FOOD & WINE salutes the visionaries in America who are not only changing the way we think about wine but also determining what we'll be drinking in the 21st century
a c h i e v e m e n t | perfecting the art of auctioneering
Could Ursula Hermacinski be where she is today thanks to Liberace? It's possible. As the star wine auctioneer at Christie's auction house in Los Angeles and the Napa Valley Wine Auction, she is a widely admired achiever in a tough field. Originally, the six-foot Polish-American wanted to act, but she found her true calling when she attended an auction. After college, she went to work for Christie's in Manhattan. The company sent her to Los Angeles to catalog Liberace's estate, and there it drafted her to sell wine. "Back then," she recalls, "I didn't know the difference between Bordeaux and Burgundy. Half the bidders realized I knew nothing about wine; the other half assumed I knew tons. For different reasons, they all started inviting me to tastings." Hermacinski now holds the record for the highest auction price ever paid in this country for a single case of wine: $112,500 for the 1945 Château Mouton Rothschild.
Last year Hermacinski was in a devastating car accident; the doctors said she'd never walk again, but she's already back at the podium. "My doctor uses the word miracle," she says. "I guess I've always been lucky."
a c h i e v e m e n t | promoting the tradition of terroir
"The true differences in wines are not so much in their varieties as in characteristics that transcend variety: concentration, balance, mouth feel, length on the palate. All great wines have great things in common." So declares Agustin Huneeus, the wine world's philosopher of terroir, the notion that fine wines are expressions of place. Though the distinguished Chilean spends his office hours as chairman of Franciscan Estates in Rutherford, California (he is also the force behind two other Napa Valley labels, the legendary Mount Veeder and the value-oriented Estancia, along with the first-class Chilean winery Veramonte), he may be most widely known for his passionate advocacy of terroir. To illustrate the concept, Huneeus offers this thumbnail sketch of the evolution of wine: "First you had a place. Then you had a thirst. And then to quench that thirst with the best of beverages, you figured, okay, what grapes will do the best here?" Most American land is currently subdivided and planted willy-nilly--a disastrous practice in Huneeus's view.
"There is more in common," he says, "between a Cabernet and a Merlot produced here in Rutherford than there is between a Cabernet made in Rutherford and a Cabernet made in Chile." Will terroir ever become the wine grower's guiding tenet? Huneeus firmly believes that it will: "The dramatic changes in American wine have always come in a quest for quality. If a brand doesn't have a differentiating point, it isn't viable. In the end, truth will out. And the truth is, it's place that gives a wine distinction."
a c h i e v e m e n t | building an idiosyncratic wine list and training a staff to explain it
Manfred Krankl may be the most enterprising Austrian since Arnold Schwarzenegger. The food at Campanile, the L.A. Mediterranean-style restaurant where Krankl is a partner, was a hit as soon as the place opened in 1989, but critics weren't nearly as impressed with the wines. "We were more or less broke then," Krankl says. "Our first list was very small; we only had Californian and Italian wines." How did he turn things around? Simple: he went back to his roots. "I was probably the first guy in the country to bring in highbrow Austrian wines. I actually had my father pick them out and ship them." The real challenge was persuading his customers to try them. "I took a lot of flack," he remembers, "but I stuck to my guns."
The effort brought an unexpected benefit: one of the best-trained staffs in the country. With a steady stream of unfamiliar wines expanding his list, Krankl began educating his waiters with daily tastings, seminars and spot quizzes, plus rewards for those who sold hard-to-move wines. And since he longed to have his own house wine as well, he even started a winery, Sine Qua Non. He collaborated with a local vineyard to produce his first run, a Chardonnay called Thief, which established Sine Qua Non's brilliant reputation. "Good wine," Krankl notes dryly, "doesn't always have to come from Bordeaux or Burgundy."
Hermann J. Wiemer
a c h i e v e m e n t | pioneering a great new york state riesling
And they said it couldn't be done. Twenty-five years ago, Hermann J. Wiemer, a soft-spoken German émigré, planted vinifera grapes in the unforgiving soil of western New York State. Those grapes are now the source of a world-class Riesling. To understand Wiemer's accomplishment, it's important to know that New York grapes were once exclusively hybrids. "Noble grapes like vinifera were discouraged by the experts at Cornell University," Wiemer explains. "They said it was too cold." There was only one problem with hybrids: "They made awful wine," he recalls with a laugh. "And if I can't enjoy it, then what's the point?"
In 1979, his Finger Lakes-based Wiemer label produced a single barrel; today, it's a 17,000-case winery. "But it's never been easy," Wiemer laments. "These grapes are difficult to grow; we've had many setbacks." Still, he outlasted the harsh northern winters, and his greatest triumph may be his bone-dry Riesling. "I was the first grower to make dry a positive for Riesling," he says. "Back then, everyone thought of Riesling as Blue Nun." Wiemer's converts include such diverse customers as American Airlines (for its first-class cabins) and Eberhard Müller of Manhattan's Lutèce. Not bad clientele for a New York State grower.
