• A serenade of vines: the saga of wines

    By Jon Guthrie

    It’s nothing new for Pebble Beach.
    Residents have been tippling wines since the 1909 founding of the community, no apologies offered (or needed).  Indeed, land purveyors for the Pacific Improvement Company, original owners, hinted that the ability to openly heft a glass of vintage vino offered strong fillip (motivation) to invest in property somewhere along Seventeen-mile Drive rather than in the too-snooty, teetotaling neighbor Pacific Grove.
    Now, for the second year, Pebble Beach has celebrated its condescending, Bacchanalian ways by promoting Pebble Beach Food and Wine, a festival of the first order.  The event was a real bash, with tickets ranging from $100 to $995 (for the four-days package).  But then … where else could one go to sample such delicacies as lobster soup, yellow-fin tuna, and other culinary classics cooked up (pun, intended) by more than two dozen epicurean masters?
    And excuse us, Pacific Grove; there’s wine galore.
    But for those from either Pebble Beach or Pacific Grove who enjoy being first, the news is bad.  Our California Franciscans were actually among the first to go into the business of cultivating grapes and fermenting wine.
    Take the Carmel Valley route south to Arroyo Seco Road.  Then turn east to the Soledad Mission.  While strolling the mission’s grounds, you’ll hear the haunting echoes of Franciscan vespers whispered in the wind.  Those ghostly prayers, accompanied by the tinkling of tiny bells, are prayers of continuing appreciation.  Long ago, the padres planted a cutting of grape vine.  The cutting took root, chuckled in the sun, and thrived.
    Thus were the grapes of Monterey County given life.

    As early in history as that holy accomplishment may seem to a Monterey County approaching the year 2010, the Franciscans of Soledad Mission actually began their efforts as viticulturists in a manner most tardy.  Egyptian records, dating from 2500 BC, reported crushing grapes by foot and fermenting wines.  The ancient Greeks established vineyards at home and in all their colonies.  The Romans-with the near-perfect soils and climates of the Rhine and Moselle River valleys at their disposal-transformed grape-growing into a science. The Celts, sometime in the 6th century BC, became experts at fermenting fruits into fruity wines.

    During the fledgling years of the United States, the only wine considered worth drinking had to be imported from Europe.  Early Americans produced almost no wine commercially, although some of the earliest vintners (such as George Washington) fermented the juices of grapes or fruits into limited amounts of wine produced at home for home consumption.
    Then, during the 1850s … tragedy.
    Phylloxera stepped onto the European scene.  Phylloxera was an aphid, deadly to grapes.  The Phylloxera plague struck first in Slovenia and quickly spread to Topela, Izola, Piran, and Haloze-prime grape producing regions-then munched its (actually their) ways through virtually all of the Mediterranean vineyards.  Robust vines withered into cadaverous remains.  More than half of all the European and Middle Eastern grape production capacity vanished.  Unemployment boomed among vineyard workers.  Many took passage on sailing ships, heading to the United States where Phylloxera had done no damage.  From these immigrants came the technology needed to transform American wine making from home endeavor to commercial enterprise.

    Even Bacchus, the god of wines, is rumored to be serving Monterey varietals to guests attending his merry bacchanals … such as last week’s fest in Pebble Beach.  Surely these are wines in which Pebble Beach, Pacific Grove, and all of Monterey County can take gleeful pride.

    In 1919, the first vines intended for commercial production were imbedded in the rich soil near Chalone.  Monterey County soon dedicated a full five acres of its land to the growing of grapes.  A meager beginning to be sure, but a beginning nonetheless.  Monterey County wines were here to stay.  Nearly a half-century later, just about the time that World War II threatened, the Monterey County grape industry had leapfrogged across an estimated 600 acres
    Alicia Harby-DeNoon, the late proprietor of Alicia’s Antiques and Collectibles, recalled the sardine and wine days of Monterey with great affection.  “People had fun all the time back then,” Alicia said.  “We laughed so much over the simplest of things.  Even during prohibition, we had plenty of wine.”
    Alicia particularly enjoyed hanging around Doc Rickett’s lab, first in its Pacific Grove location and then on Cannery Row.  “Doc made a ritual of holding a high-wine at five each day.  Never high-tea at four, as the British do, but always high-wine at five.  Doc would lay some Gregorian chants on the phonograph and everyone would sit around talking and drinking a rot-gut sort of bathtub wine.  Doc made a lot of that wine himself right down stairs in his (Cannery Row) laboratory.”
    Alicia paused to think, then continued: “John (Steinbeck) liked to help out in experimenting with the formula.  One of the high-wine experiences occurred one day when John was not there.  Others were in the lab talking and listening to music when a car horn started blasting out on the street.  Doc stepped to the door to see what was going on.  John and Carol were out there celebrating.  John had sold something and used the money to purchase a convertible roadster, the first convertible roadster in Monterey County so far as I know.  They were drinking their own wine and having fun making the cloth car roof go up and down.”
    Doc is said to have purchased most of his wine-making grapes from a farmer in the Arroyo Seco area.  If so, Doc chose his source well.  Red grapes (Bordeaux) thrive at the mouth of the Arroyo Seco Canyon.  Sunlight, reflecting from canyon walls, provides a bit of extra warmth.  The cobblestone-laden soil is ideal for roots.  In secluded pockets like that at Arroyo Seco, Monterey County wine growing began.
    The rest, as they say, is history.  With such a delightful variety of signatures so readily available, restaurateurs soon caught on.  Many-if not most-Monterey County restaurants now serve Monterey County wines … yes, even in Pebble Beach.
    The Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association, a nonprofit group, is composed of professional, wine-growing members.  Each member bottles intense varietal flavors of the sort winemakers love.  So will you.  In Monterey County, world-class wines are more than just a choice of beverage.  Monterey County wines are an adventure.
    And you can even drink them in Pacific Grove!

    posted to Cedar Street Times on April 24, 2009

    Topics: Current Edition, Features

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