognizing the ingenuity of California grape growers.

As evidence, they cite a product that may be the most inventive packaged good of the 20th century, the grape block. It was a brick of dried grapes, seeds and pulp, for making "juice," with explicit instructions of what not to do. Don't add sugar or yeast or keep in a dark place, otherwise your juice might ferment and turn to wine, cautions the grape brick label. This marvel of marketing speaks volumes about the eventual demise of Prohibition and ultimate success of California wine, something on which I'm sure my grandfather, Schoonmaker and Marvel and Nucky Thompson could all agree.


Petite Sirah: Survivor Grape

There is nothing dainty about Petite Sirah. Inky and peppery, this wine packs a wallop of tannins, that astringent quality that is not so much a flavor as it is a sensation.  Like a scrappy wrestler who is more sinew than flesh, Petite Sirah will muscle down a steak, a stew or an earthy sandwich of Portobello mushrooms.

If you think wrestling is an odd metaphor for wine, you should see the Youtube video in which Petite Sirah is likened to a muscle car. Wrestling, muscle cars, wine, you get the picture.

Petite Sirah is not Syrah, it’s a hybrid of Syrah and a variety unto itself. It is distinctly Californian. Called Durif in its native France, it isn’t grown there much, it likes our drier climate.  Petite Sirah was one of the first grapes imported to California to replace the so-so tasting Mission variety, a grape planted by the padres for sacramental and (I hope) recreational purposes.

In the early days people were less snooty about wine and more casual about the pedigree of their grapes. Growers confused this grape as a small-berried version of Syrah, thus its name. The small grape size is important for another reason. The skin of a grape gives wine its color and tannins, therefore the high ratio of skin to juice in Petite Sirah give it a punch of black-tinged color and lip-smacking tannins.

During prohibition this mighty little grape was prized for its portability.  Many California wine growers, such as the Lanza family in Suisun Valley, survived prohibition by shipping grapes to home winemakers in the east. There was a loophole in the law that allowed home winemakers to make up to 200 gallons a year.  Do the math: 200 gallons, 365 days a year, would a daily half-gallon ration of wine be enough to keep you happy?

Later Petite Sirah was used in blends to give oomph to the color and structure of other wines. Many single varietal wines are in fact blends, a wine needs to be only 75% of the variety on the label to carry that name. For example, your favorite Cabernet may in fact have small amounts of Merlot, Malbac or Petite Sirah and still be correctly called a Cabernet.

The advocacy group for Petite Sirah (yes, even grapes have advocacy groups) is called P.S. I Love You. Yes, Suisun Valley Petite Sirah, I do love you, let me count the ways. You bring the warmth of the valley to my table. You make my hamburger sing. You fill my glass with rich color, my mouth with big flavor. Most of all you remind me of a little girl who grew up near Suisun Valley, my daughter Sarah. Need I go on?