Some wineries just got it going on. They weather the influx of kangaroo wines and sweet chardonnays, and humbly ignore the dull roar that emanates from the industry's marketing departments. Names like Chateau Lafite, Frescobaldi and one particular American winery, Beaulieu [BOWL-yuh] Vineyards, come to mind. My first good bottle of aged wine was a Beaulieu Vineyards (BV) Cabernet, but I forget the year. I like to think it was from the years when the legendary Andre Tchelistcheff (1901-1994) graced the halls of BV, but they produce excellent wines pretty much every year.
Back in 1900, BV's founder, Georges de Latour, bought land in a little town in Napa Valley called Rutherford. At the time, Napa's vines were getting hammered by a microscopic root-eating louse called phylloxera. Latour, who figured out how to tame these pests, began importing resistant plants from France and quickly became the hero who saved California's wine industry. He rode out the 13 years of Prohibition by producing sacramental wine — perfecting his normal table wines behind the scenes — until the silly madness ended. Then in 1938, desiring a "maestro" to make his wines as good as Europe's, he brought over Andre Tchelistcheff, regarded by many as the best winemaker to ever live, from France. The two of them grew to be a formidable team.
Tchelistcheff worked full time for BV until 1974, when he became a consultant for other wineries along the West Coast. He spread his vast wine knowledge to now-superstars like Robert Mondavi, Mike Grgich and Joel Aiken, current VP of winemaking at BV. Tchelistcheff's simple, main lesson is that excellent grapes equal excellent wine. In the vineyards, he understood the importance of soil and weather in creating fine wines, and was committed to quality. You can still taste the passion he infused into every bottle. Aiken recently tried a 1946 Pinot Noir that Tchelistcheff made and proclaimed it, "still amazing wine."
From these roots came BV's humble dedication to quality. Over the years, they have never been flashy or trendy, but have stayed true, even after major changes. In 1969, Latour sold BV to Heublein, which has since been gobbled up by Diageo. Luckily, neither transformed BV into a neutered corporate winery.
During the 1970s, the winery didn't follow the beefy cabernet sauvignon route that practically all others did, but consistently tried to make softer, more approachable wines. Tchelistcheff insisted on this, imparting his valuable lessons onto the staff. In 2000, BV celebrated its 100th anniversary of continuous wine production, a momentous occasion considering the rise and fall of so many other wineries.
Today, the brand consistently produces amazing stuff, and is served at White House dinners, famous parties like the Emmys and on my dinner table. You don't hear about them enough but you should.
BV Coastal Estates 2004 Chardonnay California Crisper and more elegant than many California chards, with a soft oakiness, tart citrus and ripe peaches all rolled up into one. Sw = 3. $11. 4 stars
BV 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Smoky, dusty, elegant cab with some gutsy tannins to it. Dark fruit like currants, prunes and some lighter blackberry flavors. Not for the wine weak of heart — let it breathe in a glass for an hour before drinking. Sw = 1. $25. 4 stars
BV Coastal Estates 2004 Pinot Noir California Floral smell that you want to dive into. Fragrant roses, subtle lavender, bright raspberry and cherry wash over the palate. Good acidity that makes it an excellent food wine. Sw = 2. $11. 3.5 stars
Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. 1 (star) rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.