What does it take to be great? Not a whole lot, it seems like sometimes. Greatness appears to be all around us these days, as athletes, actors, even boxes of Frosted Flakes cereal are regularly accorded this approbation. And it's not much different in the world of wine. There are winemakers who have practiced their profession for only a vintage or two whom the critics have already proclaimed great. Maybe I'm churlish or less easily charmed, but to me greatness takes time to acquire, and it takes sacrifice--of a personal life, of financial stability and, in a couple of notable cases, perhaps even of one's sanity.
All four of the producers profiled below were, by anyone's measure, great. All of them possessed an abundance of talent, but what really distinguished them was their single-minded vision, their way of seeing things that others could not. If such single-mindedness made them a little eccentric, it also made them incomparably innovative, and their influence continues to be felt by winemakers today.
Like many California winemakers, Martin Ray started life as something else. As a stockbroker in San Francisco, he fell in love with wine and was lucky enough to meet up with the legendary Paul Masson. In 1936 he persuaded Masson to sell him his sparkling-wine business. But it didn't last long. The winery burned down five years later.
And that's where Ray's story really begins. He started a new winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains that came to be called Mount Eden. There he proceeded to produce wines that made people mad. Ray refused to make wines the way most of his peers in California did then--that is, by adding chemicals, sugar and grape concentrate--and he wasn't the least bit shy about denouncing those who did.
Ray was also outspoken in his opposition to wines that weren't true to their varietal type. At a time when a wine called Chardonnay could contain up to 49 percent of other grapes, his Cabernet, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were made 100 percent from those particular grapes. And long before anyone in California thought about creating appellations, let alone used that $20 word terroir, Ray argued--and argued--that wines should carry the names of the places where they were made.
Stubborn, headstrong, independent and fierce, Ray so antagonized some people in the wine industry that at one point they lobbied to have him placed in a mental institution. While he might very well have been a madman to some, he was also an artist who knew the value of his work. His wines carried prices more than 10 times higher than those of his competition. (In 1962 his Chardonnay cost $24; by 1970 that figure had more than doubled.) But were they worth it?
"Ray's wines had dimensions and contours that no one could come close to," says Warren Winiarski of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, who once spent a week watching Ray at work. "They pointed in a direction that no one had ever gone before. They really showed what could be done with California fruit." Winiarski believes that Ray's irascible personality might be the main reason why he has never been granted the kind of recognition he deserves.
Ray essentially battled himself out of business. In 1972, after decades of fights with the industry and his partners, he closed Mount Eden and lost all but five acres, which he kept as Martin Ray Vineyards. Ray passed away in 1976. Today all the things that he fought so hard for are taken for granted in this country: wines that aren't made from grape concentrate and chemicals, wines that have accurate varietal labeling and appellation status and wines that carry--and often even merit--some pretty high prices.
Dr. Konstantin Frank was another difficult personality. Bruce Cass, in the Oxford Companion to the Wines of North America, calls him "gnarly." Like Ray, Frank was a man the wine industry wanted to shut up.
His revolutionary idea was that vinifera grapes (noble grapes like Chardonnay and Riesling) could be grown successfully in New York's cold Finger Lakes region. He believed this because he had seen it done in his native country, Russia. In 1953 Frank, then a manual laborer (although he had been a professor in his homeland), described his theory to Charles Fournier, the Frenchman who ran the New York State sparkling-wine house Gold Seal. Fournier was intrigued and took him on.
Back then, everyone in New York wine circles believed in hybrids--grapes that were crosses between American and European varieties. Although winemakers knew that no great wine would ever come of them, they also knew that hybrids turned a nice profit. "Dr. Frank believes that New York State is throwing away its chance of ever becoming a great vineyard," Hugh Johnson wrote in his 1974 book, Wine.
Frank's disdain for hybrids so enraged the wine establishment that Hermann Wiemer, one of New York's leading winemakers today, remembers Walter Taylor of the Taylor Wine Company telling him, "My God, they're trying to have Dr. Frank committed." Fortunately, like Ray, Frank escaped such a fate.
