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Wine, Etc.: 'Diary of a Winetaster' reflects on Napa Valley's beginnings

Many of you may think old wine books are dated and hardly relevant to today's changing world of wines. But we have been fascinated by them because they reflect an evolving industry that years ago was just beginning to understand growing conditions and wine-making techniques.

Such was the case with "Diary of a Winetaster" (Quadrangle Books, 1972) by Harry Waugh, a British wine merchant who visited Bordeaux and Napa Valley in the early 1970s. The French wine industry was well established by then, but California was just getting a foothold in the marketplace. In a 1971 visit, Waugh calls Napa Valley "the most fascinating, the most exhilarating grape-growing district of the world."

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His enthusiasm for the region was clear. "...The electric feeling now vibrant in this California air puts one in mind of what must have been the 'fever' of the gold rush days, for it appears to be the ambition of nearly everyone in these parts to own a vineyard..."

His reflection of each of the grape varieties reveals the experimentation that was common to this emerging wine growing region. Here are some examples:

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Chardonnay:

"...the quantity made of this first-grade California varietal is still all too small. The aim here is not necessarily to make it taste exactly the same as the Burgundian variety, but to produce the best possible quality of which this wine is capable. The recently adopted habit of aging Chardonnay in French oak seems to have made an important difference."

Quantity is not a problem for chardonnay today. And, the introduction of French oak turned out to be significant in chardonnay's evolution as a premium wine.

Pinot noir:

"The pinot noir still appears to be a weak link among the varietals, and the outsider is inclined to wonder why, until the clonal situation has been improved, so much of it is being planted."

Indeed, pinot noir was being planted in all the wrong places. Not until growers realized that pinot noir needs cooler evening temperatures did pinot noir improve. Clonal selection, which didn't expand for years, was also critical to improving quality. Today, Napa Valley pinot noir is a premium wine.

Merlot:

"The Merlot grape is a comparative newcomer on this California scene...It is only during the past 10 years or so that the Merlot vine has been planted here, and then on the initiative of the University of California at Davis."

Like chardonnay, merlot was just starting to be seen as an ideal grape variety common in France. Until this time, California winemakers - influenced by grape varieties from home countries like Italy - were growing zinfandel, chenin blanc and pinot blanc.

Waugh saw cabernet sauvignon as Napa's future and extolled the quality of wines from Freemark Abbey, Heitz, Martha's Vineyard, Cuvaison and Chappelet.

Waugh's effusive praise for Napa Valley must have been encouraging to read in 1971. The potential he saw in his emerging region was on the mark.

Wine picks

Cline Cellars Oakley 82 White ($10)

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. Cline Cellars is a pro at making value wines. The Oakley White and Red blends are excellent values. The white is a blend of sauvignon blanc, palomino, viognier, malvasia bianca and semillon. The motley collection leads to a melange of flavors: grapefruit, citrus, stone pit fruit. The red, equally a good value, is a blend of syrah, merlot, barbera, zinfandel, alicante bouschet and cabernet franc. The wines are hardly pretentious at this price and makeup, but they are undeniably delicious.

Pali Wine Co. Charm Acres Chardonnay 2011 ($21)

. Citrus aromas give way to flavors of pears, mango and apples with a nice mineral thread at the finish. Good mouthfeel and great value.

Artesa Artisan Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($46)

. Every wine we try from this Napa Valley producer is well-made and pleasing to even the most finicky palate. The CarneRos chardonnay is an excellent value at $20, but if you have the money, the cabernet sauvignon is a killer. Blended with a bit of merlot and petit verdot, it has layered flavors of plum, raspberries, toffee and cassis - and that's just a start. Firm tannins and good acidity give it a promising future for cellaring.

Troublemaker Blend 4 ($20)

. Made by Austin Hope, this blend of syrah, mourvedre, grenache and petite sirah comes from the 2011 and 2010 vintages. The winemaker is simply looking for good flavor at a decent price without regard to any loyalty to the vintage or to the grape variety. It works. The wine has rich mouthfeel with dark berries and dashes of chocolate and leather.

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