Dennis Burns & Jerry Zech
a c h i e v e m e n t | creating and marketing a revolutionary cork
It's a tale that recalls The Graduate: after a quarter-century in the plastics business, Dennis Burns had a vision. On a 1990 vacation in California's Alexander Valley, he noticed that the bungs, or stoppers, in most of the wine barrels he saw were made from synthetics instead of the traditional wood. "Boy," he thought, "if you could do that with a wine bottle, you'd save a whole lot of grief." Thus was born Supreme Corq, the world's largest producer of synthetic wine stoppers--a.k.a. plastic corks.
But what kind of grief, you may rightfully ask, comes from old-fashioned cork? "Off flavors," answers Jerry Zech, Supreme Corq's president. "One study shows that 5 percent of all bottled wine is contaminated with cork-related fungus," which gives the wine a sour smell (think damp newspaper). Supreme Corq now supplies plastic corks to more than 200 wineries throughout the world, including St. Francis, Bonny Doon and Rosemount. "Listen," Zech says, "in the end our corks aren't that different. You still need a corkscrew, and when you open a bottle you get a nice pop and that same satisfied feeling."
a c h i e v e m e n t | designing innovative wine labels
"I'm not an expert on wine, I'm not an expert on design--I'm really not an expert on anything." So says the celebrated graphic artist Chuck House, whose cutting-edge labels for Frog's Leap, Spottswoode and sundry other wineries have moved so many cases of wine that he's actually changed notions of what a label can achieve in the way of marketing.
In 1981, after an inauspicious start in car-magazine layout and pasteup, he got a call from John and Julie Williams, the founders of Frog's Leap, who'd heard about the young designer through a mutual friend. "They wanted someone who wasn't part of the establishment," he explains. "Actually," he adds conspiratorially, "they were avoiding the establishment for monetary reasons." For his whimsical dancing frog--"an amphibian Nureyev that reflects the wine's sense of humor," as the Williamses put it--he earned a couple hundred bucks and a case of wine. Fortunately, the gig paid a bigger dividend: other wineries quickly took notice. Among the first of many new clients was the Marchese Lodovico Antinori. ("It was wild," House recalls, "going from an irreverent start-up to a company that was inducted into the Florentine winemakers' guild in 1385.") Has he raised his rates since then? "I'm very flexible," he says. "But, seriously, if there's one thing I learned from Frog's Leap, it's that some things have value far beyond money."
Dan McCarthy & Jay Schiering
a c h i e v e m e n t | founding a great wine store and promoting pacific northwest wines
In the past decade the Pacific Northwest, once known for flannel shirts and microbrewed beer, has begun turning out some of the world's finest Cabernets and Merlots. And you'd have a hard time finding two individuals who have done more to promote this development than Dan McCarthy (at left below) and Jay Schiering, the proprietors of Seattle's McCarthy & Schiering, the best--and at times just about the only--source for some of the Northwest's most sought-after wines.
"When we pour Northwest wines side by side with other wines," Schiering says, "people taste how good our local stuff is, and they're very proud to buy it." The retailers have close relationships with nearby winemakers. Schiering offers Quilceda Creek by way of example: "When I tasted its Cabernet for the first time in '83, I said, 'This is amazing.' We've been friends and advocates of the winery ever since." He attributes the excellence of Northwest wines to the winemakers' deepening familiarity with the region's unique microclimate. "The quality has really skyrocketed," he says. "Ten years ago, Northwest wines were so unknown they didn't even have a reputation."
a c h i e v e m e n t | discovering great southern italian wines
"I assume you know I'm Italian," Leonardo LoCascio says in an accent that would make Pavarotti jealous. Over the past decade, using equal parts heritage, savvy and charm, the owner of Winebow distributors has almost single-handedly raised the quality of imported Italian wine. "Finding a great bottle from Tuscany isn't difficult," he says. "What really turns me on is finding great wines in unexpected regions."
"A decade ago, people thought I was nuts," he recalls. "Wine from Calabria or Sardinia wasn't even imported to the States. I said, 'Just taste it. How can wine this good not sell?'" His first discovery was Taurino's Salice Salentino from Apulia. He started with 200 cases of it; now he moves about 60,000 a year. Emboldened by that achievement, he went on to uncover inexpensive classics from Sardinia (Argiolas), Calabria (Librandi), Sicily (Regaleali) and Umbria (Falesco). Has success gone to his head? "I still believe the same thing," LoCascio says. "Let the wine speak for itself. We're doing that. And so is the wine."
a c h i e v e m e n t | breaking newground as a shared winemaker
Don't make the mistake of calling Heidi Barrett a consultant. "I think of myself as a shared winemaker," the Napa Valley wizard says. "To me, consultant means you give information and someone else actually does the work. I don't show people what to do--I do it." As one of the region's preeminent "shared winemakers," she's developed Cabernets for such renowned boutique labels as Screaming Eagle, Paradigm, Grace Family and Oakford.
After Barrett spent a decade at various large wineries, her just-do-it spirit led her to take on work for smaller producers and to start her own label, La Sirena, with the challenge of making decidedly high-end wine. Fortunately, she gets a little help at home. Her husband, Bo Barrett of Chateau Montelena, is well-known for his Cab-ernet and Chardonnay. Even their kids do their part. "They punch down bins and stomp grapes," Barrett says. "They put on dirty clothes and do cannonballs into the bins. It's a lot of fun."