Instead, by the late 1950s, he got enough money together to start his own Finger Lakes winery--naming it, appropriately enough, Dr. Konstantin Frank's Vinifera Wine Cellars. He made great wines there, particularly Riesling. In the mid-1980s he opened Chateau Frank, which produced méthode champenoise sparkling wine. At the age of 82, Frank turned his businesses over to his son, Willy, but continued making wine until his death at 86. Willy and his own son still run both vineyards. Today winemakers all over the eastern seaboard, from Maryland to Massachusetts, make wonderful wines from vinifera grapes.
Château Rayas, in the Rhône Valley, is one of the most famous wineries in France, if not the world. And for decades it was identified with one man, Jacques Reynaud. Although Reynaud, who died in 1997, may have had an easier time of it than Martin Ray or Konstantin Frank--as far as I know, no one ever tried to have him committed--his winemaking methodology was every bit as revolutionary.
Those who knew Reynaud invariably described him as eccentric. Wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr., has characterized his appearance as "a cross between Dr. Seuss' Grinch and Yoda from Star Wars." But what's most notable about Reynaud is that he made mind-boggling wine. And he did so in ways that defied conventional Châteauneuf-du-Pape wisdom--the first being his near 100 percent use of Grenache, a grape that other Châteauneuf producers had long contended lacked the complexity to stand on its own. The second was his phenomenally low yields. Today Rayas produces about 3,000 cases from 37 acres of vines--a yield so low that some have called it commercial suicide. Those who have priced Rayas lately might disagree.
Reynaud refused to explain how he managed to make his wines so profound. In fact, he didn't much like talking at all, especially to journalists. According to Parker, when journalists (including himself, on one occasion) came to see Reynaud, he would often hide in a ditch until they'd left. Reynaud lacked the patience or temperament for politics or any kind of governmental interference, and he hated the idea of France's appellation contrôlée system, calling it "a guarantee of mediocrity."
Reynaud probably wouldn't have cared if the government had declassified his entire production--he knew his wines would sell anyway. Their concentration and depth are remarkable. I was lucky enough to be around last fall when Park Smith, an owner of Veritas restaurant in Manhattan and a devoted Rayas fan, opened a bottle of the 1995, a wine that Parker has said might equal the legendary (100 point) 1978. Smith declared it "the finest young red wine" he'd ever had. And for a man with five wine cellars under his house, well, that's really saying something.
One of my favorite Reynaud stories is one that I've read several places, although it's been pretty much discounted as untrue. Apparently, a rumor was started many years ago that Reynaud put his best wine not into into Rayas but into his second wine, Pignan--reasoning that the people who could afford Rayas wouldn't appreciate its greatness, while the people who could only buy Pignan would.
The late Giacomo Bologna was the temperamental opposite of Ray, Frank and Reynaud. Everyone who knew him seems to describe him the same way--jolly, outgoing, enthusiastic, generous. Yet in terms of his vision, Bologna was clearly ahead of his time. Bologna's dream was that the lowly Barbera grape would one day be recognized for its ability to produce world-class wines.
Bologna's winery, Braida, in the Asti region of Piedmont, is run today by his son and daughter. Unlike my other three nominees for greatness, Bologna wasn't a hands-on winemaker. Instead, he spent a lot of time on the road--traveling, talking, listening and learning--trying to figure out what would make his wine great.
Barbera has always been an important grape for Piedmont. Before World War II, it accounted for about 80 percent of the region's production, and even today that figure is around 50 percent. But while it has always been valued for its prolific nature and its rustic charms, Barbera was considered second class when compared with Nebbiolo, the grape of famous wines like Barolo and Barbaresco.
Bologna believed that Asti could be for Barbera what Burgundy was for Pinot Noir. So he traveled to France and brought back the idea of fermenting his wines in small French barriques. This experiment proved quite successful, as the French barrels helped tame another Barbera trademark, terrific acidity. Bologna also went to California, where, as Dominic Nocerino, Bologna's importer then and now, told me, he was inspired and gratified by what California's winemakers were doing with Barbera.
Bologna created special Barbera crus from single vineyards--most famously Bricco dell'Uccellone, a wine of such incredible richness, power and intensity that it's considered one of the best wines in Italy today.
Like the other wine greats, Bologna was proud to put a price to his work--a price that some people considered ridiculously high, until they tasted the wine. The market has finally caught up with him, and today there are plenty of producers making and selling their own very serious, very pricey Barbera wines.